“Helen Gurley Brown Was The Original Bad Feminist” — Our Chat With The Author Of Enter Helen

Photo: Bettmann / Getty.
Helen Gurley Brown in her Park Avenue apartment.
There are certain names that always pop up when we talk about the women who kickstarted the women's liberation movement. Front-line leaders like Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, NOW founder, and The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan — the list of ladies who made major contributions is long. But one pioneer often gets left off: Helen Gurley Brown. Despite the fact that Gurley Brown — an accomplished author, publisher, and business gal-about-town — was one of the most successful women of her era, she still doesn't tend to show up in the feminist canon. In fact, she struck a divisive, Pucci-clad chord of that time: Rather than demand equality or systemic change, Gurley Brown showed women how to leverage their sexuality to get what they wanted, first with her groundbreaking 1962 guidebook, Sex and the Single Girl, and then in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine during her 32 years as editor-in-chief. Gurley Brown got her start as a copywriter in Los Angeles, where she rose up the ranks at agencies and made her own small fortune before marrying Hollywood producer David Brown at the age of 37. It was only up from there: Brown encouraged her to write Sex and the Single Girl after finding old correspondence between his wife and her former flames. She fast became a publishing darling, landing another book deal — this time for Sex and the Office, which debuted two years later. Soon after that, she took the reigns at Cosmo — her first publishing job ever. Starting in 1965, she turned the struggling mag around, giving it a single-girl makeover and filling the pages with tips on how to be sexy, sophisticated, and charming.
Photo: Bernard Geis Associates.
But she also snuck other, more progressive messages into the pages. She advocated for reproductive freedoms, including birth control and abortion, while also encouraging women to enjoy sex, freely and for fun. This was nothing short of radical in the 1960s and '70s. She also encouraged her Cosmo girls to not just get a job while they wait for a ring, but to enter the workplace and build a career — to find their own success and security before settling down. She was one of the very first voices saying that women can have it all. "She was talking about it in the '60s," says Brooke Hauser, author of Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, which hits shelves April 19. We spoke with Hauser about Gurley Brown's particular brand of empowerment and why she belongs, alongside Steinem and the others, on the list of 20th century feminist icons.

Enter Helen now?
"About four years ago, I was pregnant and had just moved from New York City to Western Massachusetts. I was looking for a new project around the same time in 2012, when Helen Gurley Brown died. I read her obituary in The New York Times and thought she was such a fascinating, colorful character and I thought: 'Why don’t I know more about her?' It seemed strange. "Then, it turns out that her papers were collected at Smith College, [near] where I live. I started poking around in the archives and reading back issues of Cosmo from the '60s and '70s. I was just fascinated by her story and became more fascinated as I realized that parts of her story were grossly exaggerated. That's when I got interested in fact-checking the myth of Helen Gurley Brown. "Helen Gurley Brown was the original 'bad feminist.' There’s a lot of conversation around: Well, what is a feminist? People still aren’t sure whether or not to call [her] that. It’s not a question that I set out to answer, but I was fascinated by the complexity of her character and what it meant to her to be a feminist."
Why isn't Helen Gurley Brown more present in women's liberation records?
"A lot of it had to do with her age and her attitude — she was just a little out of it. She was older than a lot of the feminists who came up during that time. Later, as an older woman, she began to call herself a feminist, but earlier on, she was just Helen Gurley Brown, leader of the sexual revolution, author of Sex and the Single Girl, editor of Cosmo. She used men to get what she wanted and had no problem schooling her Cosmo girls to do the same thing. "She was really a survivor. She existed before feminism existed. Before the women’s movement came along in the late '60s and early '70s, Helen had been clawing her way to the top by whatever means possible. She was very Machiavellian. It's also important to remember when you think of her: She was somewhat alone. She was a career woman at a time when it wasn’t popular to be a career woman. She was an outcast of the women’s movement, and a lot of people didn’t want to be associated with her. There were a lot of women’s libbers who protested in the lobby of Cosmo and raised concerns about how she treated all women as sex objects." What's one story that you feel like sums up the Helen Gurley Brown ethos?
"Gloria Steinem told me this great story about a protest that happened at the Cosmo offices. Helen, who had become friendly with Gloria, called her and said, 'Gloria! Your people are protesting outside of Cosmo!' And Gloria said, 'Who?' And Helen said, 'Your people! You know: women.' "To me, that was a perfect story that encapsulates everything. She understood the women’s movement and she didn’t. She asked Gloria to explain it to her — and even asked her to come to Cosmo to give a lesson to staffers. On one hand, Helen was trying desperately to understand the moment; on the other hand, she’s thinking of feminists as this whole other species."

