Helen Gurley Brown changed women’s lives.
A sexual trailblazer and feminist, Brown took no prisoners in the early 1960s. It was an era when women finally realized that they didn’t have to marry young, look like a trophy wife and raise children while their husbands flirted with secretaries and enjoyed three-martini lunches.
Brown, who wrote “Sex and the Single Girl” at the age of 40 (practically considered ancient back then) and transformed the dying Cosmopolitan magazine into a racy must-read, died Monday at age 90.
“Today New York City lost a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation’s culture,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement. “She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print. She was a quintessential New Yorker: never afraid to speak her mind and always full of advice. She pushed boundaries and often broke them, clearing the way for younger women to follow in her path...”
Indeed, she did.
As a journalism student from Brown’s home state of Arkansas, I studied the life of Brown like some people study Shakespeare or Plath. She had emerged from humble beginnings to set America on a sexual revolution that told women they could have it all — “money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity” — while being sexy and smart even if you didn’t look like a magazine model.
Born in the tiny hill town of Green Forest, Ark., in 1922, her family moved to Little Rock after her father was elected as a state legislator. If her family had stayed in the South following her father’s death in a Little Rock elevator during the Depression, she may, indeed, have found herself in a different universe. Instead, her mother packed up the family and moved to Los Angeles.
Brown knew she didn’t have looks on her side, often describing herself as an “ugly duckling.” But she had brains, graduating as valedictorian of John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939.
Women had few career choices in the 1940s. But Brown worked her way through secretarial jobs before receiving the chance to write ad copy at Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. She soared, a rival firm hired her away and soon she was the highest paid female advertising writer on the West Coast.
Brown never let her generation’s strict moral standards hinder her. If she wanted to sleep with a man, she did. She once told a magazine interviewer that she never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office and that included the boss.
At age 37, she married David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor turned movie producer. At her husband’s encouragement, she wrote a book that set American women — and in turn, men — on fire.
“Sex and the Single Girl” was “the unmarried woman’s guide to men.” “The sensational best seller that torpedoes the myth that a girl must be married to enjoy a satisfying life,” said one grab line on a 1963 vintage paperback cover. Finally, a woman, even if she was a “mouseburger,” a Brown term for plain Janes, didn’t need a ring on her finger to find pleasure.
Good girls across the country transformed into sex kittens and purred in bedrooms and beside their bosses, without feeling much guilt. Welcoming the sexual revolution with gusto, Brown took over the fledgling Cosmopolitan and turned the publication into a life and sexual manual for women, telling them to forget hearth and home and instead play and scamper.
She featured sexy, buxom, beautiful models in low-cut dresses on the cover with suggestive tag lines about orgasms, bedroom etiquette and break-ups. But Brown, ever the business queen, also told women how to handle their taxes and run a business. She offered women a dose of what men experienced in Playboy. She featured movie stars such as Burt Reynolds in a centerfold lying on a bear rug conveniently hiding his rude bits.
In 1997, Brown stepped down from Cosmopolitan, but never let age stop her. She always considered herself a girl and even wrote books for older women.
“My own philosophy is if you’re not having sex, you’re finished. It separates the girls from the old people,” Brown, who never had children, once said.
In 2001, I had the chance to meet her when she visited Arkansas. Like a groupie, I had my picture snapped with her and told her my plans to write a sex book. Ever gracious, the super petite woman, who loved heavy make up and acting the part of a glamour puss, strongly encouraged me to do. And I did.
So here’s to you, Helen Gurley Brown, for millions of orgasms around the world.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker