"Come right in, dear," Helen Gurley Brown calls out from the bathroom of her Madison Hotel suite, where she is having makeup applied by a pretty young woman in a plain white smock.
If there is one lesson the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine has learned while "mouseburgering" her way to the top, it is the importance of cosmetics -- and whatever else helps make the most from the least. As a self-proclaimed "mouseburger" -- her label for women who are "not prepossessing, not pretty, don't have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets" -- Brown says she's "come a long way" only because she's applied herself.
In her 60-year journey from Ozark Mountain poverty to Manhattan glamor, Brown has applied herself with the compulsive intensity of a Pygmalion who is her own work of art. She has missed only two days of exercise in 13 years--when hospitalized for a D&C. "But I exercised the day I went in," she boasts, "and the day I got home and the day my mother died."
She has nine interviews scheduled on her one day in Washington to promote her new sex-and-selfishness manifesto, "Having It All." So applying herself means professional hair styling by Nancy Reagan's in-town hairdresser Robin Weir and makeup application by his assistant.
In the harsh, fluorescent glare of the bathroom lights, Brown looks nothing like a flashy Cosmo queen and everything like the tiny, wiry, 60-year-old woman she is. Her narrow face is pinched and vulnerable under a nest of plastic curlers as she proffers one scarlet-nailed hand in greeting and indicates a seat on the edge of the bathtub with the other.
"Do you think this is too, too frivolous?" she asks, gesturing to the makeup artist stroking powder blue shadow on her eyelids. She answers herself in the same breath, "Well, I wouldn't dream of getting in front of a camera without it."
Appearance is an obsession for the hard-driving editor of the magazine best-known for bosomy, provocative cover girls. A confessed "hardened-criminal-case-dieter" who has had her nose fixed, her skin scraped and her eyes done, Brown admits "there are times when we non-beauties think nothing in the world matters except being gorgeous, and since we aren't, we might as well zip ourselves into big zip-lock Baggies and go get into the freezer."
Brown's other obsessions are "love, meaningful work, sex and money -- in that order" -- she says in "Having It All," which hit several best-seller lists less than a week after its Oct. 29 publication date.
Ten years in the writing, it is a compendium of everything she has learned in her journey from a youth of "wall-to-wall acne" to a hectic, present-day life as editor, author and talk-show regular. In between were 17 secretarial jobs in Los Angeles, marriage at 37 to movie producer David Brown ("Jaws," "The Sting") and instant fame a few years later as author of "Sex and the Single Girl."
In the final chapter of "Having It All," Brown sums up her self-image in a bold confession of kinship with another rags-to-riches heroine:
"I do tend to think of myself as your Evita Peron. Glittering in her jewelry, undulating in her Jacques Fath suits, standing on the balcony of Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, Eva used to tell the girls, 'I am one of you . . . all these beautiful things in my life bring glory to us all!' "
And now, glittering in oversized pearl earrings, undulating in her Adolfo suits and standing in front of just about any television camera or reporter who will listen, Brown is telling women, "not that whatever I've got will bring glory to us all, but that you can have whatever I have and probably much much more . . . if you want it."
What Brown has, she says while adjusting freshly glued false eyelashes into place, is "terrific work and a really good man I'm crazy about. Work is the crux of it all because that's where you get the success and money. Also, the kind of job you have can seriously affect what kind of men you meet, and more importantly, whether these men are going to be interested in you."
Brown's strategy is "the Mouseburger Plan," a monument to manipulation which promises that "success is almost inevitable" for the mouseburger who "applies drive." As the mouseburger's mentor, she peppers the book with examples of how she applies herself "almost daily": "If I can't get someone off the phone, I'm inching through a newspaper or magazine while we talk, making lists or at least pushing back my cuticles!"
At a point when women are starting to shun the impossibly stressful goal of being superwomen, Brown urges them on to Total Career Woman glory with the mouseburger's motto: "Achieve, achieve, achieve." The guide is written the way she speaks -- in breathless italics -- leaving nothing, not even phrasing, to the imagination. As inspiration, she offers advice on everything from writing resumes to oral sex, tells how to grope men under the table, climb the career ladder and never once run out of pantyhose.
