Cosmopolitan editor told women how to get it all

Helen Gurley Brown , in her Cosmopolitan offices in 1982, left the magazine after 32 years, in 1997. She stayed on as editor-in-chief of the magazine's foreign editions. Associated Press, file
Helen Gurley Brown , in her Cosmopolitan offices in 1982, left the magazine after 32 years, in 1997. She stayed on as editor-in-chief of the magazine's foreign editions. Associated Press, file
Posted: August 15, 2012

NEW YORK - It was not the kind of advice women were used to hearing:

Make a list of the men in your life and arrange them in categories: "The Eligibles," "The Eligibles-But-Who-Needs-Them," "The Don Juans," "The Divorcing Man."

"Marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life." Save the "best" for when you're single.

Forget church. "Spiritual benefits," yes. Prospects for bed, unlikely.

The sexual revolution, Helen Gurley Brown declared 50 years ago, was no longer just for men.

Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and an author who encouraged women not to save it for the wedding night, died Monday at a hospital in New York after a brief hospitalization, Hearst Corp. CEO Frank A. Bennack Jr. said in a statement.

Sex and the Single Girl, her million-selling grab-bag book of advice, opinion, and anecdote on why being single shouldn't mean being sexless, made a celebrity of the 40-year-old advertising copywriter in 1962 and made her a foil for feminists who believed that women's rights meant more than sleeping around.

Three years later, she was hired by Hearst Magazines to turn around the languishing Cosmopolitan, and it became her playtime pulpit for the next 32 years.

She said at the outset that her aim was to tell a reader "how to get everything out of life - the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity - whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against."

Along the way, she added to the language such terms as Cosmo girl - hip, sexy, vivacious, and smart - and mouseburger, which she coined first in describing herself as a woman who must work relentlessly to make herself desirable and successful.

Her motto: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere."

Brown and Cosmo were anathema to feminists, who staged a sit-in at her office. One of them, Kate Millet, said, "The magazine's reactionary politics were too much to take, especially the man-hunting part. The entire message seemed to be 'Seduce your boss, then marry him.' "

Another early critic was Betty Friedan, who dismissed the magazine as "immature teenage-level sexual fantasy" but later came around and said that Brown, "in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women."

There was no disputing that Brown quickly turned a financial turkey into a songbird.

Within four issues, circulation, which had fallen below the 800,000 readers guaranteed to advertisers, was on the rise, even with the newsstand price increasing from 35 cents to 50 and then 60.

Sales grew every year until peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, then slowly leveled off to 2.5 million at $2.95 a copy, where it was when Brown left in 1997. (She stayed on as editor-in-chief of the magazine's foreign editions.)

An ugly duckling by her own account, Helen Gurley was a child of the Ozarks, born Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark. Growing up during the Depression, she earned pocket money by giving other kids dance lessons.

Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles, where young Helen, acne-ridden and otherwise physically unendowed, graduated as valedictorian of John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939.

With typing and shorthand learned at a business college, she went through 18 jobs in seven years at places like the William Morris Agency, the Daily News in Los Angeles, and, in 1948, the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. There, when finally given a shot at writing ad copy, she began winning prizes and was hired away by Kenyon & Eckhardt, which made her the highest-paid advertising woman on the West Coast.

She also evidently was piling up the experience she put to use later as an author, editor, and hostess of a TV chat show.

"I've never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office," she told New York magazine in 1982. Asked whether that included the boss, she said, "Why discriminate against him?"

Marriage came when she was 37, to twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor-turned-movie producer, whose credits would include The Sting and Jaws.

Her husband encouraged Brown to write a book, which she put together on weekends, and suggested the title Sex and the Single Girl.

They moved to New York after the book became one of the top sellers of 1962. Moviemakers bought it for a then-very-hefty $200,000, not for the nonexistent plot, but for its provocative title. Natalie Wood played a character named Helen Gurley Brown who bore no resemblance to the original.

According to Hearst, Sex and the Single Girl has been translated into 16 languages and published in 28 countries. She followed up her success with a long-playing record album, "Lessons in Love," and another book, Sex in the Office, in 1965.

She also went on to write five more books, including Having It All in 1982 and in 1993, at age 71, The Late Show, which was subtitled: "A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50."

"My own philosophy is if you're not having sex, you're finished. It separates the girls from the old people," she told an interviewer.

The Browns were childless by choice, she said.


Former Associated Press writer Rayner Pike contributed to this report.

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