Bad girls go everywhere
She edited 'Cosmopolitan' for thirty years, wrote the cult classic 'Sex And The Single Girl' and encouraged women to use sexuality as a powerful tool. Johanna Gohmann looks at the life of the feminist firebrand and original Cosmo Girl
I can clearly remember the first time I got my hands on a Cosmopolitan magazine. I was about 11, and far too young for the publication. When my older sister carelessly left a copy within my reach, I snatched it up and quickly became engrossed in an article about how to have a "picnic in bed" with your lover.
Right about the time I got to the part involving some rather unusual practices with jam, my mother caught me, and the magazine was ripped from my grasp.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman on the planet who hasn't encountered Cosmo. Whether she faithfully subscribes, or scornfully flicks through it at the hairdressers, the magazine has probably made it into every woman's hands at some point. It is currently distributed in more than 100 countries, and reaches more than 100 million women around the world. Yet, while so many are familiar with the Cosmo Quiz and the seemingly endless lists on how to "drive a man crazy" (in bed, preferably), not everyone knows that their original creator is a wiry 5ft 4in octogenarian.
Helen Gurley Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan from 1965 to 1997, and her tenure there would forever change the face of women's magazines. In a new biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon recounts the fascinating life of this media icon, and explains the immense impact she's had on feminism and pop culture. Scanlon makes the very credible case that without Helen Gurley Brown, there would never have been a Carrie Bradshaw -- a notion that might rock many a foot back on its stiletto heel.
While it is an 'unauthorised' biography, Scanlon did have access to all of Brown's published and unpublished letters and writings. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and provocative look at the original 'Cosmo Girl'.
Scanlon takes pains to examine the many complexities and contradictions that swirl around Brown's legacy, and the book appears to be part-biography, part bid to secure Brown's place in history as a 'feminist trailblazer'. This last bit proves to be a rather tricky undertaking for Scanlon, as Brown was famous for quotes such as: "If you're not a sex object, you're in trouble."
Helen Gurley Brown grew up in small-town Arkansas, the daughter of a politician and housewife. When Brown was 10 years old, her father was killed in a freak elevator accident, leaving the family on the edge of poverty. Brown's mother took on odd jobs to keep them afloat, and they relocated to LA in 1937.
Tragedy struck again when Helen's sister, Mary, contracted polio. The disease paralysed her legs, and she would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. Brown's mother sank into a depression, and Brown quickly became the head of the household. She finished high school, where she was an extremely popular and ambitious student, despite struggling with bad acne. After high school, she attended one semester of college, but, due to financial difficulties, she had to drop out and enter secretarial school. She did dozens of clerical jobs and scrounged to support her family.
She also began to dip into the dating pool. Although, for her, it was more of a dive straight into the deep end -- she dated countless men.
Male attention was something new for her, as, prior to her wild dating days, she'd never considered herself desirable. She had even coined a term for herself to describe her average beauty: 'Mouseburger.' But once men took notice of her, Brown kicked aside her Mouseburger ways and began to carefully cultivate her sex appeal: a mish-mash of style, sharp wit and short skirts.
This sex appeal would play a large part in her working life, as every job Brown took, no matter how mundane, appeared to be a sexual playground. Reading about Brown's working conditions back then, is like watching an episode of Mad Men. Apparently, at one job, it was common practice for men to "playfully" chase the women around the office and pull off their underwear. Interestingly, Brown didn't find this problematic. Even years later, she looked back on this kind of harassment as rather harmless. This stance explains why she is often left off the roll call of Great Feminists.
Brown was willing to play by whatever rules necessary to make a better life for herself. She believed a woman's sexuality to be a powerful tool, and she had no problem using it to coax gifts and money from men. For her, it was merely the way the game was played. Women's options then were either: get married, have children and let your husband support you; or toil forever in a low-paying job. Brown had zero interest in either, so she found a way to work the system. If men expected her to be a sex kitten, well, she would expect them to be sugar daddies. She even briefly lived as a 'kept woman', letting a man ensconce her in a fancy apartment. However, she soon grew bored with this arrangement and was happy when he cut her loose.
