NEW YORK | Before there was “Sex and the City,” there was “Sex and the Single Girl.” And before there was Carrie Bradshaw, there was Helen Gurley Brown.
True, Carrie, the fun-loving and fashionable sex columnist of the HBO series, was fictional. But such was the influence of Brown, the long-serving Cosmopolitan editor (and “Sex and the Single Girl” author) who died Monday at age 90, that her admirers reached into pop culture as well as recent American history to describe her importance.
“Carrie and her friends couldn’t have lived the lives they did without Helen,” said Bonnie Fuller, the celebrity editor who succeeded Brown at Cosmopolitan in 1997. “She was the first woman to say you could have it all — and by that she meant a career AND a man AND a hot sex life. She was a visionary. She created the modern woman.”
And why limit talk of her influence to the United States? “Hers has been a liberating message for women in other countries, too,” said Kate White, current editor of Cosmopolitan. “It’s about choice — choosing the life you want, and not worrying about what people think.”
And, well, having fun — in the bedroom, to be precise. After all, why should sex be fun only for men? Brown’s motto was emblazoned on a pillow in her office, says White: “Good girls go to heaven,” it said. “Bad girls go everywhere.”
White recalled on Monday that she was in high school when her mother gave her a gift: “Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown’s million-selling 1962 advice book on how to get a man (and enjoy doing it.) Mom was quick to advise the young Kate that she should skip over the saucy tips. But she knew her daughter wanted to be in publishing. “She’s a blueprint for you,” Mom said.
It wasn’t just women who were hailing Brown as a visionary, of course: New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg called her “a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation’s culture. She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print.”
And none other than Hugh Hefner called her “a very important and independent voice related to the changing of women’s’ roles.”
In a telephone interview, the Playboy founder and publisher said he first met Brown, who later became a good friend, in a phone call after she wrote “Sex and the Single Girl.” Brown was interested in creating what Hefner called a women’s version of Playboy; Hefner felt he was too busy. A few years later in 1965, when she was hired by Hearst Magazines to revamp the lagging Cosmopolitan, Hefner gave her advice, he said. (He takes a little credit for Brown’s famous 1972 Burt Reynolds nude centerfold, saying it was a nod to his magazine.)
Though Brown featured big-haired women with deep cleavage on her covers, she herself was a tiny, almost frail-looking woman, 5 feet 4 and about 100 pounds — a weight she maintained through vigorous diet and exercise.
“You can’t be sexual at 60 if you’re fat,” she observed on her 60th birthday. Or wrinkled, apparently: She spoke freely of her own multiple cosmetic surgeries, including a nose job, facelifts and silicone injections.
Helen Gurley was born Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark. As a young girl, she earned pocket money by giving other kids dance lessons. Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles.
After high school, where she was valedictorian, and with typing and shorthand learned at a business college, she went through a long series of secretarial jobs at places like the William Morris Agency, the Daily News in Los Angeles, and, in 1948, the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. There, when finally given a shot at writing ad copy, she began winning prizes and was hired away by Kenyon & Eckhardt, which made her the highest-paid woman in advertising on the West Coast.
At 37, she married the twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor-turned-movie producer, whose credits would include “The Sting” and “Jaws.” They would have no children, by choice, she said.
He encouraged her to write a book. When “Sex and the Single Girl” became a top seller, they moved to New York. A movie version of the book ensued, with Natalie Wood playing a character named Helen Gurley Brown who had no resemblance to the original. According to Hearst, “Sex and the Single Girl” has been translated into 16 languages and published in 28 countries.
Brown and her husband pitched a women’s magazine idea at Hearst, which turned it down, but hired her to run Cosmopolitan instead. It became her platform for 32 years.
She said at the outset that her aim was to tell a reader “how to get everything out of life — the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity — whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against.”
“It was a terrific magazine,” she said, looking back when she surrendered the editorship of the U.S. edition in 1997. “I would want my legacy to be, ‘She created something that helped people.’ My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own.”
But Brown and Cosmo didn’t please some feminists. “The stuff on pleasing men hit the wrong note for some women,” said White, the current editor. “I don’t think the feminists recognized that her message was one of empowerment.”
At the beginning, many certainly didn’t. There was a sit-in at her office a few years after she took over. Kate Millet, who took part, said of the magazine: “The entire message seemed to be ‘Seduce your boss, then marry him.'”
Indeed, Brown championed office sex. “I’ve never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office,” she told New York magazine in 1982. Asked whether that included the boss, she said, “Why discriminate against him?”
Another early critic was feminist writer Betty Friedan, who dismissed the magazine as “immature teenage-level sexual fantasy” but later changed her tune and said Brown, “in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women.”
Indeed, some say today that Brown was the essence of a feminist. Fuller, who now edits Hollywood Life, is one: “She let women know they could have satisfaction in their lives.”
At Cosmopolitan, Brown quickly turned things around. Within four issues, circulation, which had fallen below the 800,000 readers guaranteed to advertisers, was on the rise, even with the newsstand price increasing from 35 cents to 50 and then 60 cents.
Sales grew every year until peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, then slowly leveled off to 2.5 million at $2.95 a copy, where it was when Brown left the top job in 1997.
In 1967 Brown also hosted a TV talk show, “Outrageous Opinions,” syndicated in 19 cities. She also went on to write five more books, including “Having It All” in 1982 and in 1993, at age 71, “The Late Show,” which was subtitled: “A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50.”
“My own philosophy is if you’re not having sex, you’re finished,” she said at the time.
Former Associated Press writer Rayner Pike, National Writer Hillel Italie in New York and entertainment writer Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this report.