Helen Gurley Brown: The oldest living Cosmo Girl

August 13, 2012

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on Jan. 31, 1996.

NEW YORK — Helen Gurley Brown slips out of her hot-pink jacket, revealing the fact that she's not wearing a bra. This comes as a bit of a shock because celebrities rarely disrobe in front of reporters, especially a 73-year-old celebrity. And because . . . well, the bosom in question is quite shapely.

Between interviews, Brown has ducked into an empty office at CNN, changed into a little black leotard and is furiously knocking off some leg lifts. "I'm a very eccentric person," she puffs. "It's a little nutty to be so compulsive to come in here and exercise." But that's what it takes to keep sexy, and sexiness is next to godliness in the gospel according to Brown. "My late psychiatrist said I was the most goal-oriented person he had ever met.”

God knows, it's worked for her. She leapt from secretary to copywriter to best-selling author of "Sex and the Single Girl" to editor of Cosmopolitan, now one of the most successful magazines in the world, and became an American institution in the process.

Two weeks ago, Hearst Magazines announced that Brown would step down as editor in chief after 31 years at the helm. What they didn't say is that the original Cosmo girl is being gently but finally eased out. "It's not quite appropriate to have someone as old as I editing a magazine for a 23-year-old woman," says Brown, who will be replaced next year by 39-year-old Bonnie Fuller. "So they have done the right thing, and they're doing it very graciously."

It would be a grave miscalculation, however, to think that Helen Gurley Brown is going quietly into retirement. She's not ready for life as a gray-haired senior citizen, not ready to stop working and certainly not ready to stop having sex, which is why she's doing tummy tucks on the floor, taking estrogen supplements and touting face lifts. Her first Cosmo readers are now 50 years old, assuming they were 19 when her first issue appeared in 1965, and the message today isn't much different from her message back then.

"The fact is, if you're not a sex object, that's when you have to worry," she says. "To be desired sexually, in my opinion, is about the best thing there is."

Being Somebody
Let's see if we've got this straight: Sex is the best thing in the world. "I think eating and breathing are the other top two," she says.

Okay, there are other things in her life. She loves Hillary Rodham Clinton, gossip and mystery stories. She mainlines brown rice pudding smothered in Butter Buds and tons of Equal. Her size 2 frame is usually found in Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. "If you're not having fun with clothes, I think you're missing something." She loves men, especially her husband of 37 years, producer David Brown. And she adores her work.

In short, she's still a Cosmo girl.

"People who don't read the magazine think the Cosmo girl is a bimbo, that she's the gorgeous, gorgeous model on the cover, that she's very fast track -- that she has no ethics or morals," says Brown. "They are so off the wall. Cosmo really is this basic message: Just do what's there every day, and one thing will finally lead to another and you'll get to be somebody. And being somebody is a very nice thing to be."

Being somebody in her case means fame, wealth, respect, the attention of men and the corner office with a faux leopard rug, flowered wallpaper with matching couch, makeup mirror and tons of makeup, and a needlepoint pillow that reads, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."

It means being powerful enough to preside over a staff meeting with top editors wearing whatever she wants: today, a red tent dress and a silk scarf over curlers. And it means the Cartier watch she paid $400 for in 1967, and the gold bracelets on her arm: one from Hearst for her 30th anniversary with the company and four from "previous beaus. We don't say lovers."

It means men and marriage but no children. Instead, Brown has transferred every maternal instinct into her magazine, becoming the nurturing, protective guide she needed but never had herself.

"I believe most 20-year-old women think they're not pretty enough, smart enough, they don't have enough sex appeal, they don't have the job they want, they've still got some problems with their family," she says. "All that raw material is there to be turned into something wonderful. I just think of my life. If I can do it, anybody can. You just have to find something that you're kind of good at."

Her life reads like a movie script: born in Green Forest, Ark., father dies when she was 10, mother "neurotic, unhappy," older sister contracts polio. Helen -- 18 years old, no looks, no money, no education -- moves to Los Angeles and gets first of 17 secretarial jobs.