After many years on the secretarial circuit, a supportive employer finally smiled upon Brown. She was given her first non-clerical duties: writing copy for an advertising campaign. Her flair with words quickly became evident, and, after numerous promotions, she became the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast.
When she hit her thirties, Brown began to seriously entertain the notion of getting married. The fact that she managed to hold off as long as she did was truly remarkable for a woman of her time. The average age to get married then was 19. Women who remained single into their late twenties were considered societal misfits, while women in their thirties were officially spinsters.
But Brown refused to settle. She could have married numerous times, but she held off. If she were to marry, it would have to be on her terms. Her husband would have to be okay with her decision to never have children, and would have to be 100pc supportive of her career -- a pretty tall order for the 1950s, to say the least. But Brown finally met her match in David Brown, a magazine-editor-turned-film-producer. David was already twice married, and had a teenage son, but Brown was okay with both, and they married in 1959 -- the year Brown turned 37.
David proved to be one of Brown's biggest cheerleaders, as well as her manager. When Brown became bored with her advertising career, it was David who suggested she pen a book on her experiences as a single career girl. The resulting self-help book, Sex and the Single Girl , became a publishing sensation.
The book was groundbreaking. Never before had a woman dared to write so openly about sex, let alone enjoying sex --and outside the bonds of marriage, at that! Brown offered shockingly frank advice on love affairs, including those with married men. She didn't necessarily approve of adultery, but wasn't about to pretend it didn't happen.
The scandalous content didn't stop there. She also discussed the joys of being single, money management tips and the importance of work for women. She boldly suggested that, while marriage was great for some people, it wasn't at all necessary to a woman's happiness. For the first time, someone was championing the single career girl, rather than the suburban housewife. The media naturally went berserk, and the book promptly sold 50,000 copies in four months. It quickly went on to sell in 35 countries, although Ireland wasn't one of them -- the book was banned here.
Sex and the Single Girl turned Brown into an instant celebrity. She became a talk-show regular, an idol to working women everywhere, and anathema to conservatives and religious leaders. In the wake of her fame, she would try to crack nearly every medium -- film, TV, even board games. Then, in 1965, inspiration struck: she wanted her own women's magazine.
When Brown approached Hearst Publishing with her idea, the company made the incredibly bold offer to let her take over Cosmopolitan as editor-in-chief. Brown happily accepted and, despite, her complete lack of magazine experience, her new, revamped Cosmo was an immediate success. It quickly became the magazine for young women and spawned endless copycats.
Brown's editing formula was simple, as she merely reinforced the ideas from her book: sex is fabulous, style is fun, work is important and women are wonderful. But while the magazine was wildly popular, it certainly wasn't without its detractors. The rising feminist movement of the time loathed Brown's dictates on how to be a purring sex kitty. They didn't care if it came alongside career advice. Brown, however, staunchly maintained that she was a feminist and said: "Cosmo is feminist in that we believe women are just as smart and capable as men and can achieve anything they want. But it also acknowledges that, while work is important, men are, too. The Cosmo Girl absolutely loves men!"
Brown strongly believed women could be whatever they wanted, but they didn't have to sacrifice sex or style in the process. This glammed-up brand of feminism would eventually rise up in the form of a shimmering, four-headed dragon named Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte.
For as shocking as Brown could be, she had the potential to stir up even greater controversy. She had incredibly progressive views on homosexuality, and often tried to insert positive articles on lesbianism. Unfortunately, her bosses and publishers always quashed these efforts.
Brown continued to rankle the masses well into the 1990s, with her man-pleasing tips and "sex as a useful tool" advice. But when she made an off-the-cuff remark about sexual harassment in 1991, it would prove to be her undoing. The CEOs at Hearst asked the ageing editor to move into a different position within the company. She begrudgingly accepted.
And she's still at it. At the age of 87, she remains the international editor for 59 international editions of the magazine.
Scanlon makes the point that, while Brown's legacy will always be marred by controversy, there can never be any question that she was a cultural revolutionary.
While the Cosmo of today might not echo her original sentiments, the gospel she once preached will always be worth shouting from the rooftops.
"So you're single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don't just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother.
"Don't use men to get what you want in life -- get it for yourself."