Liz Smith: The Great Friend — Remembered

“Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” said Mae West.

And leaving the Helen Gurley Brown memorial the other day reminded me of that quote. It could well have been said of Helen. The show the Hearst corporation put on at Alice Tully Hall for their star editor was an event for the ages — it had everything.

Hearst’s great good guy Frank Bennack opened and closed the proceedings with just the right touch. First, he asked us to have fun while remembering Helen. At the last, he reminded us, standing before a gorgeous glamourous portrait of Helen all in white, that if she were here, she’d have asked, ‘Frank, what did this cost?!’”

But back to my point, that the sex symbol Mae West somewhat resembled Helen, in philosophy, at least. Helen’s famous motto, “Good girls go to Heaven. Bad Girls go Everywhere,” seemed straight from Miss West’s handbook of female sexual empowerment.

Helen was the woman who made Cosmopolitan magazine and sexual freedom and entrepreneurship for women — a “brand.” It is still a “brand,” one of the first and remains an international beacon for the rising women of the Middle East, Asia and the world.

Mae and Helen were both autonomous. Mae West was perhaps the only truly autonomous female star of the screen in the 1930s and ’40s. (Or maybe of any decade.) She did as she pleased and she was pleased with what she did. No man ruled her. She did not compromise, on screen or off. She told women it was okay to love sex.

Helen? She did much the same, affecting a more subdued, whispery, little girl affect. Helen was a fulfilled woman, never regretting, never looking back, always ahead of the times. Seemingly obvious — and sometimes even silly — in her too short skirts and baby voice. Underneath was a brilliant, hard-nosed business woman and pioneer. She saved the Hearst company for all time.

And, she was happily married to a successful, intelligent, brilliant man who was applauding her all the way. He suggested, then got out of her way.

I worked for Helen for 15 years after 1965 when she came to Cosmo. I thought I “knew” her, but the memorial service proved me wrong. I had underestimated my boss and friend and I had over-estimated myself. She was greater than I had ever realized. What a trailblazer she was — both the Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, and Barbara Walters extended our knowledge of HGB in their fabulous speeches. (He was never better; Barbara, too, was never better. Wittier and funnier than I’d ever seen her!)

For that matter, kudos to all who spoke: Ellen Levine, the woman who “invented” O magazine and had worked with HGB for years … Kim St. Clair Bodden who still runs Helen’s farflung magazine empire all over the world … William Hearst III who told of running into Helen; she took him to a shoe shop to get some pumps mended, hanging on his arm, chatting all the way — then she dismissed him airily with a peck on the cheek … Joanna Coles who will take over Helen’s bailiwick and she’ll be great …

And the always modest, charming and gorgeous Brooke Shields who graced Cosmo covers 13 amazing times! (Brooke was probably the most emotional speaker, as her remarks wound down. Clearly, she considered Helen more than the woman who simply put her image out there for the world to see.)

Helen would have loved it and according to Miss Walters, she sort of planned it, detailing in one of her books just how boring funerals were and how short memorials should be. (This memorial almost met HGB’s exacting standards.)

I don’t know what possessed me, but when I got to the podium I suddenly ad-libbed: “I’m Liz Smith. And I am the person Helen loved best in all the world …. And I’ll bet 90% of you in the audience think I’m crazy, for you believe you are the person she loved best in all the world!”

This was just one of Helen’s gifts — to make one feel loved, cared for, analyzed and happy. I’ll say it again — she was far more important than I realized, and her memorial reminded me, of just how smart she was, what a trailblazer, and … what a damn mystery!

Oh, and lest I forget — Frank Bennack and his helper Debra Shriver, who executed this memorial, did indeed think of everything. They opened proceedings reminding us that Helen Gurley Brown had been “just a little girl — from Little Rock!” Then they played Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s brilliant film moment from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It was over the top, gorgeous, breathtaking, sexy, funny, and a tribute to both Broadway, movies, entertainment and enterprising women! Everything that Helen Gurley Brown adored!

I am thinking — Helen had her moments being denigrated by serious women who were in the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement. But in the final analysis, maybe HGB and Cosmopolitan will, in the end, liberate more women than Ms. Magazine, NOW and Planned Parenthood combined!

Helen didn’t tell women how they had to be. She offered them a choice. With a cherry on top, a push-up bra, an often overlooked pragmatism, and plain good horse sense.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 10/22/12

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar JCF4612 says:

    What a gift HGB was to females of all ages. May her spirit long live!

  2. this is really a great “The Great Friend — Remembered”… really nice one… :)