"When I first met her, she was tiny, driven, insecure and loyal -- just like now," says Charlotte Veal, Brown's best friend since 1949. "The difference is she was anonymous and impoverished."

When she was 35, she got a job as an advertising copywriter, then married David Brown two years later -- her first marriage, his third. At his urging, she wrote a personal guide on life and love: "Sex and the Single Girl." It was published in 1962 (a year before Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique") and became a smash hit with the revolutionary proposition that single girls could have a sex life, too. That led to the top job at the then-failing Cosmopolitan. At 43 years old, Helen Gurley Brown found her true calling.

Thirty-one years later, this self-proclaimed "mouseburger" is still the kid from Arkansas: not the smartest or the prettiest, but the one who worked harder and longer than anyone else.

"Self-discipline is the cornerstone of my life. And what I don't get is people who don't use it!" she says. "Self-discipline means making simple little decisions. You have a cheese omelet instead of a hot fudge sundae. You exercise every day: It's tough, it's ugly, but it brings results. You keep your temper -- you don't go around reaming out everybody although you'd like to -- you just shut up. You do the thing that's good for you. And it reaps such incredible rewards."

Hard work is good, money is good, men are good. Sex and sex appeal are best of all. Brown's spike-heeled feminism has never sat well with the leaders of the women's revolution, a fact that hasn't fazed her for a second. "They literally, literally have never bothered me," she says. "I totally respect and revere" the early feminists who made so many professional opportunities for women, she says, but parts company when it comes to -- what else? -- sex.

"Men were the enemy and, to some extent, they still are -- some of them," she says. "But at the same time, sex is fabulous. And if you're a heterosexual person, the person you have sex with is a man. So to say, We're not going to have any more sex because that's something you have to do with a man' . . . I mean, how dopey can you get?"

Life or Death
"My husband and I both think that when you retire, you die," she tells a CNN reporter. There's been talk that Brown would be perfect for a women's magazine for seniors. She's not really interested.

"I don't think I represent older people particularly," she says. "I'm very atypical. And I think I really anger or irritate a lot of older people, especially the older people who weigh 195 pounds. They really loathe me. They find me just disgusting."

Brown -- 5 feet 4 inches, 100 pounds soaking wet -- is really thin. Okay, too thin, but that's her business. So is the estrogen she takes every day, and the dermabrasion, nose job, eye job and face lift.

But she freely talks about it all, and was still surprised when Page Six of the New York Post took a poll of most and least admired looks.

Brown landed on the bad list. Hurt, she called a friend. All my life, she said, I tried to look better, did everything one could do. "She said, It's because you're so skimpy. You irritate people because you're so tiny.' "

Her last book, "The Late Show: A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50," is the only one that didn't make the New York Times bestseller list. It irritated people, too.

Brown wrote that women could not have a good life without work. "And the sex chapter -- which was my favorite -- I would stand by that, but God knows it was controversial. I just think that when you stop having sex, that's when you stop being a woman."

But even some of her girlfriends were offended at the book's suggestion that it was okay to sleep with a friend's husband. Just for sex, she says. Not opera, not cozy little dinners, just sex.

"I just think sex is so important," she says. "Masturbation is okay, but other people are better." Even friends' husbands? She pauses and considers. "I guess I don't think anybody is off-limits."

Brown says she did all her playing around before her marriage. But for anyone without a husband: "If you can't find somebody totally appropriate -- i.e., not married -- then you find someone inappropriate and you conduct yourself as honorably as you can."

The Personal Touch
As she has every month, Brown goes over the upcoming issue with Cosmo's sales staff. Clad in a hot-pink knit suit with a miniskirt, she zips through the March issue tossing off little Helenesque descriptions of the features:

"Whatever happened to leprosy?"

"Bad news for Prozac. They've found therapy is even more effective."

"French toast is a wonderful brunch after he's spent the night."

"Cosmo is rather low-key on sexual harassment. . . . Ease up a little."

The fact that there's any article on sexual harassment is surprising, given that Brown is a big believer that flirting and even office affairs are healthy. Angered by Anita Hill's charges, Brown defended Clarence Thomas in a Wall Street Journal column.

