Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, died Monday in New York at age 90.
If Cosmo was her biggest legacy, it was her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl, that launched her to fame. She was 40, with a high-paying job in advertising and a recent marriage to Hollywood producer David Brown.
But she was writing for the single girls, not her privileged peers, says Jennifer Scanlon, author of a Brown biography called Bad Girls Go Everywhere.
“Helen Gurley Brown to me represents sort of a working-class feminism,” Scanlon says. “She cared about women who worked as airline stewardesses or as receptionists.”
Brown called them “mouseburgers” — “people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high IQ, a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets,” as she put it.
To the mouseburgers, she said: Ignore those who tell you to hurry up and marry. This is your prime. Enjoy your singlehood! Oh, and feel free to have as much sex as you want — and can get.
Remember, this was 1962, a year before The Feminine Mystique came out.
“What she did liberate was the idea that women have sexual desire,” says Scanlon, who notes that Brown wrote frankly, even proudly, about her many lovers during her single years — with married men, co-workers and celebrities.
Sex and the Single Girl flew off the shelves; fans sent her heaps of letters, and it began her lifelong franchise.
“She’s relentlessly out there,” Scanlon recalls. “She’s on television, she has a syndicated newspaper column, she’s on the radio …”
In 1965, Brown’s sex-positive, ultra-optimistic message got her all the way to the helm of Cosmopolitan magazine. At the time, it was a foundering monthly known for fiction. Without any editing experience, she turned it into the wildly popular, sexy, women-focused, hugely profitable glossy we know today.
By the time she was gently shown the door in 1997, after more than 30 years, the magazine had become an icon, with decades’ worth of variations on “how to please your man.” And Brown, too, had become an icon — of ruthless glamour, wealth and sexual freedom.
But there was something else she cared passionately about: financial self-sufficiency for women — getting a job and working your way up, like she did.
Hers was a real rags-to-riches story. Her father died when she was young, her mother was depressive, and her sister was paralyzed by polio, a beginning she recounted in her ’80s best-seller Having It All, which tracked her from her Arkansas childhood through 17 secretarial jobs in Los Angeles to the editor’s desk at Cosmo.
It was a job she was extraordinarily good at, and it brought her huge success. But Helen Gurley Brown was always at pains to emphasize her mouseburger status — that she wasn’t particularly talented or smart, she just set her mind to something and worked at it.
She told her readers constantly that the way to get what you want from life is not through your man, but through your work.
“A job is where the money, the success, and the clout come from,” she wrote. “It doesn’t matter where you start, what matters is starting and hanging in.”
I did it, she said again and again — and you, my dear, can too.