Sex and Success: The life and times of the inimitable Helen Gurley Brown

"She knew how to work people and, most of all, knew how to work men.”

"She knew how to work people and, most of all, knew how to work men.”

More than half a century after Helen Gurley Brown helped ignite the sexual revolution, her cultural impact is back in the spotlight. Emily Simpson examines her revival among a younger generation and asks the author of a new biography about her subject's hits and misses.

Recently, a young journalist working for an online magazine tried a diet recommended by Helen Gurley Brown. Two days, six eggs, two steaks and two bottles of white wine was the formula. A 2.7kg weight loss and "scrumptious" body the promise. The wine drinking was to start at breakfast. Needless to say that writer ended the weekend puffy faced, tired and slightly heavier. "Helen Gurley Brown should be my hero," she laments.

With her unique blend of groundbreaking re-feminism and stinking bad advice Helen Gurley Brown always earned herself a mixed reception. She leapt into public view in 1962 with her risqué manual for young women Sex and the Single Girl and stayed there – as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine – for 30 years. The last two decades of her life were spent on the pop culture scrapheap – by then she was a skeletal, overly facelifted, multimillionaire spouting cringeworthy rubbish about how to please a man.

But she's been having a bit of a hipster revival lately. Lena Dunham, in Not That Kind of Girl, writes of being a college student and buying Gurley Brown's book Having It All for 65 cents, in the same spirit she would buy a coffee-stained 1980s power suit. Secretly though, she devoured every word.

Helen Gurley Brown, aged 43.

Helen Gurley Brown, aged 43.

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It wasn't the diet wisdom she lapped up: "Satisfied is out of the question." Nor the relationship advice: "The more sex you have, the more you can tolerate." It was Gurley Brown's key message – the same one that permeates all her books – that it's a woman's job to make her own money; an exciting career is as good if not better than domestic bliss; men are great for fun, sex, and office advancement and – this is the best bit – the ticket to this glamorous, loved-up life is not a pretty face, dazzling IQ or impressive family background. The ticket is your "yearning" and your ability to work, work, work. And when it came to this unstoppable drive, it was the plain, ordinary girls, or "mouseburgers" as Gurley Brown coined them, who had the edge.

For the young, self-loathing Dunham, Gurley Brown's message brought a flash of inspiration. "Maybe, as Helen preached, a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born," she writes. "Maybe."

"Maybe, as Helen preached, a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born," Lena Dunham says, ...

"Maybe, as Helen preached, a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born," Lena Dunham says, taking inspiration from Gurley Brown.

Enter Helen, a new book out next month examines the life of Helen Gurley Brown and – while it's no hagiography – it attempts to do justice to the impact she had on American culture. "I think she's very important," says the book's author Brooke Hauser, speaking by phone from her home in Massachusetts. "I feel like I should have learnt more about her in American history classes…

"Before Sex and the Single Girl came out in 1962, of course single women and men were having sex, but they weren't talking about it out in the open. She really forced people to realise that you didn't have to be married to enjoy having sex and you could have more than one partner [in your lifetime]… She helped usher in the sexual revolution."

Hauser, 37, wanted to write a book of interest to Baby Boomers who remembered Gurley Brown but also to college-age kids who'd never heard of her and thought the 60s were all about free love and flower power. "I had to explain some of the context here – it wasn't just that sex was taboo for single women, it was also that single women couldn't have an apartment in their own name, they couldn't own a credit card…"

She points to a 1960 Look magazine article titled Women without Men which reported that 70 percent of American women were married before the age of 24. "From then on," warned the writer, "it's a downhill slide." A psychiatrist interviewed said single women felt they "weren't getting much out of life". They were dissatisfied, anxious and depressed, with many on a "frenzied man hunt" or settling for a "man-free life".

It was a grim fate – yet for many, inevitable. There was a shortage of four million men in the early 60s in the United States – and 21 million single women. So when the self-made, glamorous Gurley Brown burst onto the scene with a brazen little book insisting that singledom was sexy and anything but man-free, she had a ready audience, not just open to her message but desperate for it.

Gurley Brown leads a Cosmopolitan staff meeting in the mid-60s.

