Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman
The subtitle of Brooke Hauser’s new biography of Helen Gurley Brown—The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman—is well chosen. Helen Gurley Brown—born Helen Gurley in small-town Green Forest, Carroll County, Arkansas, in 1922—spent her life inventing herself. But equally strikingly she managed to mold the people she encountered—her husband, movie producer David Brown, Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, the big beasts of the feminist movement, and her millions of readers—to support and frame her myth.
It suited Helen’s rags-to-riches story to describe her family as “hillbilly” and poor, though her father had a law degree and they had not always been poor. After high school, Helen escaped to Los Angeles and became a successful copywriter and account executive at a series of Hollywood advertising agencies, handling, among others, the Max Factor account.
At 36 years old, with a number of mutually convenient affairs with richer, older men behind her, she had her own flat, a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL, and “a small but sturdy portfolio of stocks.”
It was at this point that she set her sights on the only thing missing in her life: a husband; movie producer David Brown, at 42—“collector’s item” age—then head of the story department at 20th Century Fox, recently divorced, and a gentleman, seemed ideal for the position. And so it came to pass. They were married at Beverly Hills City Hall in 1959. And it was husband David who persuaded Helen in 1962 to write Sex and the Single Girl and continued to be her merciless live-in editor throughout her life.
In this bestselling novel, Helen Gurley Brown defined the audience that she took with her to Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965 when she became editor and completely revamped and revitalized the ailing publication.
She spoke to the estimated 21 million surplus and single career girls, aged between 18 and 34, striving to make it on their own. She spoke from the vantage point of someone who had done just that, had enjoyed herself on the way, and had still managed to catch her A-list man.
Sex and the Single Girl was the single girls’ manifesto—“Don’t Knock It, Girls,” says author, “Being Single Is Sexy”—providing advice on where to find men, how to dress, flirt, pay your own way when appropriate, avoid getting pregnant, cultivate a good work ethic, and manage your finances.
Hauser provides a fascinating and even-handed picture of Helen Gurley Brown, who could be a controlling and tyrannical boss to her Cosmo colleagues—self confident, well-educated, urban girls who were not her targeted readers—but with her peers found that being faultlessly self-deprecating often worked out much better.
Helen surprised many first-time visitors to her office by saying that everything they saw in her was fake—cheekbones, hair, breasts, etc. She followed a rigorous regime of exercises and diet, only allowing herself a cookie on Christmas Day. Many people who encountered her realized, only later, that contrary to their assumptions Helen was the smarter one.
Hauser skilfully defines key aspects of the social context for Helen’s success, not only the large numbers of women without men—largely because of the Vietnam war—struggling to support themselves, but also the activities of other figures addressing American women’s concerns from quite different angles during the same period: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug to name some of the most prominent.
While Steinem, founding member and editor of Ms. Magazine was particularly disparaging of Helen and her focus on pleasing and securing a man, neither she nor others could ignore Helen’s influence, contacts, and massive circulation figures, and were not above accepting a writer’s fee from her when the need arose.
Helen, for her part, demurely asked for Gloria to explain feminism to her (“your movement”), and eventually in the early 70s a fragile modus vivendi was established, with Cosmopolitan and Ms. magazines sharing the platform on such issues as the legalization of abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Helen’s always shaky feminist credentials were, however, challenged in the 90s when she downplayed a number of sexual harassment charges against high-profile men such as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Helen was finally forced to retire in 1996, at the age of 74, old enough to be grandmother to some of her Cosmopolitan readers. She remained editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan’s 59 international editions until her death.
She died in 2012 and was cremated wearing her favorite perfume, a Pucci dress, and a purse containing a $20 dollar bill so she could always grab a cab if an evening out went awry.
Although Sex and the Single Girl is generally regarded a forerunner of such recent media phenomena as Sex and the City and Girls, many readers of this biography may not have read Helen’s life-changing publication. It is to be hoped that Brook Hauser’s excellent biography and a film in the works will give Sex and the Single Girl another lease on life.