In a recent New York Times Magazine piece exploring Cosmopolitan magazine’s mind-blowing world domination, Edith Zimmerman explained, “Helen Gurley Brown, or H.G.B. as she’s known in the Cosmo universe, is the patron saint of Cosmopolitan’s sex-centric brand of female empowerment. The author of the then-scandalous self-help book Sex and the Single Girl — which advised women on how to better enjoy their jobs, relationships and bodies — Brown re-branded the magazine with her frank, sexy tone in 1965, when most women’s magazines were focused on family and home economics.” Today brings the sad news that the publishing industry legend — who was still listed as editor-in-chief of Cosmo’s 64 international editions — died today at the age of 90 at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
Brown never went to college, but rather worked her way up from a secretary to become the highest-paid female copy writer on the West Coast. She married a successful movie producer, David Brown, at the age of 37, and it was at his suggestion that she wrote the book that would turn her into the poster girl for sexual liberation. Among the advice that she put forth in the 1962 best-seller: “What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up… Unlike Madame Bovary you don’t chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it. You tunnel up from the bottom.” Also, this gem: “Driving in heavy traffic offers possibilities. Leave the window rolled down on your side and always look interestedly into the next car.”
As for her legacy, earlier this year she donated a whopping $30 million toward the creation of a joint journalism and technology institute between Columbia and Stanford. Beyond the publishing world, as Salon’s Laura Miller wrote in a review of Jennifer Scalon’s 2009 biography of Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere , “The face of feminism today — at least in the hedonistic, individualistic version embraced by many young single women, including some who wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘feminism’ — is more her creation than Friedan’s or Steinem’s.” Regardless of whether you agree with her methods, Brown’s message that a woman could have it all — “the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity” — is a concept that sadly, remains a hot button issue today. “The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself,” she said in a 1985 interview. “If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”