This spring and summer marks the release of two biographies on former Cosmopolitan editor and author of Sex and the Single Girl Helen Gurley Brown. They are not the first biographies written about Brown—Jennifer Scanlon received that distinction when she published Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, the Woman Behind Cosmopolitan Magazine in 2010—but they are the first to be published following Brown’s death in 2012.
As such, these two new books add a great deal of new information to the story of a fascinating figure people have already said (much to her pleasure) plenty about. That information, however, didn’t come easily: Brown’s estate, as documented by Katie Rosman at The New York Times last year, is managed by executives at Hearst, Cosmopolitan’s publisher, which has held tightly to her already complex image, unwilling to add more fuel to the fire now that Brown’s not around to stoke it herself.
A person’s influence can be measured, in part, by how many times others try to understand it: There are dozens of books and documentaries on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, for example, but scholars, historians and political commenters have not ceased putting their own spin on his life; at this point, multiple iterations of The Life of FDR by various authors have won numerous prizes, all for telling what a cynic might say is the same story. In death, the defining element of fame gets even stronger: the person in question is a vessel for meaning. We seek—sometimes endlessly—to understand them. What we end up doing is figuring out what we want from them above anything else.
During her lifetime, Helen Gurley Brown put forth to the world the image of a “mouseburger” of a woman who was “just like you,” who’d had to claw her way to almost-beauty and success by way of a lot of hard work. But she constantly downplayed how smart she was, and therefore the value of her influence was misunderstood and discounted. That influence was objectively significant: with Cosmopolitan, she gave single woman a voice, telling them they could enjoy work and sex, while other women’s magazines at the time focused only on the family.
Brown’s obsession with looks and the importance of what men thought put her at odds with more strident feminists, and this framing of her only intensified over the years; one minute she’d be advocating for workplace equality, the next she’d say something like, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” Wrap that in a package of someone as flirty as she was, and you’ve got someone onto whom the confusions of a generation could be projected. Over and over, she’s been used to ask a big and confounding question: what is a feminist? And what is a feminist not?
But those who have deeply researched her argue that many of the extreme interpretations of Brown come from those who didn’t look closely enough. A feminist historian, Scanlon set her book about Brown’s life in that context; as she explains at its start, until recent years, Brown didn’t get nearly as much credit as she should have for being an important part of the feminist movement, as a central figure in creating what’s been dubbed “lipstick” or “deep cleavage” feminism:
This book… considers her not simply as a wayward practitioner of the second wave, an aberrant lipstick-toting girlie girl, but instead as a pioneer, a founder of the second wave, whose 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl, preceded Betty Friedan’s formative work, The Feminine Mystique, by a year. Brown’s particular version of feminism, more likely practiced by single women than housewives, and by working-class secretaries rather than middle-class college students, has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism’s emergence and ascendance.
To tell her story, Scanlon relied primarily on historical texts, but more importantly, on the extensive archives Brown left to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, which houses what is arguably the best collection of documents on American women’s history. After decades of pieces that said a lot but barely scratched the surface (prompted in large part by Brown’s own canny ability to self-promote), hers was the first lengthy, historical text to really give Brown her due, though it was originally received with some skepticism. She also interviewed Brown, as well as her beloved husband David, towards the end of their lives. (David died several months before Scanlon’s book was released.)
“Although this book is not an authorized biography, in that Helen Gurley Brown has not read it or given her stamp of approval to its contents or arguments, it benefits tremendously from her gracious permission to quote from any and all of her published and unpublished writings,” Scanlon wrote—words that have taken on new significance with the publication of these latest books diving into Brown’s life.
Released in April by Harper Collins, women’s magazine veteran Brooke Hauser’s Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman comes at Brown’s life from the perspective of a novice—someone who admits she knew had limited knowledge about Brown before diving into her archives at Smith, a decision spurred by reading her colorful New York Times obit. Enter Helen plays with the structure of Brown’s life, beginning with her marriage to David Brown, and going through the publication of Sex and the Single Girl, which spurred the start of her gig revamping Cosmo, before backtracking to her childhood. Brown’s rise to fame is obviously the most captivating part of her story, but Hauser dives into her youth and her early career in advertising far more than these years have been explored previously, setting the stage much more firmly for understanding how Brown accomplished all that she did—and what an uphill battle it was at times. The book relies on Brown’s archives, but also interviews with key people around her: Letty Pogrebin, who was responsible for the incredibly successful marketing of SATSG, Gloria Steinem, Hugh Hefner, Liz Smith, and the less well-known writers and editors who worked with Brown on a day-to-day basis. It gets deep into Cosmo-related mundanities, but given how much of Brown’s life was work, you can see why Hauser wanted that day-to-day focus, and her easy, personal style counteracts it, often inhabiting Helen’s perspective.
Hauser does pull out some truly juicy moments, like this interaction between photographer David McCabe and Brown in the late ‘60s about the images in Cosmo that demonstrates exactly the kind of revolution she (in part) wanted for American women: a visual one.
