Rivulets of mascara are streaming from big, false lashed-eyes everywhere: yesterday legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown died in New York City at age 90.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Brown’s influence as a feminist and sex-positive editor of a major women’s magazine has left an indelible imprint on our popular culture, including on ladyblogs like The Frisky. (Yes, even though some of those Cosmo sex tips are dopey.) She may not have always gotten the respect she deserved in her lifetime — and there will no doubt be Cosmo detractors upon her death — but I would like to share with you some facts from this incredible woman’s life. In fact, she was declared a living legend by the New York Landmarks Conservancy!
Helen Gurley Brown is an editor, writer and woman whom I truly look up to for her ball-busting ways … here’s why.
1. Helen Gurley Brown brought Cosmopolitan back from the brink of ruin. She was appointed editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1965, when it was losing money, and spent 30 years bringing it to its current “fun, fearless female” glory. In later life, she oversaw the magazine’s 64 international editions. Today, Cosmopolitan is the most popular women’s magazine on newsstands — in no small part to her.
2. Her early life was a sad one. Brown’s father died when she was only 10 and her mother cared for Brown’s younger sister who had polio. Brown credited her work ethic to taking on jobs at an early age to support her family during the Depression. She graduated valedictorian of her class and went on to work at secretarial jobs, which led Brown to becoming a highly-paid copywriter.
3. Sex and the Single Girl was a groundbreaking book in 1962. Ahead of its time, the bestselling book encouraged single women to embrace their bachelorette status in a way that Samantha Jones (and the ladies of “Mad Men”!) would approve of. Brown published 11 books in total throughout her life on the themes of women, sexuality, and power, including the also-controversial Sex and the Office.
4. She addressed addressed everyone as “pussycat.” “Nobody minds, and it’s a nice term of endearment,” she told Vanity Fair. Are you surprised she wore minidresses well into her 80s?
5. Favorite Helen Gurley Brown saying: “Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.”
6. She was a feminist… Brown was a workaholic of the highest order and a true believer that women needed to depend on their own creativity and grit to succeed. As the sole financial support of her mother and sister, she also insisted that women support themselves financially. Brown also discouraged women from marrying men they truly did not love and to seek higher aspirations for life than simply motherhood and marriage.
7. … albeit a controversial one. Brown was also a proponent of women using their sexuality to get ahead, both in the boardroom and in their romantic lives. One of her famous quotes — “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble” — is hard to reconcile. Additionally, Cosmopolitan has always been one of the most heteronormative women’s magazines on the newstands.
8. She was a philanthropist. In January 2012, Brown donated $30 million to Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and Stanford University’s engineer school to pioneer new media collaborations. Her papers and notes have also been donated to the women’s college Smith.
9. She lived in baller real estate and worked in a pink office. Brown and her late husband David Brown, a movie producer (“Jaws”), lived in the top four floors of an apartment on Central Park West and 81st Street. (Trust me, people would kill for a place like that.) Her corner office at Hearst Corp. was decorated in all pink with a leopard-print carpet!
10. She married at 37. Contrary to the unfair stereotype of Cosmo girls trying to shackle down a man into marriage as soon as possible, Brown waited until the ripe old age of 37 to commit to a man she loved. As the New York Times put it, Brown lived and worked in a time when “an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23.”
I highly, highly recommend the 201o biography of Helen Gurley Brown’s life, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, by Jennifer Scanlon. Before I read the book I had a fairly “meh” opinion of Cosmopolitan as media marketed towards women, but Bad Girls Go Everywhere taught me the history behind the magazine and gave me respect for Brown as a pioneering sex-positive feminist.
[Photo: Splash News]