Wednesday, August 15, 2012

162: The Self-Empowered Woman: Helen Gurley Brown

Dear Followers,

Helen Gurley Brown

"My" issue

This week, Helen Gurley Brown, one of America's most controversial Self-Empowered Women died. As The New York Times reported, "She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger."

Before I tell you about her life, let me share with you how she touched mine. The magazine cover you see above, is from February 1980, and the words by the model's left elbow ["The Diary of a Woman Whose Husband Left Her (for Another Woman). Some Horror Stories, but a Happy Ending"] refer to the serialization of my first book. Diary of a Divorced Mother had just been published, and by including it in her magazine (with a mention on the cover!), Helen Gurley Brown changed my world overnight.

Born in Green Forest, Arkansas, her mother was a former teacher and her father (also a teacher), served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission before he was elected (when Helen was a baby) to the Arkansas State Legislature. After his election, the family moved to Little Rock, where in 1932 (when she was ten years old), he died in an elevator accident (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  

Although her "goals" were not clear cut, even as a child Helen made no secret of the fact that she had big dreams. In her 1982 book Having It All, she recalled her dislike of the family's Arkansas roots "I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me--ordinary, hillbilly and poor--and I repudiated it from the time I was seven years old" (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

After her father's death, her mother, older sister (Mary) and Helen moved to Los Angeles in 1937. Shortly afterwards, Mary contracted Polio and remained paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. With a depressed and financially burdened mother, as well as a disabled sister, it was obvious that Helen was going to be the family breadwinner (12: Hard Times).

In high school, she was the valedictorian of her class (10: The Critic Within), but there was no money for her to complete college at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman's University.) So she returned to Los Angeles, and graduated from secretarial school in 1941.

During this time, when she was 19 and anxious to earn more money for her family, she answered an ad looking for "young women for social evenings." She thought she could earn $5 for simply having dinner with "a gentleman," but learned that there was more to the job than she'd expected. She only had one dinner, one $5 bill, and one very disappointed escort.

Helen went on to work at 17 different secretarial jobs (14: Selective Disassociation), and didn't mind flirting with bosses if it helped her support her family. Finally she became a successful (actually, one of the country's highest paid) advertising copywriter, but--in an era when an unmarried 23 year old was considered an old maid--she always felt somewhat stigmatized by her humble beginnings.

She later wrote that she never felt pretty, and suffered from uncontrollable acne. She coined the word "mouseburger," which she used to describe women like herself who were "physically unprepossesing with little money and few prospects." Mouseburger became for women what milquetoast was for men.

Perhaps to compensate for her lack of confidence about her looks, she overcompensated regarding the things she could control. At 5 foot 4, she kept her weight at 100 pounds, which she claimed was 5 pounds heavier than her ideal weight. And she spoke candidly about her nose job, breast augmentation, face and eye lift as well as silicone and fat injections (6: Life is Not A Beauty Pageant).

When she was 37, she married David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan who had become a Hollywood producer. (His later hits included The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy, among others.) In 1962 (the year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique) Helen published Sex and The Single Girl, which was designed to tell single women how to look their best, get men to love (and eventually marry) them, and have fun while doing so. The book became a runaway best seller, and Helen Gurley Brown became a household name. In 1964, a movie of the same title (starring Natalie Wood) was released, and the Brown's moved to New York.

Even though Helen had never been an editor, the Hearst Corporation asked her to take over Cosmopolitan, which was floundering. From her first issue in July 1965, she turned the formerly staid publication into a magazine that told women that sex could be recreational, and could even be used to acquire the right husband, the right career and the right designer labels. She was 43 when she became editor and admitted that the Cosmo Girl was the young women she had dreamed of being two decades earlier--a child of the Ozarks, indeed (8: Turning No Into Yes).

But her sexy magazine covers and advice on "seducing" men weren't always appreciated. In 1970, Kate Millett and a group of angry feminists staged a sit-in at Helen's office, and even in 1988 (and later) the magazine's stance on AIDS and sexual harassment met with disapproval (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Helen worked as Cosmopolitan's editor-in-chief from 1965 until 1997, and when she left, Cosmo ranked sixth in sales at newsstands, and for the 16th straight year was first in sales at bookstores on college campuses. Overall declining circulation, however, indicated to management that she might have lost touch with younger readers, and she was replaced by Bonnie Fuller. Because the magazine had been the focus of her life for four decades, Helen stayed on as editor of Cosmopolitan's 59 international editions (7: Magnificent Obsession).

In 2008, Slate Magazine named her as the 13th most powerful American over the age of 80; when she died, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said "Today New York City lost 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." This year she donated $30 million to Columbia and Stanford Universities (both of which her husband attended), to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Looking forward to your comments...

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