Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the author of “Girl Land.”
When I was a teenager, I would always perk up when a talk-show host announced that he was about to introduce a woman who knew a lot about sex. This was back when information on the subject was still hard to come by, so the prospect of some ravishing, free-spirited, braless creature of the now coming on TV to explain it all was exciting.
But, all too often, out would totter Helen Gurley Brown: Aged, skeletal, wrapped in Pucci and wearing several coats of Pan-Cake, she looked like someone’s foxy grandma on her way to the champagne brunch at Leisure World. She was always old, always out of date with the youth culture she helped create; she was dragged, kicking and screaming, from the helm of Cosmopolitan magazine at the age of 74. Crass, clever, miserly, fantastical and forever nursing herself through a thousand social snubs, Brown deserves the biography that Brooke Hauser has written, “Enter Helen.” It is entertaining, thoughtfully researched and — the ultimate encomium where HGB was concerned — fun.
It was Brown’s contention — vouched first in her 1962 bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl” and then in the pages of Cosmo, which she reinvented — that the ideal single woman was part courtesan, part grifter. Sexual encounters should be opportunities to fulfill a man’s secret desires and also to get a little something from him — if not actual cash, then at the very least a hot tip on where to buy an electric blanket or a record album at wholesale prices. She located — and helped create — a vast market: single women who had been too busy waitressing or answering telephones or running adding machines to have gotten hep to the Summer of Love.
While contemporary feminism might have been alienating to them, the various credos of Cosmo were not. It was explicitly feminine, fashion-focused, written in the “baby simple” prose Brown demanded and ever hopeful — not of revolution, but of resolution to every woman’s marriage plot. Because while the immediate game plan was sex, the long-range goal was always to groom one of these sexual partners into a husband. How to do it? By taking lessons not from Mother or the minister’s wife but from, among others, a Park Avenue prostitute, one of whom explained in the pages of the magazine, “That’s the whole enchilada, darling — the will to please.”
Needless to say, leaders of the burgeoning women’s movement — and in particular, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan — were vexed to no end by Brown and her “will to please.” At one point the movement called for a boycott of the magazine, but the two camps were addressing very different audiences, so the boycott was ineffective. Feminists were talking to women interested in overthrowing the patriarchal system; Brown was teaching women how to work within that system and come out a winner. In Hauser’s apt formulation, Brown was “the powerful leader of the most insecure army in the world.” It was an army desperately trying to turn one-night stands into romances and then into proposals, and its members were eager to learn how to maintain their looks during the “crucial man-keeping years.”
The feminist leaders of the day considered femininity to be part of the great trap. Friedan — large, unkempt, kittenish as a Greyhound bus — was a one-woman repudiation of femininity. What the movement didn’t understand, however, is something that third-wave feminists have come to champion: that an enduring female attraction to fashion, cosmetics and beauty does not preclude an even fiercer interest in liberation. When feminists dumped their “woman-garbage” — bras, girdles, stockings — in a “Freedom Trash Can” at the Miss America contest in 1968, Brown responded with a feature on how to choose a sensational bra. When the movement focused attention on how to lead a meaningful life as a “person in your own right,” Cosmo ran a profile of Joanne Woodward under the title, “The Care and Feeding of Paul Newman.”
The movement also gave Brown scant credit for something that would have been highly regarded by today’s feminists: her business acumen and her creation of a hugely successful international brand. It’s true that she gathered power to herself in a stealthy and feline way, not by confronting male assumptions directly but by carving a path around them. She insisted, against all evidence, that she was just a scatterbrained little thing who would be lost without the guidance of her mastermind husband. When she was thinking of firing a male editor at her magazine, and David Brown counseled her to “keep George. He is intellectual, high-dome. You are more plebian — you know, girlish,” she demurred to him and gratefully accepted the insult.
Helen Gurley Brown nursed her wounds and rarely complained in public, just kept her head down and kept working. When Hearst, her publisher, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a grand bash — featuring tributes from President Richard Nixon and the Duke of Windsor, men she would have loved to cultivate — but didn’t invite her because it was “a stag affair,” she didn’t protest. She just pulled up her stockings and kept going. Her counter-attacks were half seething adolescent and half ball-buster. When the Wall Street Journal wrote a withering assessment of her professional accomplishments, she fired up the typewriter and pounded out a short letter to the writer:
“If it gives you any satisfaction.
1. i cried my eyes out for an hour today
2. i think you are a TOTAL [S---]!”
In the end, the values of the women’s movement and Cosmo became one. The materialism, fashion obsession and man-craziness of Brown fused with feminism’s demand for women to be treated as equals in the workplace. Brown’s values were callow, but they have endured. An article in an early issue of Ms. Magazine declared that “a sexually liberated woman without a feminist consciousness is nothing more than a new variety of prostitute,” but that didn’t anticipate the appeal that Brown’s insistence on being “girly” would have for generations of women. Steinem maintained that “women’s obsession with romance is a displacement of their longing for success,” but she was wrong.
Many women want both, and they have shaped — at great effort — a world that allows them to have what they want. When you see a fearsomely educated young lawyer clipping down the corridors of her law firm in high heels and a miniskirt, showing off her cushion-cut diamond to her cooing (and pea green) friends — well that, darling, is the whole enchilada.
By Brooke Hauser
462 pp. $28.99