The svelte and glamorous Mrs. Brown, who in her four decades at Cosmo transformed the faltering general-interest magazine into a newsstand powerhouse with a circulation of more than 2.5 million, regarded herself as a champion of feminine power even as her Cosmo covers promoted “20 ways to please your man” and other tips to attract male attention.
“Sex and the Single Girl,” written when Mrs. Brown was 40 and married, aimed to revolutionize single women’s attitudes toward their lives. The book, published a year before Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” sold millions of copies and became a cultural touchstone with its message that single women didn’t need to be married to enjoy sex and didn’t need to apologize for it, either.
“I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life,” she wrote. “During your best years, you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.”
Her book was an outrageously bold riposte to a modern culture she thought was far too Victorian in its attitudes toward women and their right to seek pleasure and get ahead in the bargain.
She cautioned that interoffice relationships were fraught with peril but that the payoffs could be crucial for women to advance in the workplace. She warned women not to take such affairs seriously and instead see any profit — from gifts or raises — as fair compensation, considering the huge disparity in salaries between the sexes.
Reliably saucy, Mrs. Brown became a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.” But as the years passed, many in the second-wave feminist movement, including Friedan and Gloria Steinem, said Mrs. Brown and her accent on pleasing men fostered a deeply offensive approach toward female empowerment.
“Sex and the Single Girl” and Mrs. Brown’s prominent role at Cosmo cemented in the minds of her strongest critics that she was objectifying women above all else. She had defenders as well, including novelist Judith Krantz, who once said, “There is a lot women can learn from Cosmo about living intelligently.”
Mrs. Brown, a successful advertising copywriter before she wrote “Sex and the Single Girl,” saw herself as a germane inspiration to women long after the 1960s. She championed the values of hard work and thrift and credited both for her rise from a self-described “mouseburger” to one of the most powerful women in publishing.
She said she was writing for most women, who, like herself, were not born to privilege or blessed with beauty or a college education. And it was those women she was aiming to inspire in her writing, namely by taking more responsibility for the direction of their lives.