Helen Gurley Brown
America’s most puritanical wild woman.
Brown's critics noticed her deplorable sexual politics but missed the rest of the package. Beneath the veneer of sex talk and seduction advice was steel. Brown was not teaching girls to be geishas. She was teaching them to be bosses. "Get out and do it, kiddo!" she urged. Brown says that she made Cosmo for "mouseburgers" like herself, "23-year-olds with their nose pressed against the glass" who learned how to make the best with what they had. Brown barraged them with sound advice: Work hard, be punctual, be tough, don't fear competition, save your money.
(Cosmo was Erin Brockovich before Erin Brockovich: Dress like a slut, work like a champ. Indeed, much of the criticism directed at Cosmo is sneery elitism. It skews to a less swank demo than Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Its readers are beauticians and secretaries, not lawyers, and its fashions tend toward cheap knockoffs.)
Brown and her magazine inspired because she had lived her own advice. Brown may have encouraged cavorting with married men, but she was too busy to do it herself. She was working 12-hour days on the magazine. She was and is relentlessly self-improving. At 78, she still exercises twice a day and lives a life of "controlled deprivation." (In a 78-year-old male boss, this would be seen as tough and sexy. But when Brown does it, she is unfairly ridiculed as a sex-crazed, anorexic old bat.)
Brown's intensity paid off for Cosmo, boosting its circulation from three-quarters-of-a-million to 3 million. (Today, circulation has subsided slightly to 2.7 million, still more than any other young women's magazine.) At the time she left, Cosmo was earning Hearst a stupendous $50 million per year. Her Cosmo changed the women's mag trade: Its competitors now imitate Brown's sexy cover lines and models. When she was pink-slipped at Cosmo in 1996, Brown, typically, did not slink into pampered retirement. She became editor of Cosmopolitan's 39 overseas editions. All of them are in the black.
It is easy to ridicule Brown but hard to dislike her. She has tremendous panache. Her writing effervesces. In I'm Wild Again, she dryly notes the absence of anti-Semitism when she was growing up in Jim Crow Arkansas: "We were pretty busy with Apartheid." She describes giving bad news to someone: It "went down like chopped stone dragon." On getting breast cancer, she jokes: "I had cancer, doesn't everyone?"
Brown may be funny, but she is not exactly warm. She doesn't like children and never had any: They are "competitors" for attention. In Wild, she repeatedly describes her techniques for pretending to listen. She dismisses her father with a parenthetical note and takes care of her mother and crippled sister in a handful of pages.
Brown today is perceived as an artifact, because she is (supposedly) devoted to a philosophy that is not only wrong but archaic: Women should live to get men. In fact, Brown's own life reflects a sin that is much more modern—and, in self-help America, much more forgivable—than the one she is accused of. She is not too interested in pleasing men. She is too interested in pleasing herself.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.