Book Review: Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 2007, had a massive impact on American women’s lives, pop culture, and how mainstream magazines targeted female readership on a global level. Gerri Hirshey’s fascinating new biography Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, empathetically examines the complex woman’s extraordinary life and partially explains why no matter how successful she was, how much money she made, or how many professional awards she won, this child of the Depression struggled with dark self-loathing and nagging fears. The only times she seems to have been able to relax and enjoy herself for even a minute were at work and during sex.
Helen was born in 1922 to a “hillbilly” family in the Ozarks in Arkansas. She lost her beloved father in a freak elevator accident at a young age and grew up in grinding poverty with a shitshow of a perpetually negative, bitter mother and a sister who contracted polio. Adding to Helen’s already difficult circumstances, she endured scarring cystic acne and constant criticism from her mother about her appearance. She went to psychologists and therapists nonstop beginning at age 22 until her very last years in an attempt to combat these internalized negative messages. Even with decades of therapy, she remained a bundle of neuroses – body dysmorphia, anorexia, exercise bulimia, anxiety, depression, Daddy issues, worries about money, and constant fear of abandonment.
Her interest in psychotherapy was very unusual in the 1940s, as was her fascination with sexual behavior. She remembered being curious about her body as a little girl, and starved of any erotic images or basic physiological information in ‘30s and ‘40s Arkansas and southern California, she looked at illustrations of trusses, bedpans, and enemas in the medical equipment section of the Sears Roebuck catalog.
Helen didn’t lose her virginity until she was in her early twenties, flouting society’s strict expectation of women in the ‘40s and ‘50s to remain virgins until marriage. A teenage uncle in Arkansas had tried to penetrate her when she was eleven but was physically unable to. Supposedly she had discovered in high school that she could have an orgasm solely from kissing. Whether or not that assertion was true, she quickly learned that sex was not only a delight but an equalizer: men couldn’t care less that she wasn’t conventionally pretty between the sheets, where she excelled. Feeling sexy, desired, and well fucked was better than feeling beautiful.
Her work history mainly consisted of a series of dull secretarial jobs in LA for seventeen years, finally ending up at a major advertising agency, where she eventually became the highest paid female ad copywriter on the West Coast. She had no interest in settling down and becoming a mother, but a solvent husband willing to help her support her mother and sister would have been nice. In the early ‘90s when stricter sexual harassment legislation was first passed in the wake of the Anita Hill hearings in Washington, D.C., Helen was mystified by the very idea of sexual harassment and rules about how men and women should properly behave in the workplace. “I’ve never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office,” she boasted.
Along the way she experimented with being a part-time kept woman for one of her married bosses, a strange, controlling, anti-Semitic psychopath who insisted that she still work at his office despite their arrangement. Her experiment as a mistress ended when her lover failed to produce the real estate and stock portfolio he had been promising her. The fact that the situation was bothering her to the point where she couldn’t have an orgasm with him anymore – and as she maintained, “As far as I remember, I always had an orgasm” — probably also hastened the end of the relationship.
In a typical fit of oversharing, Helen admitted to bedding 178 partners before she married at age 37 in 1959. She read everything about sex she could find, even dry psychological studies and the Kinsey reports. She even enlisted the help of an agent at the Music Corporation of America (MCA) to learn how to effectively talk dirty. There was one philandering abusive narcissist she always referred to as Don Juan, but none of her other affairs appear to have been unpleasant or dramatic at all. It’s really hard to believe that there were no stalkers, bullies, obsessive creeps, or indiscreet married men with jealous wives among her 178 (plus the extramarital affair partners she had into her eighties), but her only complaint about any former lover was receiving less than generous gifts from him.
After her ruthlessly planned and pursued marriage to movie producer David Brown, Helen began to write her magnum opus, the shocking Sex and the Single Girl during unexpected down time at work. Although happily married, she obviously missed her years as a self-supporting single woman. She set out to advise young working women with no particularly special attributes or privileged backgrounds (whom she called mouseburgers) how to succeed and have great lives. “Perhaps you will reconsider the idea that sex without marriage is dirty,” she wrote. “You inherited your proclivity for sex. It isn’t some random piece of mischief you dreamed up because you’re a bad, wicked girl.”
David encouraged her writing, acting as literary agent for Sex and the Single Girl, finally published in 1962, as well as selling the movie rights. When she became a controversial minor celebrity, if a slut-shamed one, he pitched the idea of a new magazine called Femme for young single women to contacts he had at the ultraconservative Hearst Corporation. Rather than start up a new magazine, Hearst gave David and Helen the failing Cosmopolitan, then an unremarkable, dowdy, boring matron’s magazine. Using her book as a template, Helen served as Cosmo’s editor for 32 years, with David advising her and writing tantalizing cover blurbs.
Cosmopolitan revolutionized women’s magazines entirely, discussing birth control, divorce, abortion, the etiquette of sleeping over at a man’s apartment, traveling alone, and making diet, health, and exercise far more regular topics than they otherwise would have been. Second Wave feminists were horrified by her overt girliness, her short skirts and fishnet stockings even as a senior citizen, and her insistence that a rich, full life includes a man – or several. She didn’t add that a rich, full life might include a woman (or both). Hearst frowned on any articles about lesbians, which was a bizarre omission considering the omnipresent thin, sultry, cleavage-baring model on every cover. The Cosmo Girl, however aspirational, was clearly Helen’s personal fantasy girl. Jennifer Scanlon’s 2009 biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, mentions a lesbian affair Helen had during her single years, but there is nothing about this interlude in Hirshey’s book. Always self-conscious of her own flat chest in stark contrast to the Cosmo Girl’s majestic “boo-som,” Helen didn’t splurge on breast implants until she was 82.
Hearst didn’t remove Helen from the editorship until she was 85, long after she was too old to be the big sister dispensing advice about financial planning, careers, and blow jobs. Not that that ever stopped her. She continued writing until her death in 2012.