She was the legendary Cosmo editor who told single women they could enjoy guilt-free sex and coined the phrase having it all. Helen Gurley Brown was a genius, says Liz Jones, but she sold us an impossible dream
07:15 GMT, 15 August 2012
From the very first, ground-breaking issue published in Britain in 1972, bought by my three older sisters and read furtively, under the covers, by me, I was a Cosmo Girl. I believed every word that magazine told me.
Here was a different world trapped within its glossy pages. A world where I could be beautiful, I could have sex and fall in love; where I could have an amazing career, the world at my expensively shod feet, while smelling of Charlie.
I could take a quiz, tick all the boxes, and know the answers to everything: how to get a man, keep a man, win that promotion, shade and highlight my cheekbones and not turn out like my mother — a drudge and a housewife, a slave to convention.
Having it all: Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown transformed the lives of young woman
In short, I could have it all. Farrah Fawcett’s smile and Maria Schneider’s sex life. Except the reality was, of course, that I — and all the other Cosmo Girls — could not. It was an illusion.
The woman responsible for all this, Helen Gurley Brown, who was at the helm of U.S. Cosmopolitan for three decades and transformed the lives of generations of women with her seminal book, Sex And The Single Girl, died on Monday at the age of 90.
For any young woman who does not appreciate her legacy, let me enlighten you. Without Helen Gurley Brown, you might still be awaiting contraception and abortion on demand (both championed by her magazine), your first orgasm and your equal pay cheque.
Ground-breaker: Helen Gurley Brown introduced the male centrefold, celebrities on the cover and self help quizzes
You would not own that Sex And The City box set, and you would certainly not have been reading Fifty Shades Of Grey on the way to work this morning.
In fact, you might not be at work at all. You might still be in the kitchen, an egg whisk in one hand, a double vodka in the other.
Like most visionaries who change the world, Helen was a misfit. She saw herself as unlucky. She was 37 and with a career as a highly successful advertising copy writer by the time she got married, in 1959, to a twice-divorced man called David Brown, a film producer.
In Fifties America, such late spinsterhood was almost unheard of. Her husband persuaded her to write a book of advice, opinion and anecdote about her sex life as a singleton — the first acknowledgment in print that women could have sex outside of wedlock.
SATSG was published in 1962 and instantly became a bestseller, helped in no small part by being condemned from the pulpit.
Buoyed by the success, Gurley Brown believed there was space for a magazine version of her book, but was turned down by many publishers until Hearst hired her in 1965 to take over an ailing family and literary tome called Cosmopolitan.
She soon stamped her ethos on the magazine, earning three million-plus devoted readers in the process.
Early groundbreaking initiatives were the male centrefold, introduced with the hirsute, prone body of Burt Reynolds in 1972; the self help quiz; sexperts; and celebrities on the cover.
It was a modern-day Kama Sutra that took sex out of the bedroom and into mainstream conversation.
And while contemporary feminists were burning their bras on both sides of the Atlantic, the Gurley Brown version was buying frilly lingerie — which seemed contradictory but was, in fact, revolutionary.
Personally, I preferred Gurley Brown’s version of feminism, simply because she did not hate men.
As the feminist author Erica Jong said yesterday, after hearing the sad news of her death: ‘She didn’t see any opposition between feminism and men, and in that we agreed. She didn’t believe you needed to trash men to be a feminist.’
Partnership: Helen Gurley Brown, left, was happily married to her husband David Brown but never had children
Helen loved a man, after all, enjoying a 51-year marriage, and it was David Brown who came up with those early shocking magazine cover lines. Theirs was an equal partnership, not a battleground.
Famous Helen Gurley Brown quotes:
'You can't be sexual at 60 if you're fat'
'Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody'
'Feeling insecure is good for you. It forces you to do something better, drives you to use all your talents'
But above all, Gurley Brown believed it was every woman’s right to look her best: she invented lipstick feminism and was unashamed to talk about her extensive plastic surgery in later years.
For me, as a very young woman, in love with the images in Vogue and wanting to follow in Gurley Brown’s footsteps, this was a happier compromise; not as strident and alien as all the hirsute women working on Spare Rib and its ilk.
