The Magazine

The Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown is no mouseburger.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By EMILY YOFFE
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Bad Girls Go Everywhere

The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

by Jennifer Scanlon

Oxford, 288 pp., $27.95

Jennifer Scanlon sets out to prove that the legendary Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown, the woman who made cleavage and orgasms mainstream women's magazine fare, deserves to be taken seriously. Perhaps nothing makes her case better than the fact that this biography is being published by Oxford University Press. That must delight Brown, and only confirm her lifelong evangelical crusade that if she, a poor, fatherless, acne-ridden girl with only a secretarial degree, could make herself attractive, happy, and wildly successful, then any mouseburger (Brown's favorite term for her pre-fabulous self) can.

An Esquire profile of Brown by Nora Ephron, published in 1970--five years into what was to become a 32-year run as editor of Cosmo--still serves as a précis of Scanlon's book. All the tropes are there: Brown's reverse-Pilgrim's Progress belief that life's journey requires embracing temptation; her hyper-identification with her devoted readers; her faintly ridiculous, but endearing, combination of earnestness and grit; her run-ins with the censorious Hearst management which was constantly trying to rein her in, while acknowledging her instincts were newsstand gold.

Ephron's portrait, both affectionate and acidic, does not, however, foresee that in 2009 a scholar--Scanlon is a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin--would assert that Brown should be considered as important in liberating women from the gender straitjacket of the 1950s as Betty Friedan. Brown was an object of feminist scorn, with her belief that being seen as a sex object brought the reward of having sex. She was relentlessly upbeat (refusing even to run negative movie reviews in Cosmo) and objected to the idea that a misogynistic power structure crushed women's opportunities.

Scanlon argues that, unlike mainstream feminists, whose appeal was often to the educated, well-off women who ultimately were able to use their college degrees in the marketplace, Brown addressed herself largely to working-class women. Scanlon says it is a caricature to see Brown as simply an advocate of falsies and eyelash-batting. She makes the case that, since Brown found her own liberation in the workplace, she wanted her Cosmo girls to do what she had done: Use every bit of their smarts and femininity to create opportunities where none seemed to exist. She quotes Brown's observation, "Nothing is as much fun as achieving."

Scanlon sees Brown as an avatar of what has come to be called third wave feminism. The first wave of the early 20th century focused on the struggle for women's suffrage; the second wave of the 1960s and '70s was about collective action to establish gender equality at work and rethink sex roles at home; the third wave, from the 1990s, is loosely characterized by an interest in individual choice and style, an ability to celebrate "girlie" (if not "Gurley") culture. Scanlon places Brown's debut 1962 blockbuster, Sex and the Single Girl, as a bridge between the other girlie culture touchstones, Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City.

Brown, because of her emphasis on seduction (married men not being off-limits), artifice, and make-it-up-as-you-go-along morality, was in her day hated by both those Scanlon calls "moralists" and feminists. Scanlon is not fully convincing in her attempt to set Brown's place in a historic pantheon. She obviously has great affection for her subject, but she strains to fit Brown's ditziness--as Ephron quotes her, "You've got to make yourself more cupcakable all the time so that you're a better cupcake to be gobbled up"--into a larger theoretical framework.

Still, Brown's life is a great story, and Scanlon tells it clearly and without academic jargon. Helen Gurley was born in Arkansas in 1922, the younger of two daughters. Her mother was melancholic and critical, but Helen adored her father, who eventually became an Arkansas state legislator. When Helen was 10 he was killed in a freak elevator accident in the capitol building. It was a blow from which the family never recovered.

Deep into the Depression, the three lit out for Los Angeles, where Helen's older sister, Mary, soon contracted polio, leaving her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Brown supported the two women for the rest of hers. As a young secretary she sent her mother and sister, who had returned to the South, one week of her meager monthly earnings. Brown eventually made her way from the secretarial pool to being a highly successful advertising copywriter with a special knack for selling products to women.

It's a mystery why some people are crushed by painful circumstances and others are motivated to dig themselves out. Brown was a digger. One of her many suitors was the boxer Jack Dempsey (no kidding), and she recalled he said of the two of them that they weren't like some people "who could take shortcuts and get what they wanted," but that she and Dempsey "had to go right through the tunnel .  .  .chug chug chug chug until we came out at the other side."

Her response to her early life was an almost pathological optimism, what seems to be a belief that if she stopped moving forward she would be returned to her family's slough of despond. It's easy to see why the childless Brown thought creating a family meant the crushing of hope, not a new beginning.

Without her father's death she surely would have grown up comfortable in Arkansas and followed the expected path of marriage and family. Because she didn't, Scanlon asserts that Brown became an important figure in loosening the grip of the cultural expectation that if a woman hadn't found a husband and retired from the workplace by her mid-twenties she was destined to a life of sad spinsterhood.

In Sex and the Single Girl Brown asserts that, for a female, being single is not simply a way station until the real life of marriage begins but an exciting time in itself, full of self-discovery, accomplishment, and sex, and in many ways preferable to the drudgery of being a wife. But had Brown simply gone onto wifely drudgery and not written her book or invented the Cosmo girl, the rebellion against this domestic imperative still would have taken place.

If Bad Girls Go Everywhere does not convince that Brown is the historic figure Scanlon makes her to be, that doesn't mean she's an insignificant figure, either. Brown had an uncanny ability to package--she put her years as an advertising copywriter to good use--the things women thought and did, but weren't supposed to say. At age 43--with no previous magazine experience!--she took over a moribund, directionless publication (Cosmopolitan had been around for 80 years), remade it an extension of herself, and reliably sold millions of copies every month for decades. (And she's still at it in her eighties as editor of Cosmopolitan International.)

She inspired great loyalty among her staff, and the fervid gratitude of her readers. She struggled with insecurities, but knew her own worth. When Tina Brown was editor of the New Yorker, Gurley Brown was asked to compare herself to the celebrated editor. Gurley Brown said that Tina Brown was the "most brilliant editor in the world," and then added: "But there's something that I do that she doesn't do, which is make money for her publisher."

Emily Yoffe is the author, most recently, of  What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.