by MIA FREEDMAN
I was 24 years old and about to be crowned the new editor of Australian Cosmo – only the third in its 30-year history. However, before I could officially be presented with my sash and my tiara, I had to pass one important test. I had to meet Cosmo’s founder, the iconic Helen Gurley Brown.
Cosmopolitan has 64 international editions, is printed in 38 languages and is distributed in more than 100 countries. And like most of the international editions, Australian Cosmo is a joint venture between the brand’s owner and publisher, US media giant Hearst, and a local publisher, in this case Australian Consolidated Press (ACP).
Because we are voracious magazine readers, Australian Cosmo has the highest circulation per capita of any Cosmopolitan in the world and Hearst has always had an excellent relationship with its Australian publishing partners.
I came well recommended by ACP but I still had to be vetted by Hearst.
This meant flying to New York for two important interviews. The first was with the Vice President of Hearst International who quizzed me on what I thought about Cosmopolitan as a brand and where I might take it in Australia. I could talk about magazines under wet cement so that part wasn’t a problem.
Next, I was taken to meet Helen. As the editor of US Cosmo, Helen didn’t have direct control over editorial appointments on the international editions but in every other way, she was Cosmopolitan. She had literally invented it.
Helen Gurley Brown was born in Little Rock, Arkansas some time around 1922 (it’s hard to get a lock on her exact age…reports today say she was 90 years old but her inner circle knew she was a bit ‘creative’ with her age). Her father died suddenly in an elevator accident when she was 10 and with an older sister crippled by Polio and a mother who quickly sank into poverty and depression, Helen left home at 17 and fled to Los Angeles where she became the family breadwinner.
Between the ages of 18 and 33, she had 17 secretarial jobs, some paying as little as $6 a week. Eventually, one of these jobs led to a promotion and she started copywriting at an advertising agency. It wasn’t enough to sate her ambitions so she asked her new husband, movie producer David Brown (Jaws, The Sting), if he had any ideas for a book she could write.
“And he said, write a book on what it was like when you were single! You were never home, you never answered the phone!” she recalled in 1996. “He didn’t know that I’d put the phone in the refrigerator so that I wouldn’t hear it and he would think I was out!”
The book Helen wrote was Sex & The Single Girl. She was 40 years old when it was released in 1962 and it became an instant and controversial best seller. Full of advice for single girls, the book’s most sensational premise was – wait for it – that a woman didn’t need to be married to enjoy sex.
In fact, she didn’t need to be married at all.
This idea was surprisingly revolutionary. Even though it was the free love sixties, no one was actually writing about what that meant for women.
“All of a sudden here’s this crazy woman saying that if you are 29 and you don’t have a husband, you don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon and throw yourself in,” said Helen. “You have sex, don’t feel guilty, everyone else is doing the same thing, they just don’t talk about it!”
Unwittingly – or, knowing Helen, wittingly – she became an early feminist ‘pioneer’. That’s what Gloria Steinem called her and you can’t argue with Steinem when it comes to feminist credentials.
Having struck a chord with single girls and ignited a national debate about women, sex and marriage, Helen was inundated with letters thanking her for giving them a voice. As the editor of French Cosmo once explained it “Helen liberated the language for women. She gave women the words to discuss their sexual experiences.”
It wasn’t just the sex they could relate to. They also identified with the idea of the ‘Mouseburger’’ as Helen always called herself, women who had not been born rich or well connected, particularly clever or especially beautiful but who had made it anyway, via hard work and determination.
This was before the idea of self-help had become formalised, the idea that you could change your life. ‘Empowerment’ has become such a throwaway term but in many ways Helen invented it. It’s certainly what her philosophy was about.
Of the thousands of thankyou notes women wrote to Helen, many begged for personal advice and eventually, she realised the best way to answer all their questions was at the same time. With her own magazine.
With David’s help, she put together a proposal for a publication based on the messages in Sex & The Single Girl. “I knew that women were having sex and loving it,” she said. “I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that hadn’t been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don’t even know what the other two are.”
She and David met with various New York publishers to try and sell their magazine concept. It was rejected by all of them, including Hearst. Unwilling to invest in a brand new start-up, Hearst proposed an alternative. What if Helen took over one of their existing titles, the ailing Cosmopolitan magazine which was a general interest publication for men and women. It was about to be closed anyway. There wasn’t much to lose.
