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.

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And where is the feminism, lipstick or otherwise, in Brown's lunatic fear of gaining weight? She's been described as "almost skeletal," and until she was in her 70s she restricted herself to 1,500 calories a day. If she "sinned," as she put it, and consumed more than 1,800 calories a day, she fasted for the next 36 hours. "I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight," she once said—a shockingly stupid bit of dietary advice. What's fascinating about Brown's compulsion to equate eating with criminal behavior is the rigid, terrified puritanism it reveals. If she were anybody else, this would be a textbook case of a woman hating her body and fearing sex. Instead, let's just call it an issue that remains unresolved despite years of therapy.

Even creepier is the story of Brown's marriage, which she herself has always recounted as a charming fairy tale. Scanlon's take isn't exactly skeptical, but she draws on an unpublished memoir in Brown's papers that adds quite a few nuances. David Brown was twice-divorced, homely, and very rich when they met. Helen quickly decided he was the love of her life. She forgave him for the cheap pearls he tossed her way as a Christmas present and was overjoyed when he began allowing her to call his home instead of his answering service.

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When he finally let her drag him to the altar, he insisted they follow the wedding with an evening at a strip club. "Candy is a damned fine stripper and I thought it a perfectly fine place to spend our wedding night," she wrote in the memoir—a statement that deserves a plaque of its own in the Museum of Mysterious Marriages. From that day on, she's been praising his good looks and genius and exulting about how lucky she is to have a husband who applauds her commitment to work. Evidently he's just as happy. "She is not a typical, emasculating, obsessive career woman," he explained to an interviewer.

Typical and emasculating, no. Obsessive, definitely. After the huge splash made by Sex and the Single Girl, Brown was hired to reinvent Cosmopolitan, a women's magazine that had been around for 80 years and needed a makeover. She applied the same coy prose and how-to-get-your-man advice that had made her book such a hit and created a cover format featuring a sultry model surrounded by suggestive story blurbs ("What to Say in Bed" ... "What Men Like in Bed" ... "What to Wear in the Bedroom"). The formula has been one of the most profitable and widely imitated in magazine history, and Brown became one of the legendary editors of our time. Or, as she likes to say, she reached the "tippy-top" of her profession.

"I am a feminist," Brown has insisted many times, and she does deserve credit for pledging allegiance to that term when so many other powerful women won't go near it. If only it were true. If only she had sprinkled a little of the other revolution into the pages of Cosmopolitan—a touch of politics, a smattering of activism, a nudge at global awareness —instead of relying on the sexual revolution to set women free, a job it was never meant to do. Brown had a glorious chance to make a substantive difference in women's lives, what with her huge readership and sex paying the bills. But she never gave it a tumble. Too bad! Bad girls, it turns out, don't go anywhere at all. They just curl up on somebody's lap and purr.

This piece also appears in Double X.