I CARE a lot. I think of Cosmopolitan all day, and I run scared. So it’s a combination of fright, caring and anxiety. My success was not based so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.”
Thus, just one of the ‘intelligences’ from Helen Gurley Brown who died this week at 90.
You’ll be reading lots of quotes now from the long successful career of an ordinary girl from Arkansas who picked herself up and pushed sexual freedom for women, following right on the heels of Hugh Hefner’s sometimes irritating principles.
In detail both of these breakthrough “advice” promoters of high sexuality were demeaning to the role of women, but freeing to many of them at the same time. It became a conundrum and a puzzlement.
THE HEAD of the Hearst Corporation is a marvelous man named Frank Bennack. He called the day his star Helen Gurley Brown died peacefully in her sleep. Helen had a few days of trouble catching her breath. She had reported to the office almost every day of what others thought of as her “retirement.”
Before I ever became a newspaper columnist with a big byline, Helen had given me free rein as the “entertainment columnist” of the new Cosmopolitan — a magazine that became a scandal, a sensation and a benchmark for its times.
I had a ball for years working with Helen, a woman I very seldom agreed with, but who I admired and loved for her bravery, her chutzpah, her elaborate endeavor to “save” women from themselves by getting them to marry well, have sex as they pleased, and get to the top any damn way they could. She was her own kind of feminist and the Hearst Corporation is now directing the millions she left into an important legacy in her name at the Columbia Journalism School.
In a recent list of the 40 women who had changed journalism in their times, Helen was omitted. She parted company with the movement because she still urged women to play coy, to tempt and tease in an age where women were demanding equality. She also didn’t believe the scourge of AIDS applied to what she called “my girls” so these old-fashioned sensibilities kept her from being the great leader and door-opener she thought she was.
Helen and I were about as far from ever agreeing as is Mars from Venus. But we respected our differences. We argued, fought, kissed and made up. She was a pioneer; I was a follower — with many ideological bright ideas and what I laughingly thought were my “intellectual objections.”
She was a great friend, steadfast and loyal.
I’ll just tell this story, my favorite about HGB.
I usually objected to the Francesco Scavullo photos of racy women teasing and taunting on the covers of the magazine. I thought we looked “cheap.” I wanted Cosmo to go glamourous, high-style and classy. “Well, Lizzie,” Helen would sigh. “As soon as our sales for these, what you call ‘cheap’ photos of girls, start slipping on the newsstands, I’ll take your advice and change.”
Newsstands sales continued to soar. Cosmopolitan might have, these days, somewhat lost its singular position to shock and be sexy in the current freewheeling competitive “dumbed down” over-sensualized market. But it is still a success. It is the world-wide smash Helen made it all over the world and which she tended as her special “garden” even after she had to relinquish the helm.
Here’s a good example of Helen. When the Hearsts gave her a Mercedes and a driver after one anniversary, Helen hated to use the driver. If we went out in her car, she was always seeking a way to let the driver go home early. She worried about him. So then we’d be stranded at the theater with no way but to walk or subway it.
When I chided her for taking the bus all the time when she was rich (from her husband David Brown, the producer of “Jaws.”) and famous in her own right and doing plenty OK from Hearst, she’d shrug: “But I have to, Lizzie. I have to see what my girls are wearing, their makeup, their accessories … I have to see how they are doing.”
They’re still doing just fine. And lots of them are making it Helen’s way, on her advice. (Marrying well with lots of sex!) Helen was never a mother, except to her cat. But in some ways, she was the mother of us all. She sincerely hoped for the best for all of us.
Pushing us in ways we’d never dreamed of going. Of behaving. Believing in us — we could all be sexy, seducing, having it all. We couldn’t but that was about the only thing she didn’t know. Helen was one of the most fascinating creatures I ever met and not in any way or manner that she understood. She didn’t know her own strength when it came to influence.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 8/15/12