Helen Gurley Brown

America’s most puritanical wild woman.

 Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, passed away Monday at the age of 90. In this piece from 2000, David Plotz assesses Brown’s career and cultural influence on the occasion of her memoir, I’m Wild Again. Plotz argues that for a woman who claimed to personify the sexy abandon her magazine promoted, Brown was ironically puritanical in both her professional and personal life. 

Four years after Helen Gurley Brown was pushed out as Cosmopolitan’s editor, the superannuated “girl” is in the news again. She is making the media rounds to flog her new memoir, I’m Wild Again. Brown appears on its cover in a slinky, fire-engine-red dress. She reveals that she was briefly a Hollywood mogul’s kept woman in the late ‘40s. She gloats that she got breast implants five years ago—when she was 73. She repeats her favorite aphorism: “Sex is one of the three best things we have, and I don’t know … the other two.” She mentions her office-wall motto: “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere.” And she advises her girls on life’s finer pleasures: “Spread semen over your face, [it’s] probably full of protein as sperm can eventually become babies. Makes a fine mask—and he’ll be pleased.”

I’m Wild Again, in short, would seem to cement Brown’s reputation as a retrograde sex monkey, a Cosmo girl who has graduated to her twilight years just as daffily sex-crazed and man-centric as she was a generation (or two, or three) ago.

But on closer inspection, I’m Wild Again is a strangely inapt title and a poor description of Brown’s life. She’s not wild again (and she may never have been very wild in the first place). This is the autobiography of a puritan. Wild chronicles how Brown exercises obsessively; doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat; has remained utterly faithful to her husband of 35 years; and lives for her job. The Cosmo girl’s dirty little secret isn’t sex. It’s work.

In the popular imagination, Helen Gurley Brown is a Holly Golightly character, an insouciant cutie-pie, existentially concerned with having a good time. But the ultimate Cosmo girl is actually a different sort of American icon: the ruthless, self-made woman. She is Sister Carrie, channeled through Bridget Jones. Her father, an Arkansas state legislator, was killed in an elevator accident when she was 10. Her mother sank into poverty and sadness. Her older sister was crippled by polio. Brown did what any ambitious young thing would: She got the hell out, shed her hillbilly roots, and reinvented herself. For a decade, she worked as a sweater-girl secretary in Los Angeles. Her moxie, wit, and hard work eventually won her a job writing ad copy. After years of swinging singlehood, she landed her man, movie producer David Brown, in 1959.

Her husband urged her to chronicle her bachelorette days, and she did. When Sex and the Single Girl came out in 1962, Brown—by then a hardly girlish 40—became a national sensation. She was booed and bombed with tomatoes at public appearances. But the best seller made her, according to Gloria Steinem, a feminist “pioneer.” Published a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Sex told girls they didn’t have to marry, they could have sex, and they could enjoy it. “This was very astounding news in 1962,” says Barbara Ehrenreich. (Brown may be the godmother of the contemporary sexpert industry. Sex and the City seems to owe much—including perhaps its title—to Brown.)

In 1965, Brown, who had never edited, was offered the helm of the struggling Cosmopolitan. It had been a serious magazine, a would-be Saturday Evening Post, but Brown gutted it and invented the modern women’s magazine. Her formula: a busty, hookerish-looking cover model, sexy cover lines (“Men Who Fake Orgasm”), and a lot of steam inside (Burt Reynolds, naked!). The Cosmo Web site sums up the magazine’s enduring vision: “Land that man, ace your job, and look your sexiest ever.”

Cosmo thrived, but Brown’s political cachet vanished. Feminists who had admired Sex and the Single Girl deplored Brown’s failure to advance. Cosmo seemed dedicated to the proposition that girls should live for men. “Having a man is 50 percent of living,” Brown counseled. “Never refuse to make love, even if you don’t feel like it,” she recommended in her 1982 best seller, Having It All. Critics dismissed Cosmo as “bitchcraft.” Betty Friedan called it “quite obscene and quite horrible. It embraces the idea that a woman is nothing but a sex object.” In the ‘90s, Brown enraged many lefties by endorsing sexual harassment and defending Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood. A little sexual tension in the office, she said, never hurt anyone.

Brown’s critics noticed her deplorable sexual politics but missed the rest of the package. Beneath the veneer of sex talk and seduction advice was steel. Brown was not teaching girls to be geishas. She was teaching them to be bosses. “Get out and do it, kiddo!” she urged. Brown says that she made Cosmo for “mouseburgers” like herself, “23-year-olds with their nose pressed against the glass” who learned how to make the best with what they had. Brown barraged them with sound advice: Work hard, be punctual, be tough, don’t fear competition, save your money.

(Cosmo was Erin Brockovich before Erin Brockovich: Dress like a slut, work like a champ. Indeed, much of the criticism directed at Cosmo is sneery elitism. It skews to a less swank demo than Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Its readers are beauticians and secretaries, not lawyers, and its fashions tend toward cheap knockoffs.)

Brown and her magazine inspired because she had lived her own advice. Brown may have encouraged cavorting with married men, but she was too busy to do it herself. She was working 12-hour days on the magazine. She was and is relentlessly self-improving. At 78, she still exercises twice a day and lives a life of “controlled deprivation.” (In a 78-year-old male boss, this would be seen as tough and sexy. But when Brown does it, she is unfairly ridiculed as a sex-crazed, anorexic old bat.)

Brown’s intensity paid off for Cosmo, boosting its circulation from three-quarters-of-a-million to 3 million. (Today, circulation has subsided slightly to 2.7 million, still more than any other young women’s magazine.) At the time she left, Cosmo was earning Hearst a stupendous $50 million per year. Her Cosmo changed the women’s mag trade: Its competitors now imitate Brown’s sexy cover lines and models. When she was pink-slipped at Cosmo in 1996, Brown, typically, did not slink into pampered retirement. She became editor of Cosmopolitan’s 39 overseas editions. All of them are in the black.

It is easy to ridicule Brown but hard to dislike her. She has tremendous panache. Her writing effervesces. In I’m Wild Again, she dryly notes the absence of anti-Semitism when she was growing up in Jim Crow Arkansas: “We were pretty busy with Apartheid.” She describes giving bad news to someone: It “went down like chopped stone dragon.” On getting breast cancer, she jokes: “I had cancer, doesn’t everyone?”  

Brown today is perceived as an artifact, because she is (supposedly) devoted to a philosophy that is not only wrong but archaic: Women should live to get men. In fact, Brown’s own life reflects a sin that is much more modern—and, in self-help America, much more forgivable—than the one she is accused of. She is not too interested in pleasing men. She is too interested in pleasing herself.