Helen Gurley Brown died Monday, at 90, “though parts of her were considerably younger,” as the New York Times obit snarked.
Yes, even in death, she is a polarizing figure who created a huge cultural cleavage, if you will: On the one hand, she’s seen as a sexual liberator and trailblazer, who, with “Sex and the Single Girl,” changed social mores, championing the (in some camps, still radical, and even heretical) idea that single women ought to enjoy sex and careers without benefit of a wedding ring. (Sex, sex, sex!)
On the other, she is scorned for the anti-feminist sensibility that Cosmopolitan magazine has wrought: the low-cut, big-haired look that now, ironically, is favored by “Real Housewives,” who, though mostly in their 40s, call each other “girls” and favor breast implants and hair extensions. There’s also the issue of the brilliant and manipulative cover lines, (mostly written by Helen’s hubby) imploring readers to see themselves as endless self-help projects, and tips on how to get extravagant goodies out of men. (Sex!)
I thought I knew all of Brown’s history. But in reading the various eulogies, a paragraph in a Hearst obit jumped out at me. It explained that as a poor girl from the Ozarks, Brown had to leave college to put herself through secretarial school, and soon powered her way through 16 secretarial jobs. “It was her 17th job, at the advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, that launched her future success,” the obit said.
“As executive secretary to Don Belding, Gurley Brown’s work ethic and witty notes impressed both her boss and his wife, who suggested she try her hand at writing advertising copy. She proved her talent, winning prizes for her copy. By the late 1950s, she had become the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast.”
Wow! Executive secretary to a powerful Don? Known for her wit, grit, and nonstop work ethic? Shades of Peggy Olson, “Mad Men”’s girl wonder!
Indeed, in interviews, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has mentioned “Sex and the Single Girl,” published in 1963, as an influence. (Along with Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the feminist primer that came out in 1964 and spoke to the other end of the spectrum: educated, upper-middle-class housewives who felt neutered and infantilized by their house-bound lives.)
Certainly, we can all get a better perspective on Brown’s body of work when viewed through the lens of “Mad Men”: the pitiless limitations for women in the work world, and the office as a place of never-ending sexual harassment and casting couches. The comparisons start with Peggy’s entire story arc. In the pilot, she arrives at Sterling Cooper fresh out of secretarial school, a dowdy little “mouseburger” (to use a word that Brown coined), if there ever was one. In this season’s finale, she leaves transformed, to take a job as a creative director at another ad agency, where she will be powerful and well-paid. (She’s also “living in sin” as her mother put it.)
But wait, there’s Joan, the vampish office manager, plaything of rich men, long-time mistress to one of the partners, who is even more SATSG-influenced! Leading Peggy around the office on her first day, Joan sets her up with a gynecologist “friend” to get on the Pill, and also advises the neophyte to “go home, cut eye holes in a paper bag, put it on your head, take your clothes off, and evaluate yourself in a mirror.” That loopy tip actually came straight from the highly exclamation-pointed, italicized text of “Sex and the Single Girl.”
This most recent season of “Mad Men” builds to the operatically sad, dramatic, and controversial scene in which Joan sells herself for a night to a creepy client in return for a partnership and percentage of the business. This was, and sometimes still is, done all the time, but it somehow came off as incomprehensibly sad.
And here’s where Brown’s ethos seems the most outdated: she was a real penny pincher, who, in her single years, relied on the kindness of, well, male admirers.
She talked and wrote about it honestly, and had absolutely no compunction about being a mistress to married men, and leaving for someone else if the material gifts were greater. It was merely a means to an end (financial security.) Doing this was more morally acceptable, of course, if you had to support your crippled sister and widowed mother, as she did throughout her life.
But what truly comes off as antediluvian to a modern “girl” was the fact that Helen Gurley Brown could not conceive of the concept of sexual harassment. Au contraire, she lived to be noticed and admired by men, and didn’t see the downside. In the days of the Anita Hill trials, she wrote an op ed for the Times describing a game that was played in one of the offices she worked in: The men would chase the secretaries and pull down their underpants. All the girls wore their frilliest underwear to work on game day. She was hurt that they never went after her. The game was actually recreated for a scene in “Mad Men.”
And here’s the rub: Helen Gurley Brown was a bright, hard-working Peggy who longed to be a “bosomy” Joan. That’s the essential tension of her life, and why she worked so hard at self-improvement.
A great survivor with steely determination, she was famously sex-positive and child-unfriendly. Her post-California copywriter life as a single girl ended at 37 when she married (or “landed”) movie producer David Brown.
And had she not married him, we probably never would have heard of her. (Or known her only as a footnote in advertising lore.) Her husband was a huge support to her career, urging her to write the book (and coming up with the title) editing the magazine, writing cover lines, getting her TV appearances. In return, she “looked after him like a geisha,” as she put it. She readily admitted that she was too selfish, and in need of attention, to want children. (“I didn’t want to give up the time, the love, the money,” is how she put it.) And she also couldn’t understand why every woman wouldn’t want a blueprint of her own glamorous life. ”Sex and the City” was a direct result.
It’s a very American thing to want to rise above the hand you were dealt. Brown did this brilliantly, almost to her last day, in high heels, fishnets and a miniskirt. Her legacy is complicated. But attention must be paid.