Helen Gurley Brown gave women permission to succeed in the office and the bedroom

Original Cosmo girl dies at 90

August 13, 2012|Susan Reimer

Before there was "Sex and the City," there was "Sex and the Single Girl," Helen Gurley Brown's hall pass for women to have the job, the man, the money and all the sex they wanted.

The iconic editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, with its bosomy Cosmo girls on the cover dripping with pearls and promising pleasure, died Monday at the age of 90 after a brief illness. She had reported to her pretty, pink corner office in the Hearst Building in Manhattan almost daily until her death.

"It would be hard to overstate the importance ... of her success... with Cosmopolitan," said a statement from Hearst Corporation, the magazine's publisher. "Helen was one of the world's most recognized magazine editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism — and beyond."

Especially beyond the bedroom door.

After her father's death, Ms. Brown and her mother and sister left Arkansas and struck out for Los Angeles, where she became one of the highest-paid copywriters in advertising.

Her husband David Brown, who would go on to produce such movies as "Jaws" and "Driving Miss Daisy," suggested in 1960, when she was 38, that she write a kind of instructional book on how a single girl might go about having an affair.

With its chapters on make-up, money, how to make an intimate dinner and a step-by-step guide to the beginning — and end — of an affair, "Sex and the Single Girl" shot to the top of the best-seller lists, selling 2 million copies in three weeks.

It was a guide to more than sexual freedom, it was advice on financial and personal independence. But it was roundly criticized by the standard bearers of early feminism. Betty Friedan, who wrote about a woman's ennui while Ms. Brown was writing about her orgasms, found it "obscene and horrible."

But she was telling women that they could have the lives of the fictional characters they read about in romance novels. They just had to have the confidence.

It is not surprising that Cosmopolitan, which was a struggling women's magazine, hired her as editor in 1965. She reversed its fortunes with frank sexual advice delivered in a girl-friendly voice. The U.S. edition has a circulation of more than 3 million today.

Cosmopolitan also has 59 foreign editions — some in Muslim countries — and while editors are careful to be respectful, the magazine answers the kinds of questions women in many societies cannot discuss openly, according to a recent story in the New York Times, including such things as whether you can get pregnant from kissing.

Helen Gurley Brown was the godmother to all of this — and some of us believe it was she, not the Pill, that started the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

While Ms. Friedan wrote about breaking the bonds of family and housework and seeking education and meaningful work, and while Gloria Steinem was pushing for women to take their place in the halls of power, Ms. Brown was cheerleading for the side of girls just that just wanna have fun. She taught us how to flirt. Step by step.

And she taught us — very explicitly — how to please a man, but she insisted that the pleasure not be all his. She seemed to understand that the confidence we gained in the bedroom would show up in the office.

Helen Gurley Brown fell out of fashion after a while. Her Joan Rivers-like attempts at eternal youth were hard to take when she made the late night talk show rounds. And during the go-go 1980s, when we were all dressing in pinstripes like the male managers we wanted to be, her kitteny style was off-putting.

She was ousted as editor in some kind of palace coup in 1997, but, in tribute to her accomplishments, she remained on the masthead. And she kept her pink corner office.

There is much debate now about whether women today can, indeed, have it all.

Helen Gurley Brown never doubted for a minute that we could.

Susan Reimer's column typically appears on Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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