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.”
In her office Brown had a cushion embroidered with the saying, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” However, she had the work ethic and the self-discipline of any American puritan.
“People drank at lunchtime then,” says McSharry. “And I did offer her a glass of champagne. She said ‘I’ll have sparkling water.’ She was already a size 6 but sometimes she went down to a size 4. We were all a size 12.”
Indeed,obituaries have lingered over Brown’s tiny frame – she was five-foot-four (1.6m) and hovered around 100 pounds (45.3kg) – but she would not have minded. She was a major and very public fan of plastic surgery and silicone, and it has been pointed out that whilst she was 90 at the time of her death, parts of her were very much younger.
This ruthless self-improvement was born of a hard early life in Arkansas. Her father, a schoolteacher, died in an accident when she was 10. Her mother, who had also been a teacher before her marriage, then moved to Los Angeles.
It was in LA that Helen’s older sister Mary contracted polio and was permanently disabled by it. Helen worked as a secretary and helped to support her mother and sister. She had bad acne and felt humiliated by it. She later referred to herself as “a mouseburger” – which she defined as a plain woman who had to work very hard. She worked in the advertising industry during the Mad Men era, and hated its sexism. The Peggy Olsen character from Mad Men, who rose from secretary to copy writer, is said to have been inspired by Brown.
“She used to say, ‘I put up with so much s**t,’” says McSharry.
It was in advertising that she got her break, and in her marriage that she found a promoter. Her husband, David Brown, encouraged her to write a book and the result was Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, and later made into a film starring Natalie Wood.
The new wave of feminists disliked Cosmo and summed up its philosophy as “seduce your boss and then marry him”. They once occupied Brown’s office. But she was a feminist, too, and much more influential.
Eventually, she was forced to retire. “She would have stayed on forever, like one of those reverend mothers who won’t go,” says McSharry.
Last January it was announced that both Columbia and Stanford Universities had been gifted over $30 million for the establishment of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute of Media Innovation. She always believed in the future.