The death of Helen Gurley Brown two days ago has given every obituary writer a shot at disproving the adage de mortuis nil nisi bonum. The New York Times cracked, "She was 90, but parts of her were considerably younger"—alluding to Brown's pathological addiction to plastic surgery during her declining years. The Wall Street Journal blamed Brown's gospel of unlimited sexual adventure for the current deluge of out-of-wedlock births. Feminists screamed that Brown deserved no praise, because her particular brand of feminism—making herself agreeable to men, and then squeezing them for expensive gifts—amounted to capitulation to the patriarchy.
Helen Gurley Brown deserves her due, however, and here it is: She had grit. She was a "hillbilly" from Arkansas, she wasn't particularly pretty (although she had gorgeous hair), and she had to work hard for everything she got. Her father died when she was a teenager, leaving her while still in high school as the sole support for a destitute mother and a sister paralyzed from polio—all holed up in a shabby Los Angeles apartment. She had to make up for it all with brains, style, ambition, and yes, low morals. But brains were the major component, as she hoisted herself from lowly secretary to advertising copywriter by dint of working harder than anyone else in the office. She transformed herself into a simulacrum of glamor—so that all those affairs with married men became just a prelude to what she really wanted, a long and highly successful marriage to a wealthy and devoted husband. And she, the advocate of unrestrained bedroom (and office) frolicking as a "single girl," became a devoted and monomaniacally faithful wife.
She was also alarmingly politically incorrect. She preached femininity, careful attention to one's appearance, and the care and feeding of men—which made her a hate-object for feminists. She was not afraid to voice in public the two unspoken truths that are now anathema: that a woman's looks are her most important possession (so make the most of whatever you've got), and that finding a good husband is a woman's most important goal. In 1988 she wrote an article that got her into a lot of trouble as editor of Cosmopolitan, pointing out that AIDS was a disease of gay men and intravenous drug users, and that women were in no danger as long as they avoided sleeping with the latter--it was something you couldn't say then and you can't say now. She stood up for Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, although in a typically Gurley Brown way, by maintaining that workplace sexual harassment was actually a lot of fun.
In the end, she became a visual grotesque; she was, in a sense, her own picture of Dorian Gray. She also made a vulgar mess out of Cosmopolitan, although a highly lucrative vulgar mess that continues to bear her stamp to this day. She subscribed to the admonition, "If you can't be good, be careful." And if you can't be good, be classy. Helen Gurley Brown in her prime was the classiest of courtesans. It's too bad that she missed an opportunity to teach generations of young women be likewise.