Helen’s first issue of Cosmo appeared on newsstands in July 1965 and flew off quickly. “It had a piece about the Pill, which was still new and hadn’t really been written about before,” she said. “To me, the most important thing about it was that if you weren’t worried about getting pregnant, you could enjoy yourself more in bed. So we wrote a cover line to that effect.”
The cover line was ‘The new pill that makes women more responsive’ and women knew exactly what that meant. The issue went gangbusters.
Her philosophy for Cosmo was the same one she’d always applied to her own life: self-improvement. What woman doesn’t want a better relationship? Better sex? Better hair? A better job? A better wardrobe? A better body? Cosmo was the original self-help manual, decades before the genre would spawn Mars & Venus and Dr Phil. Unlike some of the more radical branches of feminism in the sixties and seventies, The Cosmo girl as created by Helen, saw no conflict between loving men and being ambitious. She wanted to please men and herself. Deep-cleavage feminism, some called it. The formula worked.
Helen’s Cosmopolitan would go on to become the most successful magazine in the world, selling millions of copies a month in 100 countries. It still holds that title today.
I knew virtually nothing of this impressive legacy as I waited outside Helen’s office. My knowledge of Helen Gurley Brown was based on her more recent press, which had been more controversial – and not for pushing social-sexual boundaries in a good way.
Around the eighties, Helen had begun to be seen by some not as a feminist pioneer but as someone worryingly retro in many of her views. Specifically that straight women couldn’t contract HIV and that sexual harassment in the workplace was ‘harmless office fun’.
In its January 1988 issue, US Cosmopolitan had run a feature claiming that women had almost no reason to worry about contracting HIV – even though the best available medical science indicated otherwise. Helen backed the piece, which claimed unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man did not put women at risk of infection and that it was impossible to transmit HIV in the missionary position.
Next, in 1991,when Anita Hill brought sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, Helen wrote an article suggesting women like Anita Hill were over-reacting. “If I were they [those women], I would just shut up. Leave the poor guy alone. Did it kill them?”
There was also disquiet from some of Helen’s contemporaries about the man-pleasing aspects of her Cosmo philosophy. Gloria Steinem told the New York Times in 1996: “She deserves credit for having introduced sexuality into women’s magazines – Cosmo was the first. But then it became the unliberated woman’s survival kit, with advice on how to please a man, lover or boss in any circumstances, and also – in a metaphysical sense – how to smile all the time. The Cosmo girl needs to become a woman.”
There was some truth to this. The flip side to the empowerment message of self-improvement is that women’s magazines like Cosmo are essentially sold on angst. The idea is that the mag tells you you have a problem, and then they help you fix it. By perpetuating feelings of inadequacy, they then cement their role in making you feel better. Helen had invented this formula and used it with wild success. Now it was my turn to take the Cosmo baton in Australia.
I was ushered into Helen’s office – which could only be described as teenage girl’s bedroom meets bordello. It was wall-to-wall leopard print carpet with gilt-edged antiquey looking furniture and a sofa decked in chintzy rose-print. There was a stuffed lion and a teddy bear wearing a pearl necklace, sitting on an embroidered cushion that said, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
While I was trying to take all this in, a tiny, bird-like creature stood up from behind a small desk where she’d been obscured by a large type-writer. Helen.
As she skipped towards me – actually skipped – I felt my eyes widen. It was a visual riot.
Helen was wearing a black miniskirt that was thinner than some of my belts and black fishnet stockings with patent black sling-back high heels. Her shirt was hot pink satin and it was unbuttoned so I could see flashes of black lace bra underneath. And cleavage. She was wearing a lot of very fancy gold jewellery and she was the size of my little finger. Lots of make-up artfully arranged brown hair and a face that is the disconcerting result of much surgery. So much surgery.
In the future, she would happily talk to me – and anyone – about her facelifts and all her other procedures, even the breast implants she had in her late seventies. Her husband was not happy about those. “He liked my bosoms,” she said fondly. “He thought it was unnecessary.”
I’d never met an icon before and I had no idea what to expect. Helen was the most charming and flirtatious person I’d ever met. As she blinked up at me from heavily made-up eyes, I felt like a large gargoyle. I am not a tall person, in fact I am moderately sized but Helen is a sparrow. Tiny. Teeny tiny.
