Queen of Sex
An extract from the book Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman by Brooke Hauser.
"The U.S. Weather Bureau did not track the course of a Hurricane Helen last spring, but there was one."
— Chris Welles, Life, November 19, 1965
Helen didn't have much patience for parties, but one fall day she broke out champagne and glasses for the staff to celebrate an exciting milestone: selling one million copies of Cosmpolitan. (By November, the magazine would average about a million copies per issue.) Clutching the bottle in hand, Helen closed her eyes, threw up an arm, and cheered. Somewhere nearby a camera clicked, capturing her in the ecstasy of the moment for an upcoming feature in Life. As a couple of secretaries topped off their glasses and lit up their cigarettes, George Walsh made his way through the small crowd and handed her a gift from the Cosmopolitan staff: a gold record, mounted and framed. "Congratulations, Chieftess," it said.
Reaching the million-copy mark was a huge coup for Helen. Even her biggest critics on staff couldn't deny that she was a success. Once again, she was also a national story. Shortly after penciling "Life Mag" into her red journal, Helen welcomed the writer Chris Welles into her office. As usual, she launched into her poor-little-me routine. Every whispery utterance brought a new confession of helplessness – for instance, how she wore a padded bra and Pan-Cake makeup to compensate for what she didn't have naturally. The fact that she, an average girl, could land someone like David Brown as a husband was testament to the fact that her advice worked – and it was advice that could work for other women, too.
"It's just a half-baked crusading idea, I guess," Helen said, smiling bashfully.
Welles glimpsed the steel under the smile, and so did Helen's staffers, he soon found out. Just as Liz Smith had been fooled, at first, by her innocent act, other editors soon saw that "Helen's terribly polite, terribly innocent, terribly quiet exterior was a convenient and effective cover for a terribly determined and terribly ambitious interior," Welles wrote, noting that one staffer compared her to a butterfly wrought of iron.
"She had a nickname: the Iron Butterfly," Vene Spencer says now. "We knew she had that moxie in her. She'd come across very sweet and timid and delicate, but she had the fighter in her. She was fierce."
When Life ran the article in November, it was with the headline 'Soaring Success of the Iron Butterfly,' and it was a major PR coup for both Helen and Hearst. In the article, Welles corrected a persisting misconception that the company was bleeding money. On the contrary, earnings were up, and the company was reportedly worth more than $100 million.
As for Cosmopolitan, which had been aimless and unprofitable under the direction of its former editor, it was making publishing history, thanks to Helen Gurley Brown, who, in addition to hitting the million-copy mark in circulation, had brought in a torrent of new advertising, raising the third-quarter ad revenue 50 percent over 1964. In just a few months, she had managed to turn the magazine into a flashy, phenomenal success. When Welles asked Frank Dupuy Jr. for a comment, the publisher was ecstatic, but not everyone was so supportive. A former freelancer for Cosmopolitan, Betty Friedan, called Cosmo's new outlook "quite obscene," showing "utter contempt for women."
"It an immature teenage-level sexual fantasy," she grumbled to Welles. "It is the idea that woman is nothing but a sex object, that she is nothing without a man, that there is nothing in life but bed, bed, bed."
Published by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.
- Sunday Magazine