“David,” she said silkily, after they had sat down, “I want you to make these girls look, you know, really . . . wet.”
McCabe stared at the prim woman before him, unsure if he had heard her correctly.
“You mean, you want me to shoot them in the shower?” he asked.
“No, silly boy,” she purred. “I want you to make them look excited.”
Or this moment, which was part of former Cosmo editor Lyn Tornabene’s first interactions with Brown:
“She went over all the parts of her body that were not original.
“Also by the end of that meeting,” Tornabene adds, “I knew that she had slept with one hundred and seventy-eight men.”
“What I did know of Helen Gurley Brown before I started the book was what I think a lot of people imagine when they think of her, this kind of skeletal old woman who definitely looked and probably was anorexic and told legions of women [how to do the same],” Hauser said in an interview last month, explaining why she chose to focus on Brown’s “dramatic transformation” from secretary to ad woman, which led to her becoming a successful author and magazine editor. “She was kind of an outcast of the feminist movement and, really by the time she died, very much mocked and made fun of.” As such, Hauser writes less about the latter years of Brown’s reign at Cosmo, in the ‘80s and ‘90s (though the book doesn’t skimp on Brown’s biggest editorial failures, how her age when she started at Cosmo kept her more behind the times than she realized, or her ultimate ousting from the magazine.)
As Hauser learned, Brown’s story is an interesting one not only for what she accomplished, but for how adept she was at shaping her own image. “She kind of disfigured her own story. She told it so many times and she really created the myth of herself. And it’s hard to know when she’s telling the truth and when she’s really exaggerating,” Hauser says. She was fascinated by how Brown’s personality and personal experiences shaped the feminist landscape, drawing attention to Stephanie Harrington’s seminal New York Times 1974 piece that compared the different forms of feminism displayed via Cosmo and Ms. as particularly interesting to her, and ahead of its time at that.
By contrast, journalist Gerri Hirshey’s Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, out in July from Sarah Crichton Books, was written from the perspective of someone who thought she knew all there was to know about Brown. It works as a wholly unvarnished, sometimes bleak, at times almost gossipy depiction of Brown’s life (that italicization is how Helen wrote, and a style most authors who write about her end up occasionally emulating), rather than what it meant for others. Like Hauser, Hirshey also happened into the project; while considering ideas for a new book, she first brushed Brown’s story aside when a friend recommended it, because she assumed there was too much out there already. She often takes the tone of a critic through her linear history of Brown’s life (excluding an entire chapter near the end featuring the perspectives of some of the most important women in Brown’s life, like Gloria Vanderbilt and Barbara Walters), digging into things like the real names of Brown’s formerly anonymous lovers.
But Hirshey certainly agrees that Brown’s life was full of “messy contradictions,” and also seeks to explore her “sincere and underrated feminism”:
I came to this biography as neither an apologist nor an antagonist. I do find much of the revisionist analysis and HGB meta-dissection to be tedious, solipsistic, and drearily beside the point. It is a common misfortune of some American masters of self-invention who outlive their own revolutions—just ask Elvis. I have little patience for the latter-day “third- and fourth-wave” feminists, those who never knew life before the convenience of pantyhose and the NuvaRing, scrapping online about Helen’s heroism and/or betrayal of the sisterhood. Helen didn’t sell little girls down the river to objecthood any more than Madonna or Miley has. She was always about choices. (Though, as a tango fanatic, she’d take a dim view to twerking, I’m sure.)
“At bottom, Helen’s narrative is just too good a story to be circumscribed by gender politics. As a biographer, I am far less concerned, then, with What Helen Gurley Brown Meant for Women than I am with the reasons she could and did make her audacious stand, against impossible odds,” Hirshey writes. “How did she pull it off?”
“I would rather know about a person’s life than that kind of revisionist history,” Hirshey further explained recently, of pieces like Harrington’s (“kind of—forgive me—boring reading”) and (one can assume) the reporting and essays on her life that that have circulated since and before on whether she was a “hero” of women or a “sellout.” “Much of what I’ve read is uninformed,” she added. Nonetheless, she reaches the same conclusion that Hauser does—that Brown’s life wasn’t any easily digestible feminist tale in particular. “The biggest problem about Helen is that everyone assumes they know who she was. Nobody knew her at all really, very few people,” Hirshey says.
This fascination with the “true” Brown has grown since her death, in part because the executors of her estate made it so. While Hauser carefully sidesteps the issues she may or may not have had with the Hearst executives in charge of Brown’s legacy, Hirshey runs into it full-force, explaining, as she did to The New York Times, that people who knew Brown at Hearst who had promised to talk to her quietly pulled away once the company found out (some eventually spoke to her without being named). Even relying on Brown’s words can be difficult; to cite heavily from her archives beyond “fair use,” one must get permission from the estate. It was, she says of working at the archives at Smith, “made clear to me that this project was not looked upon kindly” by Brown’s executors.
