Helen Gurley Brown, 90, Marketer Of That 'Cosmo Girl'
Helen Gurley Brown, who rose from the secretarial ranks to become a top copywriter at Foote Cone Belding and Kenyon & Eckhardt, wrote a bestseller that proclaimed that –- gasp! –- “Sex and the Single Girl” was not an oxymoron and then redefined the landscape of magazines at Cosmopolitan, died yesterday at 90.
“Before there was ‘Sex and the City,’ there was ‘Sex and the Single Girl.’ And before there was Carrie Bradshaw, there was Helen Gurley Brown,” reads the lede on the AP’s obituary by Jocelyn Noveck.
She “created a brand that has lasted for decades in an industry where many don’t,” Susan Berfield writes in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece that explores the business lessons that can be gleaned from the woman who “ate salad with her fingers because she thought it was sexy.” The current editor of Cosmo, Kate White, tells Berfield that Gurley Brown never wavered in “trusting her gut” and demanding that the magazine’s brand was “unambiguous.”
“She tapped into women’s need to be loved, to be successful at home and at work, and to be liberated sexually. She tapped into that need on the deepest level,” says White. “That’s an important lesson for marketers. And then you have to stay true to that and not be lured away.”
Perhaps that’s why her obit is buried in the middle of much more alluring cover lines on the Cosmopolitan website this morning, which leads with “Now It’s Your Turn: 8 Moves That Target Your G Spot.” Indeed, Corin Miller’s remembrance of the woman who enabled the magazine to become “the largest-selling women's magazine in the world with 64 editions” in all of six paragraphs (the same as Al Jazeera’s), attracting four comments.
Although she was a neophyte editor, her “influence on Cosmopolitan was swift and certain,” when she took over the reins in 1965, writes Margalit Fox in a front-page obit in the New York Times that carries the hed: “Gave ‘Single Girl’ a Life in Full (Sex, Sex, Sex).”
Among the more than 200 comments on the Times’ site this morning are personal reflections about her gracious style, as well as searing comments on the influence she, and her magazine, wielded.
“HGB is part and parcel of what is wrong with this culture -- we have lost all sense of good taste and restraint,” writes one reader. “There's a difference between women enjoying sex and women thinking sex is their primary tool for acquiring money and power. Cosmo didn't always know where to draw the line between saucy and sleazy,” says another.
Gurley Brown “did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it,” Fox writes, and her “Cosmo Girl” was not only “unencumbered by husband and children,” she also was a lucrative target for marketers. “Gone was the housewife, apron in tow,” Fox recalls. “In her place was That Cosmopolitan Girl, the idealized reader on whom Ms. Brown and her advertisers firmly trained their sights.”
But those provocative cover lines -- starting with “World’s Greatest Lover, what it was like to be wooed by him” -- were always written by her husband, David, a former managing editor of the magazine who later became a very successful movie and stage producer.
“I love him like a geisha girl,” she told the Times in 1970.
The Hollywood Reporter is running remembrances from Fe ar of Flying author Erica Jong and Hugh Hefner, who says Gurley Brown approached him about doing a “a female version of Playboy” before she took the idea to Hearst. Jong says she tweeted her favorite Gurley Brown quote when she learned of her death: “Don’t use men to get what you want in life, get it yourself.”
“Brown's reputation as author and editor shifted over time, but her exuberant, sex-positive work is now often thought of as feminist and even radical,” writes Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times.
Gurley Brown donated $30 million to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Stanford School of Engineering to establish the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation earlier this year. Her husband attended both schools. Brown, who was born in Arkansas and raised by her widowed mother in Los Angeles, attended what is now Texas Woman’s University but never graduated.
Gurley Brown stepped down from the top editor’s role at Cosmopolitan in 1997 but continued to serve as editor-in-chief of the international editions. “Life here will somehow not seem the same without her near-daily arrival at 300 West 57th Street,” Hearst CEO Frank Bennack wrote in a memo to employees cited by Adweek.