Sex and the singular Gurley Brown

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By Tess Lawrence

Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence, the first female feature writer on the Melbourne Herald 'allowed' to sit in the hitherto all-male office, remembers fondly a famous interview subject who sadly died last week – another groundbreaking iconoclastic woman – writer and editor Helen Gurley Brown.


The death last week of Helen Gurley Brown, Senior Executive of Hearst Corporation and the woman whose name is synonymous with revamping Cosmopolitan magazine, made her cover girl news in hard copy and online for good reason.  She was an extraordinary editor; a “good operator” who was well-respected and revered by some of her staff, who told me they worried about the long hours she spent at the office.

Within minutes of her death, social media ignited with tributes, insults and anecdotes.  She had gone from l'enfant terrible to l'adulte terrible.

On the New York City website on August 13, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of the multimedia financial data/journalism corporation that bears the Bloomberg name graciously acknowledged his friend and sister journalist:
"Today New York City lost a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation’s culture. She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print.

"She was a quintessential New Yorker: never afraid to speak her mind and always full of advice. She pushed boundaries and often broke them, clearing the way for younger women to follow in her path.

"I was honored to be her friend and know how deeply she cared about the City she called home. We will miss her, but her impact on our culture and society will live on forever.”

Gurley Brown was a powerful influence. She took the dying magazine that once featured the likes of Ernest Hemingway and gave it a Manhattan Red lipstick makeover, gifting it to younger women and unapologetic sexual freedom. Not only did she transform magazines for women, but she also upped the panty for magazines for men, that were floundering in the revolution, some of them looking as if they were suffering from brewer's droop.

Women certainly bought Cosmopolitan for the pictures, but they also bought it for the writing too.

She cheekily took on her male counterparts with photographer Francesco Scavullo's centrefold of Burt Reynolds.  It remains one of the more compelling photographic nudes and this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. I have a copy of that magazine in my library. Whilst Reynolds is handsome in face and form, the cigarette, ashtray and bear rug still jars; that is the bear rug on the studio floor, not on Burt's bod.

That centrefold did for Burt Reynolds what Vanity Fair's cover did decades later for a naked pregnant Demi Moore.

The following article on Helen Gurley Brown was published in my book of interviews Headlines.  I have a wonderful handwritten note that Helen wrote to me after the interview was originally published.  In the note she included some petals from the flowers in her office.

Re-reading the interview I was struck at how prophetic and reflective she was in her conversation, and how many things had come to pass, now her death included.


"I don't know what it is to have a multiple orgasm and what's more I don't know anyone among my closer friends who do..."

I've met and interviewed Helen several times now and I like the Gurley.

If the 'G' spot wasn't named after her, it should have been.

After all, living in Australia as I do, where the majority of males would undoubtedly think that stumbling across the erogenous zone would earn them a parking infringement ticket, there was a time when Cosmopolitan magazine was the next best thing to a sex manual to shove under the proboscis of a naive but earnest suitor, who had yet to determine that some brassieres unfastened at the front.

I first interviewed her in Australia, where she was being fussed over by lots of little rodentburgers. However, we both soon got rid of them and got into some heavy talk. And I'm talking power talk here. This woman is shrewd. A marketing junkie. She had a wig on that day but I'm here to tell you she keeps her brain at room temperature.

She doesn't talk UP to you. She doesn't talk DOWN to you. She talks WITH you, plumping your ego, like one of the many petit-point cushions she loves to embroider, until you feel real comfy and ready to dish, dish, dish.

She was thinner than Wallis Simpson and viewed with as much suspicion in Terra Australis when the Oz version of Cosmo hit the roo stands.

Enmeshed with the notoriety of her first book, Sex and the Single Girl, she glided through press conferences enthralling and endearing herself to women journalists through sisterly impartations — leaving the nervous male contingent thoroughly grateful that they had emerged from an audience with the reputed ball-tickler (and here I speak metaphorically) at least anatomically intact.

