The Magazine

The Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown is no mouseburger.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By EMILY YOFFE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.