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Jennifer Graham

A talented editor and a lovable fraud

They’re calling her an icon, a pioneer, the mouseburger who roared, and Helen Gurley Brown was indeed likeable, and good at many things, but she brings to mind Longfellow’s poem about the little girl with the little curl straight down the center of her forehead.

Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown is seen in 1982.

Marty Lederhandler/AP file

Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown is seen in 1982.

When she was good, she was very, very good. When she was bad, she was horrid.

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“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” was embroidered on the pillow Brown famously kept in her Cosmopolitan office, and it was an apt slogan for someone who launched a generation of bad girls. Not that Brown was one herself — in fact, quite the opposite. David Plotz, the editor of Slate magazine, is one of the few who caught on. Reviewing Brown’s “I’m Wild Again” in 2000, he called the book “the autobiography of a puritan.”

While she admitted to assorted misbehaviors prior to her marriage to Hollywood producer David Brown, after donning a gold ring, Brown morphed into the clean-cut Sandy of “Grease,” trilling, “I don’t drink, or swear, I don’t wrap my hair, I get ill from one cigarette!” all the while writing that paean to commitment-free love, “Sex and the Single Girl.” Released in 1962, the book sold two million copies in three weeks, its catchy prose and provocative chapters (“Kisses and Makeup”) concealing the irony that the new leader of formerly repressed single women was a happily married woman better suited to lead Ladies’ Home Journal.

Furthermore, while Cosmopolitan and Brown’s later books colorfully exhorted women to work like “greased mosquitos,” to “mouseburger” their way to the top, she had considerable help from her well-connected husband, who was once himself a Cosmopolitan editor. Brown, who died Monday, is to be admired for her guts, her work ethic, her amazing ability to subsist cheerfully on tuna salad and cottage cheese, but a self-made woman, she was not.

In short, Brown was a talented editor and a lovable fraud. The original Cosmo girl was not a Cosmo girl at all. She was a happily married, joyfully faithful, work-obsessed Midwesterner who called her mother every week and believed “nothing is as much fun as achieving.”

Regrettably, even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t deduce that from reading the Cosmopolitan of today, nor its legacy, the assorted tawdry magazines that embarrass mothers in grocery lines everywhere. Paper or plastic? Paper, please, to cover the sex tips, which used to belong in bedrooms, but now are available with the Tic Tacs and, um, Altoids, the alternative uses of which the magazines shout to our wide-eyed children.

In the 50 years since Brown first exhorted women to lighten up on this whole morality thing, this is what we’ve acquired: A country in which one out of three women has an abortion before age 45. A divorce rate approaching 50 percent. Nineteen million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases every year. Rehab centers that treat not only alcohol and drug dependency, but “sex addiction.”

Is Helen Gurley Brown singlehandedly responsible for all this, and the stomach-turning “married seeking married” ads that populate Craigslist? No, of course not, not any more than a single snowflake is responsible for an avalanche.

But she was the beautifully manicured leader of the tribe, and in her 1982 book “Having It All,’’ she wrote, “I don’t see how a single girl can survive without an occasional married man, to fill in the gaps, stave off hunger during lean days.”

Ironically, she dedicated that book to her husband and mother.

Twenty years earlier, “Sex and the Single Girl” was dedicated solely to David. Before its publication, Brown sent an advance copy to her mother who was living in Oklahoma, caring for her other daughter, paralyzed by polio.

Cleo Gurley telegraphed, “There is still time to stop publication of the book. I strongly urge that you do so. Love, Mother.”

The subsequent dedication, the one to both Cleo and David, suggests that any rift between mother and daughter over “Sex and the Single Girl” was temporary. Brown herself never had children, and while she wrote that she had not one “scrap of regret about kidlessness,” the last chapter of “I’m Wild Again” is a letter to a fictional daughter named Anna Marie.

She talks about beauty, self-esteem, posture, fashion, envy, Woody Allen, Monica Lewinsky. She exhorts Anna Marie to do Kegel exercises during boring meetings, and, if possible, to marry for money. Further, she confides, every man has at least one serious flaw, one that, if it were a ribbon, “would wrap all the way around Eastern Europe.”

“Nothing to worry about. You’ve got one or more big ones yourself — we all do,” Brown assures her imaginary daughter. Did she ever see her own flaw, the ribbon that would wrap around a nation, squeezing so hard that out spilled its last scraps of modesty?

Probably not, never having stood in line at the Hannaford, clutching the hand and shielding the eyes of a small, curious Anna Marie.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Her website is jennifergraham.com.
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