Liz Smith Remembers Helen Gurley Brown

On October 18th, at Alice Tully Hall/Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Liz Smith spoke in memory of Helen Gurley Brown who died  August 13th..  While all the speakers were wonderful (Frank Bennack, Mayor Bloomberg, Barbara Walters, Brooke Shields, among others), we wanted to share Liz’s  remembrances here:

Hi. I’m Liz Smith.

I want to say that I am the person Helen Gurley Brown loved the most. And now 90% of you out there are saying I’m crazy, that you are the person Helen Gurley Brown loved the most. That’s the way she was!

People have asked me since 1965 what is, what was, Helen really like?

Well, friends, I’ve been in entertainment for 62 years. I have known Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Madonna, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Walters. But what can one say about Helen being the person most people ask about.

What can one say about a woman who took over Cosmopolitan in 1965 and kicked its ass from abject failure to becoming Hearst’s big moneymaker, still today, it’s biggest brand? And she picked me to stay with her. And I worked with her for 15 years, so naturally, I loved and defended her ever after.

What can one say about a woman who well into late middle age would come down to dinner announcing that she and her distinguished movie producer husband had just had sex and he didn’t need Viagra?

This didn’t happen at Brooke Astor’s house. Maybe it should have.

What can one say about having Helen and David to my little Hamptons house where one year he’s making a difficult, impossible movie where the shark doesn’t work and then the next year “Jaws” had made them impossibly rich? So the next year, Helen sits crying at lunch in front of everyone, asking David if he is going to replace her with a younger woman? He wisely tells her no; he is now too old.

What can you say about a woman who never heard of letting down on weekends, who got up at six a.m. and started shaking the house and the rest of us with hangovers as she exercised? She believed in doing two hours of exercises because if one hour was good, two was better. Then she’d eat a lettuce leaf for lunch.

What can you say about a woman who argues with you when I press she needs a car and driver from Hearst — pointing out that Diana Vreeland of Vogue had a non-moneymaking magazine — but she had a car and driver. Helen says, “No, I have to be on the bus to see my girls — how they dress, what they say, what they want.”

What can you say about a woman — when her bosses give her car and driver anyway — a woman who would worry about letting the driver go early because it seemed a waste to her to have him sit around?

What can you say about a woman — your boss, who was as stubborn and hard-headed as Nikita Khruschev when you object to tacky covers on Cosmo, who answered sweetly: “Lizzie, you may be right, but when our news stand sales fall off, I will consider changing the covers.” ?

She never had to.

What can you say about a woman who in a lawsuit between two of her employees, chose one side against the other (me, being the other) and testified so expertly that I lost the lawsuit while Helen expected me to forgive her and love her for her reasoning, and, she said, her ethically taking sides? I did.

I had never known Helen to use the word “ethically” before.

What can you say about an editor when you tell her you’re leaving to write for Sports Illustrated for much more money, thinks it over, refuses to accept your resignation and says, “You can do both jobs and we won’t talk about it anymore.”?

She didn’t and I didn’t either.

What can you say about a woman who went behind her generous husband’s back, picking up the cash tips he left in hotel rooms for the maid?

What can you say about a woman who could seldom be budged in her editorial opinion or controversies of taste, who had to be dissuaded from publishing a suggestion that having some of your pubic hair embedded in plastic would make a great gift for the man in your life? (this was one of the only times when her book editor Joni Evans and I ever won an argument with Helen.)

What can you say about a woman who thought sex was the most beautiful word in the English language and you were just a silly phony for having other spiritual, environmental, intellectual, tasteful ideas and for not agreeing with her? She was usually undissuede-able and only Frank Bennack ever really changed Helen’s mind.

For instance she insisted she didn’t believe AIDS was a problem for heterosexual women and she couldn’t be budged. But then, maybe once she met Bill Clinton, maybe she did.

What can you say about a woman who I met at the Cannes Film Festival where she bought two Hermes ties for $300 but then refused to spend $100 for a tiny dress which was perfect for her? I questioned her sacrifice. “Oh, the tie,” she asked, “That’s different. That’s for David to give someone in business.”

What can you say about a kind of corny UNIQUE pioneer of her own mind, WHO changed the world for working women, made them value themselves even if only as sex objects (in Helen’s mind the best kind) and encouraged tricks to gain objectives, made women feel freer, more important, sexier and who shattered glass ceilings while SOMETIMES taking the wrong sides in the stricter women’s liberation movement? She was her own kind of liberator and she was the first to make a man, Burt Reynolds, a nude sex object.

Yes, there was nobody like her. The most difficult, single minded, dedicated human unique person I ever worked for or became a friend to.

I wouldn’t take anything for having loved a legend who didn’t know either her limitations or her own strength. I will always miss her.

And goddamit Helen all the times you made us walk home from the theater because you felt sorry for the driver!

I am still mad about that and chiefly because

I can hear you in my ear, “Now … Lizzie … be nice!”

So long, kid!

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