When Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012 at age 90—and was cremated in a Pucci dress—she had spent her career giving voice to desires previously off-limits in public. She had transformed Cosmopolitan from a dying general-interest magazine into a widely read monthly celebrating women’s pursuit of sex; for three decades, and during successive feminist waves, the magazine dominated the market for women’s publications. She had published thousands of articles about overcoming hang-ups and achieving orgasms in prose she made “baby simple” with words like “pippy-poo.” For the women who read her regularly, her work offered necessary encouragement. “There are a lot of women out there who need help and they are $100 and 50 miles away from a psychiatrist, and what we are trying to do is absolve them of guilt by letting them know they’re not alone,” Brown told The New York Times Magazine in 1974, nine years after she took over Cosmo.
The reaction she provoked among feminists and intellectuals was often closer to horror. “Her market seems to be composed of people who ordinarily set eyes on a book only when Johnny Carson holds one up,” wrote Joan Didion in a 1965 profile. In the view of Nora Ephron, “She is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are well over a million American women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female-liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man.” The feminist group New York Radical Women attacked her as “Aunt Tom of the Month” in the first issue of their broadside, Notes From the First Year. Kate Millett occupied her office and demanded that she attend a consciousness-raising meeting. Many saw her as toxic, elevating man-pleasing above all else. She was widely scorned for avoiding race or for dealing with it clumsily in articles like “What It Means to Be a Negro Girl” and “The Black Man Turns Me On.”
Two new biographies attempt to redeem Brown: Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey and Enter Helen by Brooke Hauser. Both praise her tenacity and vision at the helm of Cosmopolitan. For Hauser, Brown’s work as an editor and writer is foremost about independence, achieved by a woman who “was a much more serious person than she presented herself to be.” “She was the unlikeliest of sirens,” Hirshey writes, with a “sincere and underrated feminism.” Yet Brown’s beliefs were often just as retrograde as the ones she claimed to fight. Why, then, is she still appealing? (Two new biographies?) These books point to an answer.
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Brown was born, as she would later describe it, “ordinary, hillbilly and poor” in a small village in the Ozarks in 1922. Her father, Ira, was an aspiring politician; her mother, Cleo, was a melancholy housewife with, Brown would say, “as much insight as a waffle.” They lived mostly comfortably until 1932, when Ira jumped into a moving elevator—rumor had it he was chasing a pretty girl—and was crushed to death.
“My shrink says that, given the set of problems I had growing up and as a young woman, it’s quite astonishing I’m not locked away in a mossy little cell somewhere,” Brown would later write in one of her nine confessional advice books. The struggles of her childhood—and her own success in spite of them—became the source material for her writing and for her conception of the insecure, shy, and eager “Cosmo Girl” that her magazine would target. Unable to support Helen and her sister Mary, Cleo drove them across the country to look for an ex-boyfriend she hoped she could marry for stability. The family finally settled for a happy while in California. Then Mary was afflicted with polio and left paralyzed; Helen hoped to attend college but could afford only a single semester. She worked 17 different secretarial jobs before she was 26, then began to find success in Los Angeles as a copywriter.