Gurley Brown leads a Cosmopolitan staff meeting in the mid-60s.

Gurley Brown died aged 90 in 2012 – the same year Hauser picked up a copy of Sex and the Single Girl and read it splayed across the handlebar of her newborn baby's pushchair. She was a 21st-century mother in active wear, soaking up dated advice for single working girls – but like Dunham, she found it strangely relevant. "The book is awesome," she says.

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"Her voice is so funny and witty and whimsical… What did stand out was how much of the book wasn't about sex at all but really about a woman finding her own independence… She was saying, listen, you're young, move out of your parents' house, don't get married yet, find a job you love, turn it into a career… And she also gave a ton of financial advice. She was [saying], look, you can't be independent if you're not financially independent. Number one: you know you can't have a sexy affair with a man if you're living in your parents' house. So she told them how to go out and get their own apartment."

The big irony was that Gurley Brown herself was not single. In fact Hauser argues that Helen Gurley Brown – the brand – is not a person at all but a clever construct by Gurley Brown and her husband, successful movie producer David Brown. It was his idea that she write the book.

“She really forced people to realise that you didn’t have to be married to enjoy having sex.”

“She really forced people to realise that you didn’t have to be married to enjoy having sex.”

However, it can't be denied that she had put in years of research. She was 36 when Brown met her, a highly-paid executive at a Hollywood ad agency who'd clawed her way to the top via countless secretarial jobs and even more sexual liasons – over 178, she told a friend. (Though she advised women that the correct answer to that particular question was always "three"…)

The 43-year-old twice-divorced Brown met a tiny woman who owned a Mercedes Benz that she'd paid for in cash. She wasn't overtly beautiful but she was easy to be around. That was her great skill, the one she'd cultivated. The key she once said was talking little, listening much. "He talks, you listen. You can talk to your girlfriends , your boss, your secretary. But you may not do all the talking you would like to do with him."

Gurley Brown had a slightly creepy term for this seduction process, writes Hauser. She called it "sinking in" and when she considered her hook sufficiently sunk, she tried to reel in Brown, telling him it was marriage or goodbye. Such ultimatums, she later said in an Observer interview, mustn't be thrown around lightly. "You've got to be sure you've got your hook in." The marriage that followed was low-fuss and swift. "I couldn't have a big splashy wedding or a girls' shower because he'd have scampered off."

Brooke Hauser, author of 
Enter Helen.

Brooke Hauser, author of Enter Helen.

For all her flattery and flirtation, Gurley Brown was a steely character with enormous self-discipline. She concealed her ruthless intelligence and played different roles with different people. "That's why I loved writing about her so much," says Hauser. "I really had to question her motives and also wonder how authentic she was being… A lot of people felt like they never really knew her because she kind of moulded herself into whatever people wanted her to be in order to get what she wanted from them."

But her union with Brown was the real deal – they worked as a team and were together until he died. Hauser suggests that Brown brought an effective Hollywood approach to the Gurley Brown brand, playing up her humble Arkansas origins. "In fact what I realised from talking to some of her family members, was that as a child she was firmly middle class… It was only when she moved to Los Angeles [as a teenager] after her father died that things became very hard … When she met David Brown, they did away with some of those nuances and sold the movie version of her life to the press, and they offended her family in the process … She kind of made them look like they were backwards hillbillies and I think she profited. It made her own rise seem all the more Hollywood dramatic."

But there's no doubt that some of Gurley Brown's relentless drive stemmed from her childhood. At 11, she lost her father in a freak elevator accident. Later, her older sister Mary developed polio and would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Those two misfortunes left her mother struggling to survive; with no money for college, it was straight to typing school for the clever, though acne-ridden Gurley Brown. She was the family breadwinner from that point onward. It could indeed have been a dreary life, but Gurley Brown wasn't going to let that happen.

From rags to riches, from plain to pretty, from ignored to pursued – it was the winning 'mouseburger' formula that made Sex and the Single Girl a publishing sensation and Gurley Brown and Brown were keen to further capitalise on it. They had an idea for a magazine, initially to be called Femme, which would target the same single female market. They failed to get backers, but used the same model when Hearst appointed Gurley Brown as editor in chief of the ailing Cosmopolitan magazine – a dowdy literary publication. Overnight (and to the chagrin of many of the staff members), Gurley Brown turned Cosmopolitan into a bright, breezy and not exactly intellectual sex-and-life manual.

