Brown’s long magazine life a “Sex-cess”

Helen Gurney Brown – tucked many times

Long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown, whose  magazine mantra metamorphised the sex lives of modern women, has died in a New York hospital after a short illness. She was aged 90.

The author of 1962 best-seller Sex and the Single Girl reckoned if women weren’t sex objects, they were in trouble and while good girls went to heaven, bad girls got to go everywhere!.

It sold a million copies and women world-wide took to heart her advice, opinions and tid bits on why being single didn’t mean celibacy and that sleeping around with men – even the boss if it took your fancy – was what a gal could now do.

“I’ve never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office,’’ she told New York magazine in 1982.

When she was asked if that included the boss, she quipped: “Why discriminate against him?’’

The iconic magazine pioneer was the first woman who declared that women could “have it all,” including a career, marriage and great sex.

Gurley Brown ran Cosmopolitan for four decades, transforming it in the 1960s with a sexually frank tone from a financial turkey to a songbird with a circulation soaring from 800,000 readers to 3million in 1983.

She retired from Cosmo in 1997, but she continued to make an appearance in her pink corner office at Hearst nearly every day until her death.

Bonnie Fuller, the celebrity editor who succeeded Brown at Cosmopolitan that year hailed Brown as a visionary, who used her “pulpit plaything’’ – the Cosmo mag – to preach the gospel of man-hunting and conquest.  Her blatant message was that women were also the winners in the sexual revolution and don’t save it for the wedding night.

Helen Gurley was born February 18, 1922 in Green Forest, Arkansas and always admitted she wasn’t blessed with good looks. Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles where Helen graduated as valedictorian of John H Francis Poloytechynic High School in 1939.  Skilled with typing and shorthand skills, Brown went through a series of secretarial jobs until 1948, when she was finally given a chance at writing ad copy at the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency.  At 37, she married the twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor-turned-movie producer, whose credits would include The Sting and Jaws. The couple chose not to have any children.


He encouraged her to write a book. When Sex and the Single Girl became a top seller, they moved to New York. A movie version of the book ensued, with Natalie Wood playing a character named Helen Gurley Brown who had no resemblance to the original. According to Hearst, Sex and the Single Girl has been translated into 16 languages and published in 28 countries.

Brown and her husband pitched a women’s magazine idea at Hearst, which turned it down, but hired her to run Cosmopolitan instead, where she made her indelible mark for 32 years on the languishing mag. At her retirement, circulation had levelled off to 2.5 million readers in 1997.

Her message, from the outset was to tell a reader “how to get everything out of life — the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity — whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against”.

“It was a terrific magazine,” she said, looking back when she retired from the US edition in 1997. “I would want my legacy to be, ‘She created something that helped people.’ My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own”.

Brown was a tiny, almost frail-looking petite woman, the antithesis of the tall, voluptuous, deep-cleavaged beauties on the magazine’s cover, which carried teaser titles like “Nothing Fails Like Sex-cess.”

Male centerfolds arrived during the 1970s — actor Burt Reynolds’ (modestly) nude pose in 1972 created a sensation — but departed by the ’90s.

Her influence rippled across the world.  “Hers has been a liberating message for women in other countries, too,” said Kate White, current editor of Cosmopolitan. “It’s about choice — choosing the life you want, and not worrying about what people think.”

And, well, having fun — in the bedroom, to be precise. After all, why should sex be fun only for men? Brown’s motto was emblazoned on a pillow in her office, says White: “Good girls go to heaven,” it said. “Bad girls go everywhere.”

But Brown and Cosmo didn’t please some feminists. “The stuff on pleasing men hit the wrong note for some women,” said White. “I don’t think the feminists recognized that her message was one of empowerment.”

Her theme of sex continued in 1976 when she hosted a TV talk show Outrageous Opinions, which featured celebrities willing to be quizzed about their sex lives.

“My own philosophy is if you’re not having sex, you’re finished. It separates the girls from the old people,’’ said Brown who also had a long-playing record album, Lessons in Love and six other books.

Her mantra continued into older age:  “You can’t be sexual at 60 if you’re fat,” she observed on her 60th birthday. Or wrinkled, apparently: She spoke freely of her own multiple cosmetic surgeries, including a nose job, facelifts and silicone injections.

Despite decades of sexual innuendoes, she also came out with some classic common sense for women. “What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.’’

Which aptly sums up her life work – breaking up the sexual taboos which restricted women’s sex lives.  Vale Helen.


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3 Comments to “Brown’s long magazine life a “Sex-cess””

  1. By Marie Jonsson-Harrison, 14/11/2012 @ 2:19 pm

    As always Nadine a great and informative article. What a trail blazer Helen was and how lucky for the rest of us, I would have really disliked the inequality that prevailed before. Always loved that Mae West quote too “Good girls go to heaven… another one along the same lines which amuses me; “There are no good girls gone wrong – just bad girls found out. Keep up the good work Nadine. Love Marie xxx

    • By nadine, 14/11/2012 @ 10:19 pm

      Hi Marie, I am delighted with your comment and very impressed because you would have to have read quite a few articles to find that one as Iwrote it a few months ago and didn’t mention it in my note. Looking forward to next Thursday. xxx Nadine

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