The XX Factor

Savior of the Mouseburgers: The Legacy of Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown during the 2004 Nightlife Awards Concert on Jan. 12, 2004, in New York City

Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images.

As with so many issues, Nora Ephron absolutely nailed Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who passed away Monday at the age of 90, in a profile for Esquire in 1970, available in her collection Wallflower at the Orgy. Ephron wrote that Brown—who worked her way up from a hardscrabble childhood to write ad copy, publish her memoir Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, and became editor of Cosmopolitan in 1965—was compelling precisely because she embodied exactly what she preached to millions of American women: They would always be terribly flawed but always capable of improvement. Ephron noted:

She wears Rudi Gernreich dresses, David Webb jewelry, a Piaget watch, expensive hairpieces, custom-cut false eyelashes—but it never quite seems to come together properly. An earring keeps falling off. A wig is askew. A perfect matched stocking has a run. All of which not-quite-right effect is intensified because Helen Gurley Brown relentlessly talks about her flat chest, her nose job, her split ends, her adolescent acne, her forty-minute regimen of isometrics and exercises to stay in shape. She does not bring up these faults to convince you she is unattractive but rather to show you what can be done, what any girl can do if she really tries. “Self-help,” she says. “I wish there were better words, but that is my whole credo. You cannot sit around like a cupcake asking other people to come and eat you up and discover your great sweetness and charm. You’ve got to make yourself more cupcakable all the time so you’re a better cupcake to be gobbled up.

Ephron explained that even though she had written for Cosmopolitan and was therefore more aware of Brown’s formula than almost any other ordinary consumer of the magazine, she couldn’t resist the enthusiasm of its promises every month. “Buy a padded bra, the article on bustlines tells me. Fake it, the article on orgasm says,” Ephron wrote of the inevitable disappointment behind the cover lines. “And I should be furious. But I’m not. Not at all. How can you be angry at someone who’s got your number?”

Forty-two years later, the House that Helen Built had a great many more women’s numbers and is racking them up around the world. What was striking about Edith Zimmerman’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine about Cosmopolitan’s international editions is how closely they hew to the formula Brown laid down for the magazine all those years ago. Where once it was Brown’s voice, which Ephron described as “Cute. Girlish. Exhortative. Almost but not quite tasteless. And in its own insidious, peculiar way, irresistible,” that dominated the magazine, Zimmerman points out that it is Jessica Knoll, a senior editor at the magazine, who writes many of the pieces that are tweaked and repurposed for the international editions. And the constant cycle of identifying new flaws and proposing new cures for them remains. Brown proposed the title “It Never Really Happens to Me” for a piece about women who have trouble having orgasms in 1970; today, Zimmerman picks out an article under the headline “Oops! My V Zone Is Strange!” from the South Korean edition of Cosmopolitan.

Some of the problems Cosmopolitan identified then and continues to identify today are real. Some of them are manufactured for the purposes of convincing women that some previously normal aspect of their lives is in desparate need of renovation. But they’re all part of a continual process—in the Cosmopolitan universe, there is always some new sex technique to be mastered, some body part to be conquered, some fear to be overcome.

Feminists and traditionalists alike may have raised their eyebrows at Helen Gurley Brown for suggesting that women pursue men, even married men, aggressively, for encouraging women to have independent sex lives but then suggesting that they fake it. But her vision of Cosmopolitan and the archetype that with a little help, anything is possible for any woman, outlived both the sexual double standards of the Mad Men era in which she came up and the second-wave feminists who found her declarations alternately thrilling and embarrassing. “She’s just worried that somewhere out there is a mouseburger who doesn’t realize she has the capability of becoming anything, anything at all, anything she wants to, of becoming Helen Gurley Brown for God’s sake,” wrote Ephron. Brown may be gone, but her magazine—and a thousand makeover montages inspired by it—live on. The mouseburgers of the world will not go unaided, and the cupcakableness of women around the globe will improve apace.