“One simply can’t out-Helen Helen,” Hirshey writes freely. “So why muzzle that extraordinary voice?”
But Hirshey also says that the difficulty of pulling information about Brown helped her get some of the best details. “The best finds for the whole book, and what made me go back and have to rewrite large parts of the book, did not come until the end of my research when I had already been writing for about eight or nine months and that was after that Times piece, because the people who really knew Helen were very upset by that piece,” she says of its claim that Brown’s story has been tightly controlled, explaining that, as she reports, many of the people in Brown’s life say they were cut off from her towards the end. “Some of them had not been able to see her at the end, and it was difficult. She was very well cared for, I make that point. But these are the people who truly knew her.”
Hauser, too, says something similar. “I had to be careful about how much I quoted from her papers. I didn’t want to take too much and I also wanted to tell a new story, a different story than the one she has told a million times before,” she says, explaining that she found that the limitations actually “freed me to tell my own story.”
Despite the “muzzling” Hearst did to these latest tellers of Brown’s tale, there is a degree of freedom they had with Brown being no longer alive. “Jennifer Scanlon was not a reporter, but I also think you could not have done this when she was alive, you just couldn’t,” Hirshey says. “And you couldn’t do it with her approval.”
There’s something fascinating about reading a few versions of the same life back-to-back; when consumed in order, Scanlon, Hauser and Hirshey’s books tell as complete a version of Brown’s life as we’ll get right now, filling in the holes that most newspaper and magazine articles couldn’t. And though they all emphasize different things, what comes across is ultimately the same woman: someone who remains impossible to entirely pin down.
Still, with each additional work, a story previously told in broad strokes gets a specificity that makes it more compelling. Hirshey brings to light new stories about Brown’s obsession with plastic surgery (she got breast implants—much to the disappointment of David—at the age of 73), sad details about her rarely mentioned step son who apparently died of AIDS and her sister and brother-in-law’s health problems, discussion of her weight gain towards the end of her life, when she finally relaxed her insanely strict diet, her secret debate over having children, and—perhaps most shockingly—rumors about affairs she and David had while married. (Writes Scanlon in her book of Brown: “She has long promoted a fairly libertine sexuality, but has practiced and expected fidelity in her own marital relationship.”) She argues that, though Brown is often spun as someone who worked every day until the end, she wasn’t capable of doing much at the end of her life. (“At eighty-six, Helen Gurley Brown continues to work, now as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan International, and to espouse her very particular and still-relevant brand of feminism,” is Scanlon’s take in her book.)
A Hearst commissioned documentary on Helen Gurley Brown from 2009
For her part, Hauser deftly pulls out fascinating details about the short-lived Eye magazine for teens, which, overseen by Brown, was Hearst’s attempt at what sounds like a precursor to Rookie—one that never reached full potential because, frankly, Brown was out of the age group that was embracing the percolating and eventually diverse revolution of the ‘60s (an incident that shines a light on many of the clashes she had with other feminists, as beautifully outlined by Nora Ephron in Esquire in 1970). She also argues that Brown’s story that she had grown up poor and impoverished was just that—a story. She dives into Brown’s love of therapy, chronicles the importance of David and his successes in shaping Helen’s life, and emphasizes the importance of her relationships with Hefner and Steinem as indicative of the different facets of feminism we inherited and live with today.
These researched and reported stories of Brown’s life and legacy agree on the big strokes, plus many smaller details: that as an editor she was hardly interested in fact-checking the pieces that ran in Cosmo (some of which were downright fabricated), and made a few huge editorial missteps with regards to handling the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and overuse of Premarin estrogen pills. One wishes to tell us the story of one woman’s immensely successful life, warts and all; the other aims to present how that life grew to mean so much more to a great deal of others. They both, funnily or fittingly enough, end quite similarly, with the noteworthy epitaph on David’s grave: “MARRIED TO HELEN GURLEY BROWN.”
“What I loved about Helen Gurley Brown is that, even after finishing the book and spending four years really immersed in her life and her papers and the 100 plus interviews that I did with people around her, I still came out of it feeling like I didn’t completely know her and that she was still enigmatic and she still fascinates me,” Hauser says. “And so it gave me a new idea for when I write my next profile: really the goal isn’t to know everything about a person, that’s impossible. She really illustrated that to me. She left many more questions.”
Towards the end of her book, Hirshey writes about a set of documents (now lost, or destroyed) Brown penned that allegedly contain the few things about her life didn’t want anyone to know, the truth she hadn’t varnished or spun. Though she wonders what’s in them, Hirshey’s not preoccupied with the idea. “I’m not sure it would be the most interesting thing about her if you got ahold of them,” she says. “I don’t know.”
Screenshots via YouTube, Images via Penguin Random House, Harper Collins and Sarah Crichton Books