Years ago, I worked in a liquor store in Georgia that had a private club attached. In the ladies room was a wooden plaque upon which was mounted the famous Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan centerfold, lovingly varnished to give the plaque an antiqued look. It had hung in the first bar my employer owned, across the street, and it was a bar game for women to steal Burt and return him after a few days. But, no one had stolen Burt from the new club in ages because it was more a male networking bar than co-ed. That is, no one had stolen it until the weekend of April 16, 1995. On April 19, the bar burned to the ground. We all thought Burt was lost forever, until one of the owner’s friends showed up with the plaque. So few women used the ladies in the club that Burt hadn’t been missed.
The woman responsible for the existence of that centerfold, Helen Gurley Brown, passed away in New York City at the age of 90. She was the editor of Cosmopolitan from 1965 to 1996, and changed women’s magazines forever. Frank talk about sex! Nude MEN! Oh, my God! Who did Gurley Brown think she was publishing for, perverts?
Helen Gurley Brown burst on our consciousness in 1962 with her bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. Her idea was that it was about time we acknowledged that women liked sex and had sex outside of marriage. Now, you have to remember something about that era. The 1950s and early 1960s were “denial time.” Our mothers had left the factories they worked in during the war and gotten married, moved to the suburbs and dropped 3.5 children in five years. They did not talk about their lives before marriage. We were being fed the idea that a real American girl stayed pure and untouched until marriage, which helps account for the number of teenage marriages and pregnancies in the late ‘50s. It wasn’t until my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimers that she confessed our father was not her first and only.
But The Pill hit the market in 1960, and by 1962, 1.2 million American women were using it, and by 1963, the number had hit 2.3 million, and we were talking about birth control and sex for fun, even if the conversation was couched in terms of married couples. Gurley Brown’s book was a dating guide for a new world, where women could have sex for pleasure and not worry about getting pregnant. We were liberated sexually and on our way to fighting for liberation in the workplace and society.
When Gurley Brown took over Cosmo, it was a small circulation magazine that barely registered in anyone’s radar. By the time of her death, Cosmo was in 62 international editions and still one of the most recognizable magazines in America. It was Gurley Brown who decided on the signature look of Cosmo – the stunningly beautiful models who graced each cover, the story teasers that sometimes got the mag relegated to the adult magazine, behind the counter racks. Cosmo paved the way for everything from funny-dirty greeting cards to bodice-busters with Fabio on the cover to TV’s Sex and the City to Shades of Gray.
Cosmo scared the hell out of men. It was more than just the idea that women look at men, it was the terrifying idea that they needed to do more than “slam, bam, thank you ma’m” and go to sleep. Women, orgasms, what the?????
Helen Gurley Brown was the existential New Yorker, chic, slick, educated, cultured, cosmopolitan, even though she was born in Arkansas and lived in California and Georgia. She inhabited both the publishing world and the entertainment world through her 1959 marriage to producer David Brown, whose hits included The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy. Brown died just two years ago. They had been together for 51 years. In his memory, earlier this year, Gurley Brown endowed Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Stanford University’s School of Engineering with gift of $30 million to create a joint institute for media innovation.
Trained as a secretary, Gurley Brown became a writer and editor because one of her employers, the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency, recognized her writing talent and moved her from the secretarial pool to copywriting. In addition to editing Cosmo, Gurley Brown wrote eight other best sellers
Gurley Brown was often at odds with other early feminists because of her advocacy of women being able to have it all – love, sex, careers, children and great clothes. The feminist movement was supposed to be focusing on moving American women away from being madonna-whores, pure and virtuous but outwardly Marilyn Monroe-style sexy. The Betty Friedans and Germaine Greers wanted women to be taken seriously, to rise to the top through merit, and here was Gurley Brown and her legion of Cosmo Girls, saying we didn’t have to be frumpy, dumpy and sporting horn rims to be taken seriously. We could wear miniskirts and go to the hairdresser and shave our pits and still be what Gurley Brown was, a successful, powerful complete woman. And thirty years later, between the jokes about how Carrie could have put the downpayment on her apartment’s condo-conversion if she could have cashed in her shoes and Samantha fainting at the HIV testing, we smiled over the unexpected revival of that old cocktail, the cosmopolitan.
Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Bella Abzug, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Clare Booth Luce, so many great women liberated our minds and our life choices. Helen Gurley Brown liberated our bodies and our libidos. So, when you are enjoying Shades of Gray, or getting out your DVD of 300, or letting your eyes wander during a men’s spandex-clad sporting event, remember Helen and thank her.