Helen Gurley Brown’s Sexy Mistake

She was obsessed with the wrong revolution.

Sprawled across the cover of Jennifer Scanlon’s new biography of Helen Gurley Brown is Brown herself, leaning back awkwardly on a heap of pillows in a tight, leopard-skin blouse and gold chains. Her blond hair is slightly tousled, and her face is immobile behind a pink-and-white mask of makeup. Brown is 87 now but looks ageless. Or, rather, she looks determined to look ageless. Or, rather—oh, never mind, the truth is she looks like Geriatric Barbie, and somebody should have told her so. But truth has never been Brown’s favorite accessory, and, as this book makes clear, she chooses her accessories with great care.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere is the first biography of Brown, though it’s hardly the first book written about her. In fact, she’s been writing and rewriting her own story for nearly half a century, first in her best-selling manifesto Sex and the Single Girl (1962), later in various spinoffs (The Late Show, The Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown, I’m Wild Again), and of course by proxy in the pages of Cosmopolitan, the phenomenally successful magazine she edited from 1965 to 1997. According to Scanlon, a professor of women’s studies at Bowdoin, Brown granted her full access to some 50 cartons’ worth of personal and professional papers housed at the Smith College library, agreed to be interviewed, and then stepped aside, never even asking to read the manuscript.

A biographer’s dream—except that Scanlon had about as much chance of coming up with the “real” Brown as one of Brown’s innumerable plastic surgeons, who presumably also had complete access to the raw material. This is a thoughtful and well-researched book, and Scanlon clearly respects her subject, but stored away in those cartons is a blood-curdling tangle of myth and misogyny that’s going to take a whole team of forensic biographers to unravel someday.

Scanlon says at the outset that she believes Brown has been one of the major forces in the postwar women’s movement, right up there with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. It’s not the world’s easiest argument to make—she’s talking about someone who called Playboy a “terrific” magazine; described her own book as “a girlish, gurgling, non-literary kind of thing”; and advised any woman over 40 that she better get good at “sucking, handling and, most of all, admiring” her man’s penis because from now on, sex was going to be about him, not her.

But if you offload the simpering and try to see Brown as a working-class strategist, as Scanlon does, it’s possible to work up a different perspective. In her view, Brown was an early exponent of “lipstick feminism,” a concept I’ve never fully understood except that the clothes are cute and you don’t go around nagging the power structure all the time about equality and changing the system. Scanlon places Brown on a continuum of smart, seductive women starting with Lorelei Lee, the flapper supported by a string of dimwitted sugar daddies in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), and culminating in Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.

The problem with this analysis is that Lorelei, Carrie, et al., really are fictional characters, while Brown only plays one. In the version of her life that she’s been telling throughout her career, young Helen starts out as a “mouseburger”—a girl with neither looks nor money—and puts a ferocious amount of hard work into becoming a very sexy secretary and then a very sexy copywriter. She puts even more hard work into getting the rich, brilliant, and sexy David Brown to marry her, and he finally surrenders. Victory! Today, the two of them are richer and more brilliant than ever, still working hard at their careers and still very sexy. And it can happen to you.

Brown never bothers to parse the contradictions here, and Scanlon, too, prefers to let them pass. As she sees it, Brown was way ahead of most other midcentury advice-givers, urging her readers “to make choices independent of the needs or opinions of men.” It’s not clear how Scanlon extracts this message from, say, Sex and the Single Girl, which was entirely and enthusiastically devoted to telling women how to sit, stand, eat, drink, dress, do their hair, talk, listen to music, and decorate their apartments in ways guaranteed to please men. To be sure, Cosmopolitan never panned the women’s movement. Early on, the magazine ran articles about abortion, consciousness-raising, and date rape. But when AIDS and sexual harassment threatened to take the fun out of sex, Brown decided her readers were better off ignorant. Her idea of women’s liberation was a lot like Hugh Hefner’s—a geisha in a bikini—and for every article she ran about careers, there were a dozen about the marriage market.

And where is the feminism, lipstick or otherwise, in Brown’s lunatic fear of gaining weight? She’s been described as “almost skeletal,” and until she was in her 70s she restricted herself to 1,500 calories a day. If she “sinned,” as she put it, and consumed more than 1,800 calories a day, she fasted for the next 36 hours. “I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight,” she once said—a shockingly stupid bit of dietary advice. What’s fascinating about Brown’s compulsion to equate eating with criminal behavior is the rigid, terrified puritanism it reveals. If she were anybody else, this would be a textbook case of a woman hating her body and fearing sex. Instead, let’s just call it an issue that remains unresolved despite years of therapy.

Even creepier is the story of Brown’s marriage, which she herself has always recounted as a charming fairy tale. Scanlon’s take isn’t exactly skeptical, but she draws on an unpublished memoir in Brown’s papers that adds quite a few nuances. David Brown was twice-divorced, homely, and very rich when they met. Helen quickly decided he was the love of her life. She forgave him for the cheap pearls he tossed her way as a Christmas present and was overjoyed when he began allowing her to call his home instead of his answering service.

When he finally let her drag him to the altar, he insisted they follow the wedding with an evening at a strip club. “Candy is a damned fine stripper and I thought it a perfectly fine place to spend our wedding night,” she wrote in the memoir—a statement that deserves a plaque of its own in the Museum of Mysterious Marriages. From that day on, she’s been praising his good looks and genius and exulting about how lucky she is to have a husband who applauds her commitment to work. Evidently he’s just as happy. “She is not a typical, emasculating, obsessive career woman,” he explained to an interviewer.

Typical and emasculating, no. Obsessive, definitely. After the huge splash made by Sex and the Single Girl, Brown was hired to reinvent Cosmopolitan, a women’s magazine that had been around for 80 years and needed a makeover. She applied the same coy prose and how-to-get-your-man advice that had made her book such a hit and created a cover format featuring a sultry model surrounded by suggestive story blurbs (“What to Say in Bed” … “What Men Like in Bed” … “What to Wear in the Bedroom”). The formula has been one of the most profitable and widely imitated in magazine history, and Brown became one of the legendary editors of our time. Or, as she likes to say, she reached the “tippy-top” of her profession.

“I am a feminist,” Brown has insisted many times, and she does deserve credit for pledging allegiance to that term when so many other powerful women won’t go near it. If only it were true. If only she had sprinkled a little of the other revolution into the pages of Cosmopolitan—a touch of politics, a smattering of activism, a nudge at global awareness —instead of relying on the sexual revolution to set women free, a job it was never meant to do. Brown had a glorious chance to make a substantive difference in women’s lives, what with her huge readership and sex paying the bills. But she never gave it a tumble. Too bad! Bad girls, it turns out, don’t go anywhere at all. They just curl up on somebody’s lap and purr.

This piece also appears in Double X.