Helen Gurley Brown

By: Victoria Yates

Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Marie Gurley was born on the 18th of February 1922 in Green Forest, Arkansas, the youngest of Cleo and Ira Marvin Gurley’s two daughters. The family lived in modest circumstances, her father initially working as a schoolteacher (as her mother had prior to her marriage). A year after her birth, Brown’s father completed a law degree, and was soon being elected to the state legislature. The new career meant that the family would move to Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1932 the family dynamic would dramatically change when Ira, preparing a run for state secretary of Arkansas, was tragically killed in an elevator accident at the State Capitol. Her mother became intensely depressed and, despite her best efforts, the family struggled financially.

In 1937, Cleo moved her family to Los Angeles, where, a few months later, Brown’s sister Mary contracted polio. The disease would leave her paralyzed from the waist down, eventually struggling with alcoholism in her later years. Despite the difficult circumstances of her home life, Brown not only attended John H. Francis Polytechnic High School but also flourished academically, maintaining a position in the top ten percent of her class and graduating valedictorian.

After her graduation in 1939, Brown briefly attended Texas State College for Women before being forced to withdraw for financial reasons after her first semester. She returned to California and took up a place at Woodbury Business College, a secretarial school, from where she graduated in 1941. She held a variety of secretarial jobs over the next few years, 17 at her count, including at such prestigious companies as the William Morris Agency, Music Corporation of America and Jaffe talent agency.

In 1948 however she landed at the advertising firm Foote, Cone and Belding, where she worked for the advertising executive Don Belding. Brown impressed Belding with her intelligence and the wit she displayed in the notes she wrote for him, and he helped secure her a place in the copywriting department where she quickly advanced. In 1958, Brown moved to Kenyon & Eckhardt as a copywriter and account executive. By the early 1960s she was one of the highest paid copywriters in the country, and had won three Frances Holmes Advertising Copywriters awards.

In 1959, Brown married the Hollywood producer David Brown, who would go on to produce such films as Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy. It was in fact her husband who would encourage her to pursue a career in writing. After finding a selection of letters Brown had written in her 20s to a married man she was enamored with, he convinced her to write a book about her single life. The resulting work, ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ was a sensation when it was published in 1962, selling millions and rocketing Brown to nationwide celebrity. The book inspired a movie of the same title starring Natalie Wood, which was released two years later, solidifying Brown’s importance on the cultural scene of the time. The book, which today seems comparatively quaint, was revolutionary at the time, touching on such controversial issues as sex and the unmarried woman and the vital need for women to pursue a career.

Following Brown’s arrival as a new voice of liberation and empowerment she was offered the editorship of Cosmopolitan magazine, at the time a failing magazine aimed at the suburban housewife and homely quandaries. Brown, supported by David, injected a new life into the magazine, revolutionizing its message into one of sexual freedom, further crafting the view of unmarried women from sad spinster into the newest glamour girl. For Brown women could and should have it all - love, sex and money, an entirely new feminism that was met with widespread opposition. The new style Cosmopolitan struck a chord with American women, with circulation soaring from less than 800,000 at the time of Brown’s arrival to almost three million by the 1980s.

When Brown’s tenure at the helm of the magazine came to an end in 1997 she was a model of glamorous, wealthy living and sexual freedom. She had since written several books including her 80s bestseller ‘Having it All’ which focused particularly on financial self-sufficiency for women, an issue close to her heart given her difficult childhood. The book tracked her own progression from rural Arkansas to the editor’s desk of a national sensation. As ever, Brown emphasized her belief that she was not a girl of exceptional gifts or beauty, but that she had simply worked exceedingly hard to achieve her goals. It was in itself an inspirational message of independence and empowerment. In total Brown penned ten books, revisiting key issues of her generation as she moved through life herself, becoming a vocal advocate for cosmetic surgery and the benefits it offered the older woman.

Brown continued to extend her legacy, establishing a research professorship in magazine publishing at Northwestern University in 1985, and she was inducted into the Publisher’s Hall of Fame in 1988. The American Society of Magazine Editor’s Hall of Fame followed suit in 1996. Furthermore, in 1995, the New York Landmarks Conservancy declared Brown a living landmark.

Despite her groundbreaking life, Brown did not always manage to stay with the pulse of the time, embroiling herself and the magazine in several controversies including playing down the risk of AIDS for heterosexual women. She also defended Justice Clarence Thomas in the light of sexual harassments allegations, maintaining that a man’s attention is almost always flattering. By the time she retired from Cosmopolitan, circulation had begun to decline and there was increasing unease that she wasn’t in touch with her readership anymore. Nevertheless, Brown continued to edit the magazine’s international editions.

David died of kidney failure on the 1st of February 2010, aged ninety-three, at home with Brown. Two years later, Brown gave $30 million to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s School of Engineering in his name, established the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

On the 13th of August 2012, Brown died after a brief stay in New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, she was 90.

Brown was a trailblazer for the sexual revolution, proclaiming that single women need not be ashamed of their sexuality but instead should relish and embrace it. Professionally she changed the nature of female orientated magazine publishing. Although some question her legacy, it inarguably altered the genre in ways that are still evolving today. She was a figure shrouded in controversy whose life is a testament to some of the most pivotal themes of the 20th century. A leader of style and fashion – and a thought leader on the role of the modern woman.