One or two of them were rather snakey, though. Exercising the full force of his literary and investigative prowess, one took me to one side. "God, she's thin. Her tits must be as big as ping pong balls, don't ya reckon?"

Reeling in awe at this powerful summation, I could only concur and point out that he was surely lucky that a kind god had seen fit not to position a testicle each upon the pectorals otherwise some would be confused with nipples.

Whatever history and the Women's Movement will say about HGB, she revolutionised  popular literature for women. In fact, she led the pages of numerous magazines and newspapers down a labyrinth of hitherto taboo subjects.

She is now a voice among many, but there was a time when hers was the loudest in octave.

She did for cliterature what Vanity Fair's Tina Brown is doing for magazine journalism — freeing up refugees from the conservative press and providing safe harbour for the sometimes clever, irreverent and courageous.

When HGB and I met again, years later, we sat alone in her New York office, long after the staff had gone home.

The Manhattan neonic sun was setting and the curtain of night had a  rendezvous with the smog line. When they met, it started to rain.

She looked visibly exhausted, though looking forward to dinner that night with some power brokers and breakers, including Rupert Murdoch, who she liked because " he's a real man and he's so..o..o..upfront' quoth she, and Lady Mary Fairfax, that woman is so much fun."

She made me coffee and, after we'd settled, she seemed glad to get a few things on the record and I thought her remarks about impending old age and her sister revealed a sag in morale that no uplifting bra could sustain.

She remains editorial director of her beloved magazine. Could a woman in her sixties successfully oversee a publication which unashamedly portrays women as groin sniffing predators? You bet. Despite the financial advice and the move towards the new age woman, the underlying ethos of the magazine hasn't really changed.

And Helen Gurley Brown remains the consummate Cosmopolitician.


Helen Gurley Brown is sitting in her much vaunted Manhattan office; queen of all she purveys.

Now in her second decade as Cosmpolitan's editor, she is a legend in her own by-line. Years ago her first book Sex and the Single Girl sizzled on the bookstands and lifted the negligee on the genre that was the prototype for the Cosmo Girl.

In her second book, ten years in the raking, Having It All, Helen Gurley Brown has once again rather loosely tied herself to a stake of controversy. But she is most adept at flamethrowing for the media and it is no surprise that the one torch has ignited both praise and disdain.

Culling from her own experiences and and her intergalactic rise from secretary to one of the more successful editors the world had known, her missive entreats you to believe that you can have it all, love, success, sex and money — even if, like Helen, you start off with nothing.

She speaks of hard work as if it were some miraculous laxative that enables one to pass with ease through the obstacles of life.

It is her belief that the nondescripts of society — those she terms ' mouseburgers' (and here she was gracious enough to include me) can attain fame and fortune and importantly, a husband, through diligence, fortitude, goodwill and a great deal of manipulation.

She is an intriguing study. Where the girls who throb on her magazine covers are voluptuous with the kind of cleavages that give another meaning to the term 'silicone valley', Helen is thin and birdlike.

She is nestling into the floral patterned sofa in her luxurious bower. Her eyes, laden with false eyelashes, blink occasionally and only then with great deliberation and the poise of the coquette.

That year, she had turned sixty and despite literally making her life an 'open book' so much mystique continues to surround her.

For more than a third of her life she has been married to Jaws and The Sting producer, David Brown.

Helen Gurley Brown is a constant on television talk shows whose guests are obsessive about star gazing and ever vigilant for the tell-tale scars of the scalpel and of skin stretched taut like Glad-Wrap over a bowl of preserved prunes.

Although she has never made a film, HGB is a star.  The very mention of her name is enough to raise the bristle under the armpits of certain feminists — but HGB considers herself a pioneering feminist.

Indeed, despite the sometimes banal and often repetitious themes of the magazine, it has never been coy about the fact that single women not only enjoyed a sex life, but were entitled to one.

The pages celebrate youth and womanhood; thus is the Cosmo according to HGB. Sexuality and the inevitable 'How to Catch a Man Theme' is still a staple reading diet.

