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'Cosmo' Editor Helen Gurley Brown Dies At 90

Aug 13, 2012
Originally published on August 14, 2012 5:22 pm

Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, died Monday in New York at age 90.

If Cosmo was her biggest legacy, it was her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl, that launched her to fame. She was 40, with a high-paying job in advertising and a recent marriage to Hollywood producer David Brown.

But she was writing for the single girls, not her privileged peers, says Jennifer Scanlon, author of a Brown biography called Bad Girls Go Everywhere.

"Helen Gurley Brown to me represents sort of a working-class feminism," Scanlon says. "She cared about women who worked as airline stewardesses or as receptionists."

Brown called them "mouseburgers" — "people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don't have a particularly high IQ, a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets," as she put it.

To the mouseburgers, she said: Ignore those who tell you to hurry up and marry. This is your prime. Enjoy your singlehood! Oh, and feel free to have as much sex as you want — and can get.

Remember, this was 1962, a year before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique came out.

"What she did liberate was the idea that women have sexual desire," says Scanlon, who notes that Brown wrote frankly, even proudly, about her many lovers during her single years — with married men, co-workers and celebrities.

Sex and the Single Girl flew off the shelves; fans sent her heaps of letters, and it began her lifelong franchise.

"She's relentlessly out there," Scanlon recalls. "She's on television, she has a syndicated newspaper column, she's on the radio ..."

In 1965, Brown's sex-positive, ultra-optimistic message got her all the way to the helm of Cosmopolitan magazine. At the time, it was a foundering monthly known for fiction. Without any editing experience, she turned it into the wildly popular, sexy, women-focused, hugely profitable glossy we know today.

By the time she was gently shown the door in 1997, after more than 30 years, the magazine had become an icon, with decades' worth of variations on "how to please your man." And Brown, too, had become an icon — of ruthless glamour, wealth and sexual freedom.

But there was something else she cared passionately about: financial self-sufficiency for women — getting a job and working your way up, like she did.

Hers was a real rags-to-riches story. Her father died when she was young, her mother was depressive, and her sister was paralyzed by polio, a beginning she recounted in her '80s best-seller Having It All, which tracked her from her Arkansas childhood through 17 secretarial jobs in Los Angeles to the editor's desk at Cosmo.

It was a job she was extraordinarily good at, and it brought her huge success. But Helen Gurley Brown was always at pains to emphasize her mouseburger status — that she wasn't particularly talented or smart, she just set her mind to something and worked at it.

She told her readers constantly that the way to get what you want from life is not through your man, but through your work.

"A job is where the money, the success, and the clout come from," she wrote. "It doesn't matter where you start, what matters is starting and hanging in."

I did it, she said again and again — and you, my dear, can too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Helen Gurley Brown has been called a bad girl, a pioneer in Prada, a revolutionary in stilettos. For 32 years, Brown was editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Before that, she wrote the best seller, "Sex and the Single Girl," which launched both her fame and her notoriety. Helen Gurley Brown died today at the age of 90.

NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has this remembrance.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Before there could be "Sex and the City"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) Remember that guy that I was going out with? Oh, God, what was his name? Drew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) Drew.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...there was "Sex and the Single Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as Character) When I do get married, it's not going to be for love or sex or romance. I can get all of those things outside of marriage.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That film was based on Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 bestseller. She wrote it when she was 40. She had a high paying job in advertising and had recently married Hollywood producer, David Brown. She wrote to the single girls, not the privileged women, says Jennifer Scanlon, author of a biography of Brown called "Bad Girls Go Everywhere."

JENNIFER SCANLON: Helen Gurley Brown, to me, represents a sort of a working class feminism. She cared about women who worked as airline stewardesses or as receptionists.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Helen Gurley Brown called them mouse burgers. Here's how she described them reading one of her several memoirs.

HELEN GURLEY BROWN: People who are not prepossessing, not pretty don't have a particularly high IQ, a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: To the mouse burgers, she said, ignore those who tell you to hurry up and marry. This is your prime. Enjoy your singlehood. Oh, and feel free to have as much sex as you want and can get. Remember, this was 1962, a year before "The Feminine Mystique" came out.

SCANLON: What she did liberate was the idea that women had sexual desire.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Biographer Jennifer Scanlon says that Brown wrote frankly, even proudly about her many lovers during her single years with married men, co-workers and celebrities. "Sex and the Single Girl" flew off the shelves. Fans sent her heaps of letters and it began her lifelong franchise.

SCANLON: She's relentlessly out there. She's on television. She has a syndicated newspaper column, she's on the radio.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown's sex positive, ultra-optimistic message got her all the way to the helm of Cosmopolitan magazine. At the time, it was floundering as a monthly known for fiction. Without any editing experience, she turned it into the wildly popular sexy, women-focused, hugely profitable glossy we know today.

By the time she was gently shown the door in 1997, after over 30 years, the magazine had become an icon. Decades worth of variations on how to please your man. She, too, had become an icon of ruthless glamour, wealth and sexual freedom. But there was another issue Helen Gurley Brown cared passionately about - financial self-sufficiency for women. Getting a job and working your way up, like she did.

Hers was a real rags-to-riches story. Her father died when she was young, her mother was depressive and her sister paralyzed by polio, a beginning she recounted in her '80s best seller called "Having It All."

BROWN: From a problem ripe youth spent in Little Rock, Osage and Green Forest, Arkansas, through 17 secretarial jobs in Los Angeles to my present job at Cosmo in New York...

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It was a job she was extraordinarily good at and brought her huge success, but Helen Gurley Brown was always at pains to emphasize her mouse burger status, that she wasn't particularly talented or smart. She just set her mind to something and worked at it. She told her readers constantly that the way to get what you want from life is not through your man, but is through...

BROWN: Your job. A job is where the money, the success and the clout come from. It doesn't matter where you start. What matters is starting and hanging in.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I did it, she said again and again, and you, my dear, can, too. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.