"I may emphasize sex a little more than some other people would," she coos, seeming to breathe more easily as each stroke of makeup goes into place. "But it's a very lovely primordial force that's so pleasant. We talk a lot in Cosmo about pleasing men and being attractive because you need somebody in your life to love. It doesn't have to be a man, it can be a homosexual relationship. I don't care . . .
"But there are not enough men, statistically, to go around. So it's not just as easy as walking out the front door. It's quite a challenge. And it's not a matter of man-trapping. It's just that they're a lovely commodity, and you need one, like breathing." She pauses so the makeup artist can line her lips with crimson pencil.
Women unlucky enough to be manless, she implies, have simply not applied themselves enough. "You can have deep love, true friends, money, fame, satisfying days and nights -- anything you want," she promises, "when you apply seriously."
While Brown's message is not currently chic, it sells. Cosmo's circulation has climbed from 700,000 to 2.8 million under her direction, making it the nation's 19th largest-selling consumer magazine, according to the Magazine Publisher's Association. Three publishers offered her $1 million for the hardcover rights to "Having It All," says her agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar, but she accepted "a little bit less" from Simon & Schuster because she liked their editors. The book is being translated into about seven languages, and movie rights are under negotiation. The paperback is expected out next fall, and "Helen," Lazar boasts, "has 100 percent of the paperback rights."
Bustling from the bathroom to the sitting room, Brown proclaims, "Women today are in the greatest shape they've ever been in." Weir waves her into a chair and begins removing her curlers while she continues talking.
"There's more rapport between the sexes," she says, "and they have more fun together. But there's a certain polarity gone that was rather special. When men and women were so opposite it was quite quiveringly wonderful. But the price was too high."
"I'm going to keep this low," Weir interjects quietly as he smooths out a lock of her ash-brown hair. "It'll fall down anyway," Brown says, "I would raise it a little bit." Weir raises the crown.
"In terms of man-woman relationships," she says, "sex will always be there. But I think more and more women will think about whether or not they want a child."
Brown has no children "because," she shrugs, "I just didn't want to. A lot of my early life was spent being somewhat responsible for an invalid sister who had polio, and that took away some of my desire for a child. And I don't have a strong maternal instinct. Having children, while bringing rich rewards to some, also requires a lot of -- I won't call it sacrifice, that's probably too tough a word--but putting your own interests second."
And that would never do.
Supremely energetic, Brown already has completed a radio interview and an hour of exercise by 10 a.m. Before the day's end, seven more interviews plus several book signings. "Goal-oriented, is what I call it," she says. "It's very hard for me to just sit around and shmoo."
She also is supremely organized. She knows what she'd take to a desert island (Pond's cleansing cream, Mentholatum, Vaseline and Lubriderm) and the outfit in which she wants to be buried (a favorite Pucci suit). Her menu for the day: 60 vitamins, plus 1,500 calories of food -- occasionally 1,800 with a 36-hour fast as punishment for a binge.
Lingerie is of critical importance. "I'm sitting here in my tiger panties," she tells readers in one chapter. In another part of the book she is "tucked into Calvin Klein's beautiful new silk pajamas."
These obsessive quirks, combined with her dogmatic style, have led to what Brown calls "some myths" about who she really is. "I think many people feel I'm about as hard as a rock," she says, "a tough, driven, Mildred Pierce kind of lady . . . That doesn't seem to me to be the real me.
"Somebody once asked me to sum myself up in one word, and after thinking about it for a while I decided that 'determined' would probably be the one word that would take care of me. I'm determined I will get everything done today -- I'm determined to get my hair styled and I'm determined not to skimp on this interview. That's just a pippy-poo, miniscule example of what I mean by determined, but I feel that way about nearly everything. One may call that being driven, and perhaps it is . . . "
Weir shoots a tornado of spray over her completed coiffure; Brown thanks him profusely and rushes for "just a moment" into the bedroom. Out pops husband David to entertain her guest while Brown slips into her suit jacket. A dapper, charming man of 66 with a neat, thin white mustache, he follows his wife's movements fondly, but prefers to talk about his soon-to-be released film, "The Verdict," starring Paul Newman.
