The legendary editor’s 32-year stint at helm of Cosmopolitan magazine saw the introduction of frank discussions about sex.
Helen Gurley Brown spurred the sexual revolution by declaring that women could “have it all,” including a career, marriage and great sex, died on Monday in Manhattan.
She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.
The Hearst Corporation, Cosmo’s publisher, said in a news release that she died at NewYork Presbyterian/Columbia hospital after a brief stay there. She lived in Manhattan.
But it was at Cosmo, which she transformed from being an often straitlaced publication aimed at suburban housewives into one that built a global readership based on Brown and her colleagues’ idealized image of the sexually liberated, career-focused “Cosmo girl“.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city had “lost a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry but the culture of the US“. He added: “She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print. She was a quintessential New Yorker: never afraid to speak her mind and always full of advice. She pushed boundaries and often broke them, clearing the way for younger women to follow in her path.”
Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell tweeted: “This really is the end of an era.”
Born into a family of modest means in rural Arkansas, Helen became a writer of advertising copy on the West Coast after working at a string of secretarial jobs.
She was 37 when she married twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor turned movie producer who encouraged her to write a book.
Helen shocked America with “Sex and the Single Girl.” It was a collection of advice, opinion and anecdote about unmarried women having sex and thoroughly enjoying it.
The book made her an instant celebrity. Gurley Brown became one of the top sellers of 1962.
Brown was hired three years later by Hearst Magazines to turn Cosmopolitan around, declaring that her aim was to tell a reader “how to get everything out of life – the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity, whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against”.
Titillating cover lines became synonymous with the title, where sales grew every year until peaking at just over three million in 1983, before slowly leveling off to 2.5 million, where it was when Brown left in 1997.
Brown‘s focus on sex and approval of cosmetic surgery made her a controversial figure among many who suggested she was saying women should work the system rather than overthrow it.
Helen’s other books include “Sex and the Office” (1964), “Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook” (1969) and “Sex and the New Single Girl” (1970), all published by Bernard Geis.
In 1993, William Morrow published “The Late Show,” Helen’s advice book for women over 50, in which she suggests that as women age and the supply of available men dwindles, they should simply appropriate their friends’ husbands for jaunty recreational sex.
A biography of Brown‘s, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” by Jennifer Scanlon, was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.
Beloved pop culture characters inspired by Helen:
Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, “Mad Men”: Helen Gurley Brown’s own life story closely parallels that of Peggy at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — she began her career as an executive secretary at ad agency Foote Cone & Belding, and worked her way up to becoming a copywriter. But, like Joan, she recognized that sex could be used as a means of getting ahead, writing in “Sex and the Single Girl” that any gifts or raises received for sex were a way of narrowing the pay gap between men and women.
Murphy Brown, “Murphy Brown”: Like Murphy Brown, Gurley Brown was fiercely dedicated to her career, and both women were devoted to shattering the glass ceiling. In her Post obituary, Gurley Brown was referred to as ”The standard-bearer of the ‘working girl.’” They differed only on the issue of children — Murphy Brown famously became a single mother, but Cosmopolitan was Gurley Brown’s baby, and she remained childless by choice. She rarely referred to children in Cosmo.
The cast of “Sex and the City”: It’s a direct descendant of “Sex and the Single Girl.” Each of the characters in “Sex and the City” represents elements of Gurley Brown’s book, with the exception of traditional, marriage-minded Charlotte — but even she follows much of Gurley Brown’s Cosmo advice, and not just the magazine’s many tips on how to please your man. Gurley Brown preached that women should go out and live the kind of life they wanted to live — to find what they wanted, whether it was a career or love, rather than waiting for it to come to them.
Mary Richards, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”: The trailblazing career woman, Mary Richards was the first single female to become a central character on TV. She debuted in 1970, eight years after the publication of “Sex and the Single Girl,” and writers weren’t afraid to address topics such as wage inequality, premarital sex, marital infidelity, and homosexuality — all of which play a part in the book. Remaining single throughout the series, Mary Richards was one of the original Cosmo girls.
The cast of “Girls”: HBO’s new indie darling Lena Dunham’s show is the little sister to “Sex and the City” — another group of four single women, but this time, they’re young enough to have never known a world without Cosmopolitan and single female role models on TV.