Her coquettish manner was instantly disarming as she shone the full light of her attention on me but I quickly saw it was merely the window dressing for an extremely sharp business brain. She was very familiar with the Australian magazine market and she asked me all about Cleo and my time working there. She even knew who Lisa Wilkinson was. She also wanted to know all about my personal life. Did I have a boyfriend? How long had we been together? And then she called me pussycat.
“I don’t have any children so you can be like my daughter, pussycat” she said as she gently steered me out of her office after about twenty minutes. I wasn’t sure of the correct response. Should I purr? Rub myself against her legs? Clearly I’d made a good impression if she wanted to adopt me. Later, I’d learn that it was one of the standard lines she used with any editor under 50 years old. Still, I was chuffed.
And, it seemed, anointed.
I had so many conversations with Helen at Cosmo conferences over the years I was at the magazine and every one was a privilege and a hoot. She was nothing if not eccentric. She had a complex relationship with her body – she exercised obsessively, throughout the day, doing sit ups and leg lifts on the floor in her office or wherever she happened to be.
She had a lot of plastic surgery and the boob job in her 70s and she often wore wigs. Her fashion sense was spectacularly inappropriate for someone old enough to be a great grandmother. She wore fishnets and bright Pucci mini dresses til the end.
The saddest part for me was watching her transition from Editor In Chief of US Cosmo to International Editor In Chief in 1997. It was right after I became editor and Helen was disarmingly, heartbreakingly honest about how she was being put out to pasture.
Hearst had become aware that times had changed and for many of the reasons mentioned above, Helen was no longer the right person to be steering a magazine for young women into the 21st century.
Unlike what I’ve seen happen in so many industries and big companies, Helen was treated with the utmost respect and reverence by Hearst. A new role was created for her, she retained her office and an assistant and she became a living brand ambassador and icon for Cosmo until she wasn’t able to appear in public anymore.
But it was tough on her and she made no secret of it. I remember having lunch with her – she always ate salad with her fingers – and she was reflecting on how daunted she was by the prospect of no longer being the editor of US Cosmo. “Nobody will want to have lunch with me anymore if I don’t have that job” she said sadly.
This is a woman who dined with Barbara Walters, Gloria Steinem, Larry King and countless other leaders in their industries. “Don’t be ridiculous, Helen!” I exclaimed. “You’re Helen Gurley Brown! You’re an icon and you’re so much more than your job!”
But she was never convinced. There was always an element of Mouseburger inside her, no matter how outwardly successful she had become and no matter how much she was revered by her peers in and out of the publishing industry.
A few months ago, Helen announced she was giving $30 million to Columbia’s journalism school and Stanford’s engineering school so they could set up a joint “institute for media innovation.” After David died, she had no family and it was the Hearst family who took care of her until the end – she was still going into work as recently as a couple of weeks ago when I saw a former Cosmo colleague tweet a photo of her with Helen in her New York office when she’d popped in for a visit.
When I heard the news this morning that Helen had died via a tweet from my good friend Vanessa Raphaelly who is the former editor and now publisher of South African Cosmo (we met at my first Cosmo conference and as two of the slightly ‘naughty’ countries who pushed the boundaries of what Cosmo was in our own countries, we bonded instantly) I felt suddenly and surprisingly sad.
When someone dies at such an old age, it’s not entirely unexpected. And yet with Helen’s passing, I do feel like the world has lost a living legend.
Her husband David – whom she adored to the point of often regaling us about their sex life – died a few years ago and she had no children. Whenever she was asked about that, she insisted she wanted to stay as the centre of attention in her marriage – she didn’t want to share her husbands love with anyone else.
And in many ways, Helen didn’t grow up which was part of her charm. As International Editor in Chief, she still came to work every day and worked in her office where she hand typed a critique to every editor in the world about every issue they did – praising them for sticking to her ‘cosmo formula’ and pulling them up in no uncertain terms when she felt they strayed from it.
I have hundreds of these letters – one from every issue of Cosmo I ever edited. And I shall treasure them.
Vale Helen Gurley Brown. Thank you for everything you did for women and thank you for inventing the word ‘empowerment’ even if you didn’t realise it.
Helen Gurley Brown, 1963
Here’s an interview recorded with Helen in 1996.