Nice girls DO have affairsThese are the words of decreed Cosmo legend Helen Gurley Brown. So how does her wisdom hold up 50 years on
07:52 GMT, 20 August 2012
Given that I was only ten when Helen Gurley Brown’s scandalous best-seller Sex And The Single Girl was first published in 1962, it’s no surprise that I remained innocently unaware of its existence until I found myself, aged 20, going for a job interview at Cosmopolitan magazine.
Cosmo was already a smash hit in the States after Gurley Brown transformed it to the must-read bible for the single girl — and I was desperate to be part of it.
Gurley Brown’s assertion that you could have lots of fun — and sex — before settling down, came to me too late.
Wise words American author Helen Gurley Brown wrote 'Sex and the Single Girl' in 1962
I was engaged at the age of 20 — it was the only way that my generation left home. But I read her book with rapt attention.
Some of it made me laugh. Some of it shocked me. And some of it, even as I salivated over white tulle and satin slippers in the lead-up to my nuptials, made me wistful for the single life that I was about to let slip away.
One of the earliest self-help manuals for young women, Sex And The Single Girl was based almost entirely on Helen’s experience of living the single life until she was 37, and case histories of her friends.
She had affairs with married men and men from work and, with shades of Mad Men, she inched her way up from the typing pool to become a successful advertising copywriter. Addressing everything from work and money to your wardrobe, the book’s focus is on men — where to meet them, how to suss them, how to be sexy with them and how to conduct an affair.
Helen once told me that if you were single and having sex in the early Sixties and there was no marriage proposal in sight, conventional wisdom was that you might as well ‘put your head in the oven’. She wanted to change all that — and she did.
But after her death last Monday, at the age of 90, I found myself wondering how her tips and maxims stand up today.
I THEE WED… The average age of a British woman to marry was 23 in 1962. It is now 30
To find out, I’ve been dipping once more into her seminal work, recently republished in a 50th anniversary edition. Would her advice seem antediluvian or would her analysis of fun, fearless singledom still resonate The answers may surprise you . . .
‘Marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband.’
This statement implies that you only succumb to marriage when you have neither the energy nor looks to compete in the dating game. So when should you get married exactly At 30, 40 or 50-plus I think the point here is that if you marry too young you’ll miss out and may regret it. I know I did. Six years down the line I divorced, so I was 26 by the time I started to live the life of a Cosmo girl.
But Helen Gurley Brown never wanted children and failed, therefore, to see that marriage and kids combined could turn out to be the best years of your life, as I discovered when I made a new, committed relationship and had a son in my mid-30s.
WISDOM RATING: 4/10
‘Your figure can’t harbour an ounce of baby fat. It never looked good on anybody but babies.’
No, no and no again! Helen Gurley Brown was so skinny I feared she might break. When I dined with her, after I eventually became editor of Cosmopolitan in 1985, I felt — at under nine stone myself — like a glutton. And given that Sex And The Single Girl was designed to help women snare men, it failed to point out that most men prefer a little flesh to the stick insect silhouette of a Victoria Beckham.
On the other hand, Gurley Brown exercised every day and lived until she was 90. But in terms of fostering a healthy body image I think we can safely ditch this particular piece of advice.
‘You must have a job that interests you, at which you work hard.’
Now we’re talking. Tell that to the growing number of teenage girls, influenced by celebrities and reality show stars, whose ambition is to be ‘famous’ or bag a footballer and spend the rest of their lives shopping. They’re in for a big disappointment if they think that’s how life will pan out.
True love: Helen believed while you were waiting to marry, a job could be your route to self-discovery
Helen believed that while you were waiting to marry — or even if you never married — a job could be your love and your route to discovering who you are and what you can do.
A job could be your family, your entree to a good social life — and to men.
She believed in women having careers, rather than jobs, and being financially independent. This is advice I lapped up then and would pin to my daughter’s bedroom door — if I had a daughter.
‘It isn’t the married man’s wife who doesn’t understand him. She understands him perfectly! It’s his girlfriend. And what she doesn’t understand is how come he doesn’t get a divorce.’
GURLEY Brown wouldn’t blink at the notion of a single woman launching into an affair with a married man. In her eyes married men were great for fun and frolics, would be generous with gifts, take you to the best restaurants and keep telling you you’re wonderful and sexy.
But she also wanted her readers to know what they were letting themselves in for, and to understand that he’s unlikely to get a divorce for myriad reasons — from children to money to the fact he doesn’t actually dislike his wife.
That he’ll be useless at weekends and holidays, that he won’t introduce you to anyone he knows, and that even though he won’t leave his wife and marry you, he’ll be apoplectic if you should look at another man. Given that I have a friend who has been waiting for 30 years for her lover to get a divorce, I’d say this still stacks up.
No pain no gain! Helen Gurley Brown claims that the results of plastic surgery are cataclysmic
‘If you like men but would just like to seem a little softer and less self-sufficient, go on a “helpless” campaign.’
idea here is that you let a man push open the door for you, and if it
doesn’t seem to be happening, you wait anyway. And you’re to stay put on
your side of the car until he comes around to open the door. I tried
this with my partner, but he was halfway down the street when he
realised I wasn’t next to him.
surgery is admittedly expensive, horribly uncomfortable for a few days —
but oh my foes and oh my friends, the results! The lovely cataclysmic
results are the kind you can’t get any other way.’
Helen is referring to here is her brand new nose. Long after the book
was published she went on to have face-lifts, breast augmentation and
numerous other cosmetic procedures, all of which she confidently owned
up to. It has taken a while for the rest of the world to catch up with
Helen’s wholehearted embrace of cosmetic surgery. I’m the dinosaur here
as I still can’t come to terms with such self-mutilation.
‘Men just think they don’t like make-up!’
right. ‘If you listened to them,’ says Helen, ‘your lashes would be
flaxen, your lips waxen, your skin Albino No 2.’ At which point they’d
most likely be off in pursuit of the first beautifully camouflaged girl
who crosses their path.
‘What is a sexy woman Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex.’
This makes sense to me. As Helen says, a sexy woman accepts all parts of her body as worthy and loveable and wants to share them with the opposite sex. Other things she deemed sexy: clean hair; smiling; flirting (I was always hopeless at flirting); liking men and being delighted when one calls you on the telephone (I hate the telephone). Not sexy: food particles between your teeth (thank God for floss), bitten fingernails, droning on about your family and your boss. I think this gives us all something to work on.
‘Nice, single girls do have affairs, and they do not necessarily die of them! They suffer sometimes, occasionally a great deal. However, quite a few “nice” single girls have affairs and do not suffer at all.’
I leave this quote until last, because it sums up the seismic impact of this jaunty, witty self-help manual from 50 years ago. At the time such a statement was nothing short of revolutionary.
Today we never doubt for a moment that sexual affairs, along with the joy and heartbreak they inevitably bring, are part of what being a single, free and independent woman is all about. Sex And The Single Girl not only made it possible, but much of its advice still resonates today. Accompanied, of course, by a very large pinch of salt.
n Sex And The Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown is published by Barricade Books.