Such is Helen Gurley Brown's faith in the feminine lure, that she has even been accused of emotional castration of the male-frightening then with 'overkill.'

One suspects there's a bit of 'venus envy' among all this.

Throughout it all, Helen Gurley Brown has remained charitable to her critics; after all she has much to purr about. "Well," she mews, "I'm always nice, always polite. I just don't have the guts to be rude...I can't bear to have someone not like me. It always astonishes me when someone wants to hurt me."

Readjusting her skirt, she continues, "I just find anger and hostility – when I'm face to face with it – the most terrifying thing. I always try to avoid it. That's why I haven't been shown an angry letter in 15 years. I have someone go through them — I hate it when people give vent to their hostility. I like to be in control of my temper, though I must admit once in a while it gets out of hand and, of course, it is always the loved ones who suffer."

It is worth noting that when Helen joined the Hearst Corporation in 1965, Cosmopolitan's circulation was arthritic and the magazine seemed doomed.  She completely revamped the format and directed it at women. The readership soared and there are now multiple foreign editions.

For more than two decades she has held the same job — much longer than the average life span of an editor.

"It's one of those strange things – I don't think it's a weakness – and sometimes I wonder if I will get tired of it, but it just doesn't happen. I'm still crazy about my work. It's very rewarding. There is a sense of power to it.

“I don't mean that to be a wicked word or a negative word. But it's good to be able to instigate any article I wish — whether it's about a chocolate factory, infidelity or herpes."

"This job has quite a feeling of freedom, authority and power, and I've been very successful so far; I haven't gotten bored yet. It is still a great challenge as to how long I can continue to edit the magazine. I'm way out of the age range of Cosmo readers, but I'm lucky that I'm surrounded by young people and (here a coy smile and the lowering and raising of the lashes) I don't think I'm out of touch.”

She muses on her second book:
"It's very ego-maniacal, doing a book. I did the whole thing and it took me years and years and you are probably thinking how could a book like that take that long?"

"Well, the reason is I re-wrote it and re-wrote it a thousand times. I took out so much. My kind of writing takes a certain skill and my writing for its kind is okay. 

I'm not your Lillian Hellman or Margaret Drabble but I like my little book; it's like a child and now I'm going to mother it."

"They'll be tons of television and promotion and I've already done those heavy photographic sessions today. The fact is I take my book interviews seriously, but I still have to look fresh for a business dinner tonight with Rupert Murdoch and Lady (Mary) Fairfax, who was so kind to David when he was in Australia last year."

"But I don't mind doing all this, because it's my work and it's my credo; a very honourable one and it seems that in the sixties and the seventies they tried to give it a bad name. But I'm still a firm believer in the old Protestant Work Ethic. Even though, it's, like, a cliché. It's the one that works."

"I have gone without certain things, sure. The answer has to be because I didn't want them, those other things. I don't have leisurely lunches with my girlfriends. Everything I buy for the house I order on the telephone."

"I haven't had children because I'm very comfortable working. This office is my little hideout and it's times like this, when most people have left the office, that I love the best. I feel I belong."

"I can never imagine that anyone might be awestruck by me; sometimes I try to think what it would be like meeting me for the first time — but I certainly try to make people comfortable. Personally I feel very vulnerable. I can be crushed; able to be hurt. I come off looking like a very tough lady, very strong. But it's only because I'm good at what I do. I don't have fears or insecurities about that."

"But I'm not one for small talk or chat. Even though I'm the Editor, hardly anyone just comes into my office. I'm always going out to see them; that way I'm not able to get mad at someone."

She says she has never had trouble relating to other women:
"Other women like me...I believe...and I like them. I've never had any trouble with my close girlfriends. I have my best friend, we were baby secs (secretaries) together. But I think I keep other women comfortable. The other day there were eight of us, celebrating the 50th birthday of a friend, and I was really looking at them and thinking what great women they were and what a contribution they had made, and I was thinking that women of this age don't get the kind of recognition they deserve."

