Jennifer Scanlon's biography of Helen Gurley Brown.

Reading between the lines.
May 12 2009 6:50 AM

Helen Gurley Brown's Sexy Mistake

She was obsessed with the wrong revolution.

"Bad Girls Go Everywhere" by Jennifer Scanion

Sprawled across the cover of Jennifer Scanlon's new biography of Helen Gurley Brown is Brown herself, leaning back awkwardly on a heap of pillows in a tight, leopard-skin blouse and gold chains. Her blond hair is slightly tousled, and her face is immobile behind a pink-and-white mask of makeup. Brown is 87 now but looks ageless. Or, rather, she looks determined to look ageless. Or, rather—oh, never mind, the truth is she looks like Geriatric Barbie, and somebody should have told her so. But truth has never been Brown's favorite accessory, and, as this book makes clear, she chooses her accessories with great care.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere is the first biography of Brown, though it's hardly the first book written about her. In fact, she's been writing and rewriting her own story for nearly half a century, first in her best-selling manifesto Sex and the Single Girl (1962), later in various spinoffs (The Late Show, The Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown, I'm Wild Again), and of course by proxy in the pages of Cosmopolitan, the phenomenally successful magazine she edited from 1965 to 1997. According to Scanlon, a professor of women's studies at Bowdoin, Brown granted her full access to some 50 cartons' worth of personal and professional papers housed at the Smith College library, agreed to be interviewed, and then stepped aside, never even asking to read the manuscript.

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A biographer's dream—except that Scanlon had about as much chance of coming up with the "real" Brown as one of Brown's innumerable plastic surgeons, who presumably also had complete access to the raw material. This is a thoughtful and well-researched book, and Scanlon clearly respects her subject, but stored away in those cartons is a blood-curdling tangle of myth and misogyny that's going to take a whole team of forensic biographers to unravel someday.

Scanlon says at the outset that she believes Brown has been one of the major forces in the postwar women's movement, right up there with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. It's not the world's easiest argument to make—she's talking about someone who called Playboy a "terrific" magazine; described her own book as "a girlish, gurgling, non-literary kind of thing"; and advised any woman over 40 that she better get good at "sucking, handling and, most of all, admiring" her man's penis because from now on, sex was going to be about him, not her.

But if you offload the simpering and try to see Brown as a working-class strategist, as Scanlon does, it's possible to work up a different perspective. In her view, Brown was an early exponent of "lipstick feminism," a concept I've never fully understood except that the clothes are cute and you don't go around nagging the power structure all the time about equality and changing the system. Scanlon places Brown on a continuum of smart, seductive women starting with Lorelei Lee, the flapper supported by a string of dimwitted sugar daddies in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), and culminating in Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.

The problem with this analysis is that Lorelei, Carrie, et al., really are fictional characters, while Brown only plays one. In the version of her life that she's been telling throughout her career, young Helen starts out as a "mouseburger"—a girl with neither looks nor money—and puts a ferocious amount of hard work into becoming a very sexy secretary and then a very sexy copywriter. She puts even more hard work into getting the rich, brilliant, and sexy David Brown to marry her, and he finally surrenders. Victory! Today, the two of them are richer and more brilliant than ever, still working hard at their careers and still very sexy. And it can happen to you.

Brown never bothers to parse the contradictions here, and Scanlon, too, prefers to let them pass. As she sees it, Brown was way ahead of most other midcentury advice-givers, urging her readers "to make choices independent of the needs or opinions of men." It's not clear how Scanlon extracts this message from, say, Sex and the Single Girl, which was entirely and enthusiastically devoted to telling women how to sit, stand, eat, drink, dress, do their hair, talk, listen to music, and decorate their apartments in ways guaranteed to please men. To be sure, Cosmopolitan never panned the women's movement. Early on, the magazine ran articles about abortion, consciousness-raising, and date rape. But when AIDS and sexual harassment threatened to take the fun out of sex, Brown decided her readers were better off ignorant. Her idea of women's liberation was a lot like Hugh Hefner's—a geisha in a bikini—and for every article she ran about careers, there were a dozen about the marriage market.

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