The real Cosmo girl
Helen Gurley Brown, who died on Monday aged 90, brought sex and glamour into women’s mags
DEIRDRE McSHARRY clearly remembers when she first saw Helen Gurley Brown, the revolutionary publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine, who died on Monday at the age of 90. It was in 1971, as she and two fellow recruits from Fleet Street were preparing to launch the British edition of Cosmopolitan.
“Helen came in looking like an exotic bird, wearing I think it was a Pucci dress.”
The British edition of Cosmo was the first international attempt to emulate the success of Helen Gurley Brown’s American edition. “Obviously, this was Helen Gurley Brown’s baby,” says McSharry, the Irish woman who went on to become its groundbreaking editor six months later. She remembers that the British edition sold out its first print run of 360,000 copies by lunchtime on its first day. There are now more than 60 international editions of Cosmpolitan.
“After that Helen used to come over to London once or twice a year and stay in Claridges,” says McSharry. “We would almost genuflect when we saw her. But she was very encouraging.”
This was the media revolution that Brown had started pretty well single-handedly; she admitted later that her husband, David Brown, always wrote the famously risqué strap-lines on the cover of American Cosmo. Although her background was in advertising, Brown was employed by the Hearst corporation in 1965. Then in her early 40s, she took Cosmopolitan, one of Hearst’s most staid and respectable magazines and, as the New York Times put it yesterday, not so much re-vamped it as vamped it.
Cosmopolitan’s cover girls went from being respectable housewives and mothers who wished to read about the home life of president Lyndon Johnson to deep-cleavaged temptresses whose aim in life appeared to be to cover every available surface with leopardskin, and then have sex on it. Brown believed firmly in sex and money. Across the world Cosmopolitan became a guide to worldly pleasure – both giving and receiving it, because Brown instructed women on how to please their men. In her later years she said that she worked to please her husband “like a geisha”.
At the same time she was passionate about women’s economic independence. A Cosmo girl was also a career girl. This ruthless progamme of pleasure, mirrored absolutely in Brown’s own life, sounded quite tiring, but its optimism was wonderful fun to read. Brown took an unloved section of the magazine market – the single girl, previously consoled only with romance magazines – and placed her centre-stage.
Magazine offices even changed physically. “Before, they were warrens of offices, and the top lady lived in a drawing-room in there,” says McSharry. “I made the London offices open-plan, like a newspaper office, and started to keep the gin bottle and the Tampax in a drawer and generally, you know, share.”