From her very first issue, sales were off the charts. Hugh Hefner of Playboy was a huge fan and supporter. After all, Gurley Brown was essentially training women to be just what a his pipe-toting readers required: attractive and willing sexual partners, somewhat lower in social status of course, but wonderful to have about the office.

Gurley Brown and David Brown married in 1959.

Gurley Brown and David Brown married in 1959.

"His great quote was – and I hope I get it right – 'Playmates are just Cosmo girls with their clothes off,'" says Hauser, who interviewed the geriatric Hefner for her book.

"He couldn't hear very well so he actually had like a 1950s playboy playmate next to him [Joyce Nizzari, Playmate of the Month, December, 1958]. She was asking all of my questions a little bit louder so he could hear them," says Hauser. "He just remembered being kind of like a mentor to Helen. He adored her, he thought she was fantastic."

Generally, men did. "Gay men, straight men… she knew how to work people and, most of all, knew how to work men."

In her early Cosmo days, Gurley Brown was riding the crest of the times. And then the mid 60s became the late 60s and her message fell out of fashion. Feminism had arrived in force.

The women's movement targeted much of the American media including Playboy[ for obvious reasons, and the Ladies' Home Journal which promoted a suffocating housewifely ideal, and Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmpolitan too. Because despite her support for sexual freedom, contraception and legal abortion, Gurley Brown was also intent on schooling young women in the art of pleasing men. And if that took sleeping with the boss or starving yourself to the point of distraction, so be it. "Skinny is sacred," was one of her many dodgy catchphrases.

"She came around before the feminist movement so she was used to flirting and using her feminine wiles to get what she wanted from men," says Hauser.

Posing for a photo 1968.

Posing for a photo 1968.

"She was used to operating in a man's world, not a woman's world, but it worked for her. I think the reason feminists had a problem with that is because she was one individual and they were looking to help women as an entire gender." (Gloria Steinem and Gurley Brown later developed a friendly rapport, seeing similarities in their origins: absent fathers, struggling mothers, a burning urge to fight for a different life.)

Gurley Brown held her position at Cosmopolitan for three decades – though it cannot be said she remained in touch with the zeitgeist that whole time. Her first big public clanger was dropped in the late 80s when she announced that AIDS was not something straight women need worry too much about.

Also, Gurley Brown had built her career on sexing up the idea of work. She often argued that office flirting increased energy and productivity. In the 60s, the idea that a career was as sexy and fulfilling as the alternative (marriage) was groundbreaking.

But times changed and no one wanted to hear her say, "Of the millions of naughty suggestions made by millions of male employers to their 'defenceless' female employees yearly, I'd say half cheered the girls up."

It was time for her to move on, but she didn't want to.

At age 80 Gurley Brown was still coming into the Hearst office; still flirting, dieting, wearing minis and doing 200 crunches a day to keep her tummy flat, even if her face, according to one journalist, was "so lifted, botoxed, dermabraded and plumped with silicone that it was only residually human".

Hauser describes her poignant last days at Hearst – first sidelined into token roles and ultimately shown the door. "Certainly she just tried hanging on for as long as possible."

She disappeared from public view in her last decade but Enter Helen has some interesting information from that period. Firstly – astonishingly – Gurley Brown got fat. The woman who once bragged that she ate one cookie a year – on Christmas Day – began to eat cookies constantly, even requesting that guests bring them. "Chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies," writes Hauser. "You name it, she ate it all."

She also took to having long phone conversations with her cousin Lou – reminiscing about their childhood days in Arkansas. And when she died, that's where she chose to be buried.

"For all of her rebelling against her roots, the fact that she chose to be buried in rural Arkansas, I don't know, it struck me as very poignant," says Hauser. "You'd think she'd have wanted to be [buried] in Manhattan, but no, she chose this very remote place that she had always said was torture to return to. With her mother and sister.

"And it again kind of illustrated for me how most people didn't know who she was."

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