American author and editor Helen Gurley Brown (born 1922) first achieved fame for her book Sex and the Single Girl, an immediate best-seller. After Gurley Brown became editor of the faltering Cosmopolitan, she transformed it into a sexy, upbeat top-selling magazine for young women in over 27 different countries.
Helen Gurley Brown was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, on February 18, 1922, and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas until her father, Ira M. Gurley, a schoolteacher, was killed in an elevator accident. Gurley Brown's mother, Cleo (nee Sisco), was left to raise their two daughters. (Helen's sister was partially paralyzed from polio.) "I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me—ordinary, hillbilly, and poor," Gurley Brown wrote later, "and I repudiated it from the time I was seven years old." She attended Texas State College for Women (1939-1941), Woodbury College (1942) and received her LL.D from Woodbury University in 1987.
Gurley Brown's first job was with radio station KHJ where she answered fan mail for six dollars per week. From 1942-1945 she worked as an executive secretary at Music Corp. of America, a Beverly Hills talent agency. Once, while reminiscing about her early career days, Gurley Brown recalled how secretaries were required to use the back stairs because the ornate lobby staircase was only for clients and/or male executives.
A major career move for Gurley Brown occurred in 1948 when she became the first woman to hold a copywriter position at Foote, Cone & Belding, a Los Angeles advertising agency. Her ability to produce bright, arresting prose won her two Francis Holmes Advertising Copywriters awards during her tenure at the firm (1948-1958).
She worked for Kenyon & Eckhardt, a Hollywood advertising agency as an account executive and copywriter from 1958-1962.
In 1959, at the age of 37, Helen Gurley married David Brown, then vice president for production at 20th Century Fox. (In later years Brown co-produced Jaws, Cocoon, and The Sting.) The couple had no children. Gurley Brown once remarked that one secret of their marital success was that her husband never interrupted her on Saturdays and Sundays when she was working upstairs in her office.
Gurley Brown's first book, Sex and the Single Girl (1962) revolutionized single women's attitudes towards their own lifestyle. The book became a national best-seller. At a time when Reader's Digest and The Ladies Home Journal still insisted that a "nice" girl had only two choices, "she can marry him or she can say no," Gurley Brown openly proclaimed that sex was an important part of a single woman's lifestyle. According to Gurley Brown, "The single girl is the new glamour girl." For emphasis, Gurley Brown recounted her own story, the saga of a self-proclaimed "mouseburger," who through persistence, patience, and planning, advanced in her chosen field and then married the man of her dreams.
In 1965, Gurley Brown was hired as editor-in-chief of Hearst Corp.'s faltering general interest magazine Cosmopolitan. She revised the magazine's cover image, creating a devil-may-care, sexy Cosmo girl. "A million times a year I defend my covers," Gurley Brown admitted. "I like skin, I like pretty. I don't want to photograph the girl next door." The new Cosmopolitan often provoked controversy, especially when it published a nude male centerfold of actor Burt Reynolds in 1972.
Relentlessly upbeat, the magazine, like its editor, was filled with advice on how to move ahead in a career, meet men, lose weight, and be an imaginative sexual partner. There was no time for the negative. "I wasn't allowed to write critical reviews," movie critic Liz Smith confessed.
By 1990, Cosmopolitan had grown from a circulation of 800,000 in the United States to over 2.5 million. Hearst Corp. claimed that with its 27 international editions Cosmopolitan was now one of the most widely read women's magazines in the world and had become the sixth best-selling newsstand magazine in any category.
In the 20 years between publication of Sex and the Single Girl and Having It All (1982), Gurley Brown's advice changed little. She still refused to print four letter words but graphically described techniques for oral stimulation. "I am still preoccupied with sex," she confessed. "If you want to enchant a man and eventually marry him, you are good to him, easy with him, adorable to be around."
During a Fortune magazine interview in Oct. of 1996, Gurley Brown shared several of her rules for being a good executive. "These are my rules, written with some incredulity about being one [an executive] and with probably not enough modesty," she stated. Her guidelines included saying something complimentary before criticizing, saying "no" to time wasters, doing what you dread first, and working harder than anybody else.
In addition to her Francis Holmes Achievement awards (1956-59), Gurley Brown received several awards for journalism, including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Southern California in 1971, an award for editorial leadership from the American Newspaper Woman's Club of Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the Distinguished Achievement Award in Journalism from Stanford University in 1977. In 1985 she received the New York Women in Communications matrix award. She has been dedicated as a "living landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Helen Gurley Brown Research professorship was established in her name at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1986. She was inducted into the Publisher's Hall of Fame in 1988.
In January, 1996, Bonnie Fuller, founding editor of Hearst Corp.'s magazine Marie Claire, was named Gurley Brown's successor and new editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. "She [Fuller] thoroughly understands the Cosmo girl, and her success … certainly prepared her to succeed to the editorship of Cosmopolitan," said Gurley Brown. Fuller served an eighteen-month internship under Gurley Brown while Gurley Brown continued as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan's international publishing program.
Further Reading on Helen Gurley Brown
The best glimpse of Helen Gurley Brown is provided through her own books. In addition to Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Gurley Brown authored Sex and the Office (1965), Outrageous Opinions (1967), Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook (1969), Sex and the New Single Girl (1970), Cosmopolitan's Love Book, A Guide to Ecstasy in Bed (1978), and Having It All (1982). See also "What the Women's Movement Means to Me" in Ms. (July 1985).