Helen Gurley Brown, ‘Sex and Single Girl’ Author, Dies at 90
Helen Gurley Brown, who fed the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her best-seller “Sex and the Single Girl” and then turned around the failing Cosmopolitan magazine by injecting her philosophy that women could have it all -- “love, sex and money” -- has died. She was 90.
Brown died today at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center after a brief illness, according to a message to employees at Hearst Corp., Cosmopolitan’s publisher, from Frank A. Bennack Jr., Hearst’s chief executive officer. No further details were provided.
“It would be hard to overstate the importance to Hearst of her success with Cosmopolitan, or the value of the friendship many of us enjoyed with her,” Bennack said in the message. “Helen was one of the world’s most recognized magazine editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism-- and beyond.”
Brown was an outspoken advocate of women’s sexual freedom throughout her life. “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere,” was her motto. “Sex is one of the three best things we have, and I don’t know the other two,” became one of her most-used comments in interviews.
Brown drew the wrath of feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, who criticized her emphasis on sex as a limited vision of women’s liberation.
Steinem called Brown a “pioneer” for insisting that women should seek sexual parity with men, “but she’s fooling herself if she thinks her message is a feminist one.”
Friedan, whose “The Feminine Mystique” came out a year after Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962), called Cosmopolitan “quite obscene and quite horrible. It embraces the idea that a woman is nothing but a sex object.”
Brown paid little attention to her critics and stood steadfast to what she said was the message of her book and Cosmopolitan with its signature, care-free “Cosmo girl”: You’re single and can still have sex; use beauty and brains to get your man; don’t use men to get what you want, get it on your own.
Brown said the “Cosmo girl” was somebody who “starts without much and who makes the most of what she has and keeps going.” It was a message that matched Brown’s own career: She made the most of what she had and kept going.
Helen Gurley was born on Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Arkansas, and moved to Little Rock when her father, Ira M. Gurley, a school teacher, was elected to the state legislature. He was killed in an elevator accident when she was 10.
Brown’s mother, Cleo Sisco, struggled to raise Helen and her older sister, Mary, who was partially paralyzed from polio. The family returned to the Ozark region and then moved to Los Angeles in the late 1930s.
“I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me -- ordinary, hillbilly and poor, and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old,” Brown later said.
She attended Texas State College for Women (now Texas Women’s University) for two years, and then returned to Los Angeles and put herself through Woodbury Business College (now Woodbury University), receiving a business degree in 1941.
Brown held several secretarial jobs between the ages of 18 and 25. It was the 17th one, at the Los Angeles advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding in 1948, where she went from being a secretary to writing prize-winning advertising copy. She then worked for Kenyon & Eckhardt, a Hollywood advertising agency, as an account executive and copywriter from 1958 to 1962.
In 1959, at the age of 37, she married David Brown, a twice-divorced magazine editor and budding movie producer, who died in 2010. Eventually he would join Richard Zanuck to produce the Oscar-winning “The Sting” (1973) and “Jaws” (1975), and other hits, including, “Cocoon” (1985), "Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “Chocolat” (2000).
It was Brown who gave his wife the idea of writing about her life as a single woman. “Sex and the Single Girl,” with its main message that sex is an important part of a single woman’s life, has been translated into at least 16 languages since it was published in 1962. It was made into a 1964 movie with Natalie Wood as Brown and Tony Curtis as a sleazy magazine editor who would print anything to boost circulation.
In the book, Brown described herself as a “mouseburger,” someone who worked hard, never surrendered, advanced professionally and married the man of her dreams.
“A mouseburger is a young woman who is not very prepossessing,” Brown told the New York Times in 1982. “She is not beautiful. She is poor, has no family connections, and she is not a razzle-dazzle ball of charm and fire. She is a kind of waif.”
Brown’s standing as a top-selling author led to a syndicated newspaper column, “Woman Alone,” and radio and television interviews. She wrote “Sex and the Office” in 1964, though it never matched the sales of her first book.