Perhaps HGB is in a reflective mood. But while she muses on the subject of older women, she must concede that her magazine leads the vanguard of the unashamed conspiracy against the ageing process and the ageing. Youth is the goddess before which we are programed to genuflect. She knows it and nods her head.
"I am very conscious of that. Many middle-aged women lead such utterly admirable good lives, they seem to have beaten the rap. I don't know what, but something has to be done in our time so that there can be recognition of 'middle age'."

"It is now unacceptable to be old, and this denigrating of older people seems to be like a disease. The worst thing for women, I think, is the loss of being perceived as womanly; you are not a sex object at 60 or 70 - men are, because they have money and power. They certainly wouldn't be sex objects for themselves."

"I have thought of starting a magazine for older people.  I obviously can't do it through Cosmopolitan simply because you can't take a format geared towards 18 to 34 year olds and answer questions from women who are 50 or 60 years old... but there is a need in this area."

What about the perennial articles on orgasm and the assumption that something is wrong with readers who are not enjoying 60 orgasms an hour?
“I know, I know. Perhaps we have been a little guilty of that, but lately we've had several articles on orgasm that have pointed out just the opposite; that sex is not a competition, not a race, and that no-one is counting.”

“True, that after reading so many articles on sex, people could think 'why are all those people having such a great time in bed'?"

"It doesn't matter if you have a sexual assignation once a week, or once a month, as long as it's good. I think the word ' orgasm' is the wrong word to use when we come to discussing or describing sexual fulfillment."

"The truth is a lot of women can't have an orgasm. I don't know what it is to have a multiple orgasm, and what's more I don't know anyone among my closer friends who do. I'm sorry, I don't go along with the idea that you should have to rev up and have another one if you don't feel like it."

"I think we all have to be careful of what we expect from each other. If you're not having any at all, that's not good — but just as long as what you're having is good for you. But you shouldn't be without it totally."

"The trouble is, when that book came out 'The Sensuous Woman' by J, it made everyone go around thinking that everyone else had multiple orgasms and that that was normal."

Gurley Brown would make a competent politician, if she could stomach the breed.
"As a feminist who does feminist articles [yes, she did say that] I find politicians repugnant."

"I am a Republican, a conservative.  I believe so devoutly in the private enterprise system. Oh God, I am sounding so fatuous but this is how I feel. But these are sentiments that I believe are without price. I don't say this lightly, but if there were a reason to, I would die for my country. I believe women should be drafted, just as men are, and I would go when I was needed."

"In my own way, I guess I am a politician, but of a different kind. I think I can help more in the area I serve... to help people through their depression and personal problems, and that feeling of being unable to cope; that's my world. I do care about what is happening to the ecology and to the economy, improving the judicial system and the penal system. I care that people don't really feel adequate enough to have their own opinions; they seem so beleaguered."

She was appalled by Reagan's stand on abortion.
"It seems onerous to me that anyone could be against abortion. How dare anyone tell a woman what to do? How dare a group of legislators say she cannot have an abortion? It is so primeval, so primitive, and I feel so strongly about this."

Brought up in the Presbyterian faith, HGB sang in the church choir, but after she graduated from high school her fervour faded.
"I approve of it (religion) totally for other people. I see people who are very comforted by it, but it's not the thing for me. What sustains me is finding there is a certain ordinance to life that you only get back what you put in."

"Life can deliver a blow sometimes, but I do believe devoutly that if you do your best then everything will be okay; but then, it didn't work out for my sister who got polio when she was 19 and now spends her time in a wheelchair."

"Perhaps she might not feel as sanguine as I do about fate, huh? Perhaps my advice is a little trite to her. "

"But I guess we are all handed out certain blows, certain horrors, and one just can't think how it is for other people, or how they will play the card."

"My scars were different from my sister's or anyone else dealt a cruel and terrible blow, but by not copping out, you are better off."

"What sustains me is knowing that these principles work. You can have it all if you do your very best. I did it. If I can, anyone else can."

I don't know if I buy that. But this is one Mouseburger with the lot.

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