Helen Gurley Brown on the cover of an album titled “Gurley at Town Hall.” The recording featured a talk she gave on men, women and sex.
Helen Gurley Brown, the woman who remade Cosmopolitan magazine in the early 1960s to peddle advice on sex and landing the perfect man to female readers, died at age 90 in Manhattan on Monday.
Brown grew up during the Depression era in the Ozarks. In her 1982 book “Having It All,” she rejected the life she expected to live if she stayed in Arkansas: “I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me—ordinary, hillbilly and poor—and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old.”
She did not consider herself pretty as she suffered from bad acne and feared her possible failure to find a husband who could bring her up in society. In many ways, the ideal Cosmo girl who has been idolized and attacked by women on both sides of the feminist debate was the young woman she dreamed of being 20 years before she remade the magazine.
By turns celebrated and castigated, Ms. Brown was for decades a highly visible, though barely visible, public presence. A tiny, fragile-looking woman who favored big jewelry, fishnet stockings and minidresses till she was well into her 80s, she was a regular guest at society soirees and appeared often on television. At 5 feet 4, she remained a wraithlike hundred pounds throughout her adult life. That weight, she often said, was five pounds above her ideal.
Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.
… [I]n an era in which an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23, the new Cosmopolitan gave readers license not to settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took. Sex as an end in itself was perfectly fine, the magazine assured them. As a means to an end — the right husband, the right career, the right designer labels — it was better still.