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Culture

How Helen Gurley Brown Turned Herself Into a Cultural Icon

Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown
By Gerri Hirshey
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pages, $27

She told one girlfriend that she had slept with 178 men before her marriage. Even afterward, she never stopped having discreet affairs, using another friend’s apartment for assignations.

Raised in poverty and insecure about her looks, she was anorexic, a workaholic, neurotically frugal, and addicted to psychotherapy and plastic surgery.

At least this is what we learn in Gerri Hirshey’s dishy biography of Helen Gurley Brown, who died in 2012, at 90. One can imagine the author of the best-seller “Sex and the Single Girl” and the longtime Cosmopolitan editor loving this book.

But “Not Pretty Enough” is more than just entertaining gossip. It is also revealing and sympathetic, noting Brown’s missteps while praising her support for career-minded women and reproductive rights.

“[S]ex built her wealth and shaped her public persona,” Hirshey writes. And Brown’s championing of sexual pleasure and freedom for women was no sham: “Behind closed doors, sex thrilled and sustained Helen well into her eighth decade.”

Hirshey, a magazine journalist and the author of books on soul music and female rockers, delves deeply into Brown’s difficult childhood. Left fatherless at 10 (Ira Marvin Gurley, a onetime state representative, died in a bizarre elevator accident), she grew up in Arkansas with acne and a mother hobbled by depression. Later, Brown would refer to herself as a “mouseburger” — an average “girl” who made the most of what she had.

In fact, many men found her alluring. Hirshey writes that Brown became both a “master of sex” and a “prisoner of love” who sometimes bestowed her heart unwisely. As a secretary and, later, copywriter in Los Angeles, she had many light-hearted flings, including liaisons with a besotted Hollywood agent, adoring military men and the prizefighter Jack Dempsey. She became a “kept woman” to a married boss who was overtly anti-Semitic and, worse still, was in thrall for years to a sadistic art director who flaunted evidence of his other affairs. Hirshey identifies this lout as only “DJ,” for Don Juan, because he is still alive.

By contrast, Brown developed a filial relationship with Don Belding, an advertising man who promoted her from executive assistant to copywriter, helped polish her manners and, with his wife, saw her through various heartbreaks.

Another friend helped her target David Brown, a publishing and film magnate who would later co-produce “Jaws,” as a future husband. Twice divorced, he was understandably skittish. But in the end, she was patient and right and happily married at 37.

Though apparently not monogamous (on either side), their marriage endured. David Brown suggested the idea for his wife’s first book, and for many years wrote Cosmo’s notorious cover lines. (His great tragedy was the fate of his son by an earlier marriage, who died of AIDS contracted through intravenous drug use.)

Hirshey says she interviewed Helen Gurley Brown once, for a story on marriage proposals. “She was a reporter’s dream,” the biographer recalled, “dispensing chewy quotes like chocolate truffles.”

In describing Brown, “nice” is the word Hirshey uses repeatedly. Man-crazy as she was, she was deeply loyal to the women in her life, the consummate daughter and girlfriend. Barbara Walters, Gloria Vanderbilt, the gossip maven Liz Smith and many less famous intimates attest to how much fun she could be.

With near-daily letters and lifelong financial subsidies, Brown supported both her sister, Mary Gurley Alford, who suffered from polio and other ailments, and her mother, Cleo Gurley who could be wretchedly critical. When she first read “Sex and the Single Girl,” Cleo Gurley begged that it not be published. She was appalled to learn that her daughter, prior to marrying, had not remained a virgin.

“Sex and the Single Girl” made Brown a star. However modest her literary talents, she excelled at self-promotion. And when she was tagged to reinvent the floundering Cosmopolitan, she had timing on her side. The magazine’s desired demographic of employed single women was growing, and the culture, thanks to the birth-control pill and rising feminist tides, was liberalizing.

Brown’s own relationship with feminism was fraught: Her championing of sex with married men wasn’t exactly at the heart of the feminist message. Hirshey calls her out for largely ignoring the civil rights revolution and the anti-war movement, and especially for downplaying the threat of AIDS to women. (Brown went too far in her denial, but arguably she was on to something: In retrospect, the heterosexual AIDS panic was, as she believed, a weapon wielded by cultural conservatives to derail the sexual revolution.)

Hirshey has other misgivings about Brown’s editorial rein — including the lack of attention to fact in Cosmo articles. But mostly she sees her as a positive cultural force. At 74, Brown (whose behavior had grown erratic) was forced to step down as editor. But she was named editor-in-chief of the magazine’s international editions and stayed on at Hearst until her death.

Though she had access to the Helen Gurley Brown Papers at Smith College, Hirshey was denied permission to quote from them “verbatim and at length” by a co-executor who is a Hearst executive. The company also enjoined its employees from talking to her about Brown.

These constraints have not impeded Hirshey from producing an intimate portrait of a remarkably approachable cultural icon — “a Zelig in Pucci frocks” whose feminism was both “sincere and underrated,” and whose story was “just too good… to be circumscribed by gender politics.”

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein

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