“Sexual intercourse,” according to the British poet Philip Larkin, “began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)— / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” This, it turns out, is complete nonsense. Sexual intercourse began for Larkin, at the very latest, in the early nineteen-forties, with his teen-aged girlfriend, and continued at an energetic pace with a variety of women, including his secretary and the wife of a colleague—at one point, he shared his favors among three lovers—until he died, in his early sixties. I mention Larkin’s amorous history, and cite his succinct, famous poem “Annus Mirabilis” (the narrator goes on to describe the relations between men and women of his generation as “A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring, / A shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything”) because in 1963 Helen Gurley Brown, Larkin’s elder by six months (they were both forty-one), had been fornicating shamelessly for half her life, and had proclaimed to the world, in “Sex and the Single Girl,” published a year earlier, that “nice girls” not only did it before and outside of wedlock but loved it, and were, just like men, entitled to obsess about it, to rack up conquests, and to trade in their partners, preferably for an upgrade.
Brown is now eighty-seven and, for the first time, the subject of a biography, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere” (Oxford; $27.95), by Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of gender and women’s studies at Bowdoin College. Despite the title (“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” is one of Brown’s favorite mottoes), this is a serious academic reconsideration of a figure who, Scanlon argues, has been slighted by feminist history, and deserves a place in its pantheon, particularly because she was speaking to and for the typists, the flight attendants, and the sales clerks who couldn’t afford to burn a good bra, rather than the college-educated sisterhood that was “womanning” the barricades of the nineteen-seventies.
I’m happy to see Brown getting her due as a pioneer of libidinal equality, but I was also pleased to learn from the book that she has gained some weight. (She is now a hundred and twenty-five pounds of fun, up from a hundred.) After a lifetime of ruthless dieting, daily weigh-ins, fasting to compensate for an extra bite, plus a ninety-minute exercise routine, with dumbbells, that she stuck to seven days a week (even on the day of her mother’s funeral), she has finally decided that she deserves the odd chocolate-chip cookie. And she does deserve it. Her example of heroic discipline in the service of ageless sex appeal—at sixty-eight, she looked terrific frugging in a pink feather-and-sequin minidress—has been an inspiration to the millions of readers of her racy memoirs and self-improvement guides, and of Cosmopolitan, the magazine that she took over in 1965 and transformed from a venerable if moribund cultural monthly into a hot, upbeat sourcebook of advice for the working girl on beauty, money, makeup, dating, dieting, therapy, dressing for success, undressing for success, and driving men wild.
In everything that Brown has written or edited, she has promoted the message that sex is great, and that one should get as much of it as possible. (Ditto for money.) Just about everyone knows this, and has always known it, but in Brown’s youth few women would admit it, even to themselves. So if, in 1963, sex did cease to be quite so clandestine a pleasure—especially for unmarried females—that was, in part, her doing.
“Bad Girls Go Everywhere” is the story of a woman who, mostly to her credit and greatly to her profit and glory, never knew how to blush, and who exhorted her readers to follow her example of self-invention in a buoyant, dishy, emphatic style that includes words like “pippy-poo.” Brown told her readers in 1962, “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.”
“Sex and the Single Girl,” a primer for the would-be femme fatale, was addressed to the “mouseburgers” of America: average-looking, high-school-educated women with unrealized potential, like the hungry girl Brown had been. Helen Gurley was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, a hamlet in the Ozarks, into a family that she described as “hillbillies.” She grew up comfortably in Little Rock until, when she was ten, her father died. During the Depression, her widowed mother had to take in sewing, and, as their poverty deepened, she moved with Helen and her older sister, Mary, to Los Angeles, where she eked out a living tagging merchandise at a Sears, Roebuck. Mary contracted polio, and was crippled for life. Helen never went to college, despite having graduated from high school as her class valedictorian. (It’s a shame that Scanlon didn’t find that valedictory address in the Brown archives, which are at Smith College, but it’s nice to think that they share space in a vault there with the papers of Sylvia Plath.) Yet, with “steely determination,” Scanlon writes, and with steelier thighs, Brown cleared every hurdle on her path to the four-story penthouse on Central Park where she now resides.
There is nothing wrong, Brown has always said, with improving on nature where nature was stingy, as it was, she feels, in her own case. “What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up,” she wrote. “Unlike Madame Bovary you don’t chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it. You tunnel up from the bottom.” So, by all means, tunnel your way into the bank vault with a nose job, breast implants, and a face-lift when the time comes (it comes sooner than you think), starve yourself, and don’t let your upper arms get stringy. Fake hair, too, is always an option. Long before Brown was earning a seven-figure salary—when she was, in fact, earning a four-figure salary—she scrimped and saved to dress like a million dollars. One suggestion for scrimping was to charm an out-of-town stranger you had picked up at a bar into giving you cab fare, let him hail you a cab, then jump out a block later and keep the change. Another hint: “Write fan letters to big companies. Sometimes they send samples.”