"It’s so human: to want to be beautiful, to want to be loved, to want to have not just money but security, to want to be known."

'Enter Helen' Author Brooke Hauser
What was the relationship between Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem like?
"One of the coolest things that I discovered was correspondence between Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem, where Helen would basically give Gloria advice on Ms., like, 'Your cover girls need to be more attractive, your cover lines should be better.' Then you have Gloria writing to Helen, saying 'thanks' but not really taking her advice, but saying that she wanted to put some messages that were Ms. that she never got as a young girl into Cosmo — like issues having to do with women’s rights, and the right to choose, and abortion, and equality — and what a wonderful thing that would be. I think if you open up Cosmo today, you’ll find that a lot of those messages are there. The conversation began a long time ago. "Helen was obsessed with Gloria Steinem — but I don’t think for the reasons Gloria Steinem wanted to be known for: as a writer, as an activist, as a journalist, as a serious feminist. When Helen looked at Gloria, she saw all of those things, but what she most admired was that Gloria was beautiful and men loved her. And that’s all Helen really wanted for herself: She wanted money and things, but her desire was to be beautiful. But it was unattainable because she wasn’t beautiful. She cultivated sexiness — and that’s the point. If you can’t be beautiful, you can at least teach yourself to be sexy. "She was deeply insecure. She spent her childhood in Arkansas, later moving to Los Angeles, after her father died. Her mom was this real Ozark's woman: stern, never smiled. When Helen was growing up, she had really bad acne and her mother used to say, 'Well at least you’re smart.' In L.A., Helen was surrounded by these gorgeous women, and she was suddenly poor — and plain, at least compared to these beautiful girls around her. "Moving to New York changed that: It was kind of a makeover period for her, in a way. She just became more sophisticated — that happens to a lot of people when they move to New York. And of course, Helen was on the arm of David Brown, who was this gentleman and also a real mentor to her, who wasn’t just her husband but who was also her real image-maker."
Image: Cosmopolitan Magazine.
The April 1967 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, created under the close watch of editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown.
Was her relationship with David really as rosy and equal as it seemed?
"I think they really loved each other and that they had a very modern marriage in some ways. She used to write about the fact that she would come home from work and cook him dinner and play the wifely role‚ and maybe she did, though you have to imagine they had a cook. "But I do think they had a very modern marriage in that she went to work every day and so did he, and he supported her and she supported him. They were very equal in that sense. But he also absolutely helped launch her career: He had been an editor at Cosmo, early in his career. He came up with the idea for Sex and the Single Girl, he shopped it around, he helped get it into the right hands. When she was at Cosmo, he wrote all the cover lines and he read all the articles, or many of them. So he had a lot of say."

That seems like a highly evolved definition of marriage for the time — the idea that you get to choose what you want it to look like.
"Yes. When she married him, she was 37-years-old. This is part of what’s at the crux of her philosophies: She spent her twenties and thirties dating around, working her way up her career ladder. She was already extremely successful as an ad copywriter and an account executive when she and David met. She already had a Mercedes, which she bought with her own money — and that’s one of the reasons he fell for her in the first place. "He wanted a woman like that: successful and ambitious. He liked that about her. That was already part of the package. So that was the advice that she gave to her Cosmo girls: Don’t settle down at 22. The mentality at the time was get married, have kids, and stay home — and that’s fine. But she was telling young working-class girls: Get a job, turn it into a career, work really hard, date around, make something of yourself, be independent. "When I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, 50 years after the publication, I thought it was so funny and charming. Despite all the ridiculous advice that she gives, she also was talking to women about budgeting and jobs and how to get ahead and save money. A lot of that book still felt relevant and certainly ahead of its time."

Helen got a bad rap from feminists for a long time. When do you think that started to change?
"I think the farther we get away from the '60s, the less harshly we feel the need to judge her because we’re looking at her in context of an era. "Think of it this way: HGB is older than your grandma. You see her within the context of her era, if you know who she is at all, and that’s my question: How many young women know who she is? I’m not trying to hold her up as an example of some great feminist leader at all. That’s not my concern or my interest. But I will say that I learned so much about feminism through reading about her."

What is one big thing you wanted to show readers about Helen Gurley Brown in the book?
"Her story really does speak to the human condition and to identity. The themes of what drove her are very universal, and that’s why Cosmo resonated so deeply with readers, because it’s so human: to want to be beautiful, to want to be loved, to want to have not just money but security, to want to be known."

To have it all.
"Yes! To want everything."
Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, a HarperCollins book, comes out on April 19, 2016.

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series