Brown’s husband helped her get the editor-in-chief post at Cosmopolitan, a Hearst publication, in 1965. Under Brown, the magazine’s covers featured the airbrushed, cleavage-showing “Cosmo Girl” and how-to-articles: How to get a man, how to flirt, how to have a better orgasm, how to beat men in the workplace.
“A million times a year I defend my covers,” Brown said. “I like skin, I like pretty. I don’t want to photograph the girl next door.”
Brown’s sex and personal-improvement editorial formula worked. Cosmo’s circulation soared to 3 million from less than 800,000 during her 31 years overseeing the magazine. Other women’s magazines such as Glamour and Mademoiselle followed suit, with sex and advice articles and catchy cover headlines. Brown’s husband helped to write the ones for Cosmo.
In 1997, at the age of 75, Brown stepped aside -- some say she was forced out -- for a younger editor, Bonnie Fuller, and took the job of overseeing the magazine’s international editions. Fuller lasted 18 months.
Brown said the magazine had changed since she was at the helm: Celebrities often take the place of models with bulging cleavage on its cover and there are more articles on women’s issues other than sex.
“The basis of the magazine has been and always will be about getting the best out of yourself, being the best you can be,” Brown said in an August 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “Solve problems; move ahead in your career. Have a good relationship with a man. And if she loses that man, we’ll find her another one! Life’s about moving ahead and taking control. We have not lost track of that.”
The spunk, brashness, outspokenness and even outrageousness that first made the small-town girl from the Ozark Mountains a media celebrity stayed with Brown into her 70s and 80s.
In her memoir “I’m Wild Again,” published in 2000, Brown revealed that she was briefly a secretary and mistress to a Hollywood mogul (name not given) in the late 1940s and got breast implants when she was 73.
In a review of the book, David Plotz wrote for Slate, the online magazine, that it was “an autobiography of a puritan.”
“‘Wild’ chronicles how Brown exercises obsessively; doesn’t drink, smoke or eat; has remained utterly faithful to her husband of 35 years; and lives for her job. The Cosmo girl’s dirty little secret isn’t sex. It’s work,” he wrote.
“Sex and the Single Girl” was reissued as a paperback in 2003, and Brown said her advice remained as relevant as when the book was first published.
“The message is that you don’t have to belong to someone else in order to be an admirable person. You don’t have to be married at all, if you don’t want to be. And sex is a wonderful thing.”
Brown’s other books include “Having It All” (1982), an advice manual and memoir; “The Late Show” (1993), an advice manual and memoir about growing older; “The Writer’s Rules” (1999), a writing guide; and “Dear Pussycat” (2004), a collection of letters she had written through the years.
In 1996, she was elected to the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame.
Brown remained the personification of her ideas even as she became an octogenarian.
She continued to oversee Cosmo’s many international editions, going to and from her office at the Hearst building on West 57th Street by bus each day because “I’m thrifty, not cheap” and could take advantage of the senior-citizen fare.
Brown said she still exercised 45 minutes each day, doing situps, pushups and lifting weights.
The inseparable Browns continued to show up at New York openings and parties. The couple had no children.
She was declared a “Living Landmark” in 1995 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy for her contributions to the city.
A Jan. 8, 2007, article in USA Today, described the four- floor penthouse on the 22nd floor of the Beresford overlooking Central Park West that the Browns bought from director Mike Nichols, and the then-84-year-old Brown:
“The woman of the house, Cosmo queen Gurley Brown, descends the staircase into the main foyer, a pair of black Manolo Blahnik slingbacks seductively swinging from the crook of her finger. She’s wearing a ‘300-year-old’ pink Pucci minidress, matching lipstick, a wrist full of gold bangles and black fishnets. And it’s not even 10:30 a.m.”
Seven months later, in an August interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Brown said her greatest fear was, “that I won’t be able to handle aging better than I am now. At 85, I am technically old and, while being intellectually grateful I made it this far, I don’t like being old and dread being older.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at email@example.com