He is accompanying Brown on her tour "because," he says, "I decided I'd be a support system, someone to come home to at night."
"It's nice to have a playmate," laughs Brown, emerging from the bedroom in a size 4 green Adolpho suit with magenta trim -- a startling transformation from the earlier lady in rollers. Finally, she settles into an armchair -- although her motor remains in high gear and stillness requires obvious effort. Her husband slips silently back into the bedroom.
"I think Cosmo is somewhat misunderstood," Brown says, "but only by the people who are not our devoted readers. I am a feminist. A devout one. I marched for the ERA, I ran articles. I can't believe it was defeated. The magazine is a feminist tract.
"Our message is that men are wonderful and children are wonderful and you may need both to fulfill your life. But you should not, you must not live through those people. You must do it yourself and must achieve on your own."
The phone rings, and at the sound of the male voice on the other end Brown's face lights up. "Listen, Washington Post photographer," she growls playfully into the receiver, "you come up and see us." A few moments later she contends, "The worst thing in the world would be for men not to like you anymore."
This statement does not contradict her professed feminism, she asserts, "because you need a man to love, to sleep with and to have babies and have fun. But you don't need him for the other side of your life -- your work. You need a man because he's a man, because he's a sex object, as are we."
Should she someday be alone, she says, "I would still have men in my life. Even if you have a husband and wife to dinner, at least he's a man. For sex, she says, "men of a certain age use money and power and prestige and charm to have women in their lives. Who knows? I may do the same thing if it's ever necessary."
It's easy to knock Brown, and many feminists do.
"I appreciate her as a pioneer," says Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem. "She was the first woman editor of a woman's magazine, and Cosmo admitted women could be sexual beings . . . But she's fooling herself if she think's her message is a feminist one.
"She's telling women that if they look good, smell good, wear the right perfume and underwear, wonderful things will happen to them. It's the hope of all discriminated-against groups that if we just behave nicely somehow the world will accept us . . . It doesn't make me angry. It makes me sad."
Cosmo appeals to millions of women, says Steinem, "because it's an escape from reality. It's a fantasy world in which women all look beautiful and have enormous bosoms, and there's a remarkable absence of children."
And -- when you scrape away the Cheez Whiz -- Brown occasionally offers nuggets of common sense, gleaned by a small-town girl who made it big: "Give credit to fellow employes," "Cheap is almost worse than nothing," "Even though somebody has accepted your call, always ask if he is busy."
Underneath her obsession with male approval, Brown is a bright, complex woman trying to blend traditional ideas of femininity with modern, liberated reality. When the photographer asks Brown how she would like to look in her photograph, she says quietly, almost poignantly, "Nice, and as pretty as I can."
Were she able to relive her life, the major change would be "to worry less, since I know everything turned out so well." She still worries, "even though I know it's not appropriate," she says, "or even right. I mean, can't I be grateful for everything I have?" Her bigggest fears are that Cosmo sales will drop, her book will flop and that her husband's health will fail.
"And this fall is such a heady, glamorous time, with my book out and David's new movie," she says. "I worry about the next year and the next. What is going to happen when the pace slows? How will I deal with that?"
But don't cry for Brown, Cosmo Women. The truth is she never left you . . . Inside the woman who has it all, is a poor girl from Arkansas who occasionally reveals glimpses of vulnerability.
"I've always had the blights," she writes in the last chapter of "Having It All." "At those times , I identify with every woman in the world in a bathrobe who for that moment in time cannot do a blessed thing but have some more coffee, wolf some more crumb cake, read some more papers, read a magazine if she's out of papers, read the same magazine over again if she's already read it but it's the only one she's got, and just wait -- wait for an end to come to gloom or to come to her. The end of you doesn't come, of course, but the end of it the intertia does, and you get back in action again."