My first job, in 1981, was on the newly launched Company, just one floor down from British Cosmo at the Broadwick Street offices in London’s Soho.
The editor and deputy editor of Company were former Cosmo staffers who wanted to instil their British brand of Cosmo Girl on a much younger readership.
Mantra: Helen Gurley Brown preached career and appearances
But while the U.S. Cosmo was much more fun, our sister brands were a little too worthy. I couldn’t help but feel we should all be having a little more fun in the process.
The point is that I was there, experiencing first-hand the excitement of Gurley Brown’s legacy.
The trouble is that there is a downside to her diktats that must be acknowledged. Not her fault, but one that needs to be highlighted.
In 1982, she wrote another book, Having It All. Now that we were all, supposedly, having great sex, Gurley Brown wanted to focus on our careers and bank accounts: our power. Having It All meant just two things: love and a career.
Children didn’t figure at all in her vision for women. Helen never had children, and so wasn’t overly sympathetic to the working mum’s plight. She felt women who had children were lucky and fulfilled.
It was society’s so-called single misfits that she felt the need to champion — the ones who would change the world, not the nappies.
The thing is that ‘having it all’ was appropriated by women who wanted all three — which has only resulted in global exhaustion.
And the single childless woman — now a staggering near 50 per cent of women in the U.S. — is more of a pariah than ever before.
I lived my life according to Gurley Brown’s rules, focusing on my career and appearance above all else.
She omitted to tell me that if you spend all your time at work, you will never meet a man and that you will be too exhausted for sex.
I spent so much time trying to achieve, I forgot to be patient and nice and girly — which, frankly, is what most men want.
I never got love. A Cosmo quiz that would have been useful would have been the following: ‘Is your job repelling men’ And ‘Is it too late to have that baby’
Helen Gurley Brown, pictured at the opening reception for the Israeli Film Festival in New York City in 2006, told women not to rely on men to get what they want in life
I also believe her most headline-grabbing legacy — that women can have sex whenever and with whomever they please, enjoying multiple orgasms — has misfired badly.
Those of us who don’t have mind-blowing sex feel inadequate. There is an article in the current UK Cosmo about a woman with a sex drought, all of three months long. Is she serious I waited 37 years to have sex!
This mythical rampant sex is as much a fantasy as the airbrushed cover stars and pre-adolescent models in 3,000 frocks.
Ironic: Fifty Shades of Grey, featuring a dominant male lead Christian Grey, has become a best seller
Most importantly, while the magazine has, in all its 63 international versions, told us how to please our men, dress for them, keep them interested and study what goes on in their heads (the You, You, You section should really be entitled Him, Him, Him), it hasn’t fundamentally changed men.
Men today are little different from that creature who crawled around back in 1962, expecting us to iron his shirts, raise his children and load the dishwasher.
This has resulted in an impossible mismatch. I know so many women who fit the Cosmo Girl mould who have to dumb themselves down, make allowances, fake it (always!) and bake it in order to hang on to the unevolved specimen that is the modern man.
At least in the Fifties and early Sixties, before the sexual revolution, we didn’t know what we were missing.
And while Gurley Brown understood the need for hard work in order to get to the top, famously stating that ‘nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy started out as a schlep’, these days, young women have seen their older feminist sisters do just that for frazzled decades and want none of it.
Ironically, Gurley Brown’s mantra about putting work first has proved to be the ultimate turn-off.
Perhaps her most famous quote is this one: ‘Don’t use men to get what you want in life; get it yourself.’ This has resulted in the legacy that most of us who grew up on Cosmo have inherited: loneliness.
Maybe my mum’s generation didn’t have mind-blowing sex, but they had lifelong companionship. Loneliness is not what Helen Gurley Brown meant for us at all.
Isn’t it interesting, too, that all this liberation has led us to the fantasy lover that is Fifty Shades Of Grey’s Christian Grey, a man who will take us over his knee.
We like being the Little Woman, after all. I wish Gurley Brown were still around to fight that particular corner.