The little engine that could still does

Life After 50

July 02, 2000|By Sheryl McCarthy | Sheryl McCarthy,newsday

Helen Gurley Brown still has sex with her husband. Even though she's 78 and he's 83, they are still going strong in the bedroom, she said not long ago in Newsweek. Brown wants us to know that in her late 70s she's more interested in sex than ever.

The endearing thing about Helen Gurley Brown has always been the honesty with which she acknowledged the struggles of her own life, even as she grew famous by editing Cosmopolitan, a magazine based on hype and glamour.

Ask about her life, and Brown, immaculate in a pink Chanel suit, will talk about growing up poor in the Ozarks, being physically plain, poorly educated and not noticeably bright, without contacts and burdened with the responsibility of supporting a depressed mother and an invalid sister.

She worked a string of secretarial jobs until she stumbled onto a job with a Hollywood mogul and became his mistress because she craved money and security. When he didn't deliver the goods, she dumped him and moved on to yet another clerical job.

Through hard work and determination she rose from secretary to advertising copywriter, wrote a best-selling guidebook for single women, saved up enough money to buy a used Mercedes-Benz and won the hand of David Brown, a movie producer who became a movie mogul.

Her early life was never glamorous, however, Brown says. In "Sex and the Single Girl," she tells her readers that they shouldn't feel guilty about having sex, and that in the absence of eligible bachelors married men would sometimes have to do. During a television interview with famous couples years ago, while the other women described love at first sight and how their husbands ardently pursued them, Brown confessed that David Brown, who was divorced, didn't want to get married again and married her only after she gave him an ultimatum.

At Cosmopolitan, however, she tantalized the young, single working women who read it with visions of the glamorous lives they could have if they only dressed the right way, wore the right perfume, told men the right things and were good in bed. She dispensed the kind of advice she wished she had gotten as a young woman, on how to get a man to give you cash and an apartment and the jewels you wanted, on how to have fantastic sex and, most important, on how to get him to marry you.

While many of Cosmo's readers were, in a word she coined, "mouseburgers" (plain and unexceptional, as Brown had herself been), the women on the cover were gorgeous and sexy. The magazine pushed the primal importance of sexy lingerie, even though most women find lace-trimmed teddies uncomfortable.

So now Brown, retired as editor of Cosmopolitan, but with a consulting role, tells us that she still enjoys sex. In fact, a woman who stops having sex stops being feminine, she says. "Sex is healthy, revitalizing, energizing, nurturing," and women older than 60 shouldn't feel guilty about pursuing it and enjoying it.

That's good advice, but one wishes she could just relax, given her accomplishments. In her latest book, "I'm Wild Again," Brown celebrates the freedom that older women have to be sexy, to attract men, to have fun. But one wonders if she's now starting to hype her own life. The daily physical workouts, the plastic surgery, even the sex, sound exhausting.

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