This isn't her first controversial position: She was loudly criticized in 1988, when Cosmo published an article on AIDS that argued that heterosexual women were in almost no danger of contracting the disease if they avoided known risky behaviors. Brown was called inaccurate and irresponsible. She has published very little since about the disease, and has not changed her opinion.

There's already a fair amount of speculation on how the magazine will change, a fact that throws Brown, since she still has 18 months left on the job. "This hullabaloo about my leaving was absolutely a shock to my system because I'm not really leaving," she says. Her successor, Bonnie Fuller, the founding editor of the U.S. edition of Marie Claire magazine, will spend the next year and a half as Cosmo's deputy editor, soaking up the Cosmo Universe, before she takes the reins.

The graphics are a little jazzier, the pictures a little bigger, but Brown has not significantly changed the magazine for years. Oh, there's talk of going on-line with the Bachelor of the Month. But Brown has always had definite opinions, and those opinions have usually prevailed.

"This is the first time we've ever used an out-of-focus picture," she says, pointing to a layout for March. "I'm trying to be fresh and agreeable." She pauses. "But we'll never do it again."

It was Brown's idea to put a fabulous, busty model on the cover of the magazine in 1965, an innovation for women's magazines at the time. The basic principle is not unlike a perfect pie on the cover of Martha Stewart Living: Follow directions, and you too can do this.

Today's Cosmo reader is 31, with a household income of more than $41,000. Seventy-two percent are employed, 46 percent are -- surprise! -- married, and 60 percent have attended or graduated from college.

The Cosmo cover must be a different color every month. That's so the readers, who primarily buy the magazine at newsstands, can tell when the new issue has arrived.

And do they buy. Cosmo sells 2.6 million issues each month, 1.8 million of them for the cover price at the newsstand. It is the No. 1 magazine on college campuses, and each issue is passed from girlfriend to girlfriend: Industry estimates give Cosmopolitan a total readership of 13 million per month. There are 29 international editions now, with five more scheduled to open this year and 50 expected by the year 2000. Think of it: Cosmo girls everywhere. Like McDonald's with cleavage.

But Cosmo, like every other magazine sold at newsstands, has experienced declining sales from a high 10 years ago. There had been whispers that Brown would be forced out years ago, and this month it finally happened.

Big Business
The tributes that will undoubtedly go on for the next year began last week, when Brown received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America. Cosmopolitan has never won a major award for its editorial mix, but this one honors the business side of the industry: Brown, the first female editor to receive the award, has made untold millions for her company.

This was a very big night: Her husband, who made his own millions as a producer of "Jaws," "The Sting" and "The Verdict," flew in from a shoot in Moscow and beamed at his wife the entire night.

Coincidentally, David Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan from 1949 to 1951, when it was still a general interest magazine for men and women along the lines of the Saturday Evening Post. It was his idea to parlay her book's success into a magazine for single women. He still writes all the cover blurbs ("You've Cheated. Do You Ever Tell?"); she makes sure, even while surrounded by friends and fans at the reception before the dinner, that he gets a drink. "She's not a geisha," he says. "But she's awful attentive.

Columnist Liz Smith, a close friend, shows up, shaking her head at the decision to replace Brown with a new editor. "It ain't broke, so why are they trying to fix it?" she says. "They're making a big mistake by letting her retire." Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace introduce Brown to the audience with affectionate teasing: "Helen is cheap," says Walters. "Helen is not frugal. Helen is not conservative. Helen is cheap."

Then the girl from Arkansas gets up and starts talking, not about sex but about cyberspace. She tosses out statistics without using notes: 80 million people on-line, 100,000 Web sites, then deftly weaves into the importance of words, her humble beginning and her rise to editor of Cosmopolitan.

It is charming and quirky and very Helen. She worked on the 15-minute speech for four weeks, then worked for two weeks more: "Little show-off that I am, I memorized it."

The Cosmo girl goes that extra mile -- and it pays off.

"The country has been very, very good to me," she says, "and I'm a grateful girl."

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