Some of Brown’s advice to the huntress was eccentric: “Driving in heavy traffic offers possibilities. Leave the window rolled down on your side and always look interestedly into the next car.” Some, she admitted, was “almost ghoulish,” as when she suggested trolling for a boyfriend at “a wealthy chapter of A.A. Might as well start with a solvent problem child, like say someone with liquid assets.” And some, decades later, seems downright quaint, like her battle plan for furnishing an apartment to make it a mantrap: you should have a good TV (but not too big—you’d never pry him loose to start spending money on you), a brandy snifter filled with loose cigarettes, lots of sexy cushions, and a well-stocked liquor cabinet, with the proviso that your “beaux” should always replace at least as much of your booze as they drank. Also, a smart girl was tightfisted with her home cooking. Brown’s formula was twenty restaurant dinners at his expense to one cozy supper whipped up by you as a little thank-you for his largesse, which, you hoped, included expensive “prezzies.” Brown has always approved of making men pay for their pleasures—or, not to put too fine a point on it, of knowing how to “use” them. (Just remember to hang on their every word, and never say that you’re too tired for sex.)
A sexy woman, according to Brown, is a woman who, at any age and under almost any circumstances, likes sex with men. (Gays and lesbians were always fine with her—they liked sex, too—but she couldn’t relate.) In her most recent book of advice, “Late Show,” she urges her contemporaries to express their womanliness by “welcoming a penis,” rather than, say, wasting their time “doling out money for a grandchild’s college tuition.” In “Sex and the Single Girl,” she affirmed that “liking men is . . . by and large just about the sexiest thing you can do. But I mean really liking, not just pretending. And there is quite a lot more to it than simply wagging your tail. . . . His collie dog does that much.” (It seems apropos to add here that if you have not yet figured out fellatio, or your technique needs remediation, see “Having It All,” page 225.)
Her own notable career as an anthrophile began, she recalled, at the age of nine, in Arkansas, when she fooled around with, or was fooled around with by, a thirteen-year-old uncle in the attic of a family house. She started dating at sixteen and lost her virginity at twenty, to a factory worker in Los Angeles, her boyfriend of two years. (If you are curious—and you are: “Deflowering didn’t hurt, I didn’t bleed, I had an orgasm.”) Before that relationship was consummated, she had answered a help-wanted ad for an escort agency and, a bit naïve about the job description, spent an evening driving around the Hollywood hills with a middle-aged client, who exacted five dollars’ worth of kisses from her, and offered her another five to go all the way. She declined politely. She was, at the time, employed as a typist at a radio station whose male personnel enjoyed a game that they called Scuttle. They chased a female co-worker around the office until they cornered her, then pulled off her panties. Brown was hurt that, for some reason—maybe she was too flat-chested—she was never their scuttlebutt. It was eventually pointed out to her that scuttling constituted a rather egregious instance of sexual harassment. In her view, however, most advances, including unwanted ones, are a compliment, and a girl should have enough street smarts to deflect them without making it “a federal offense.” She noted, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.”
Brown was always smarter, more ambitious, and better-looking than she let on—she didn’t want to compromise her credibility as a mouseburger—even though she has never encouraged her followers to play dumb, just, perhaps, to look dumb. (“A man likes to sleep with a brainy girl. She’s a challenge. If he makes good with her, he figures he must be good himself.”) She spent her early twenties in a series of lowly clerical positions, rose to become an executive secretary, found a mentor in her boss at an ad agency, and by her early thirties was one of the most successful female copywriters on the West Coast. Advertising was, with publishing, a field in which a woman of her generation could, as she put it, be “paid handsomely not to think like a man.”
It was always against her principles to quit her day job —“A job gives a single woman something to be”—but not against them to work the night shift as a kept woman. One of her bosses was a married studio executive who set her up in her own apartment, paid her an allowance, and promised her a stock portfolio. (I was touched to learn from Scanlon that Brown used some of the cash she pilfered from this man—she admitted to “stealing him blind”—to buy a New Yorker subscription for her sister, who was back in Arkansas, living miserably with their mother.) Married men made excellent “pets,” she concluded, especially if you had more than one, although in “Sex and the Office,” a sequel to “Sex and the Single Girl,” which was published in 1964, she did not explicitly recommend sleeping with the boss—“I think it’s better to keep this darling as a friend, someone who may from time to time advise you about other men.”
Brown has always been a master of the mixed message, Scanlon observes, and the same woman who pitied housewives their drab domestic lives wrangled as expertly for a wedding ring as any of Larkin’s teases. In 1959, at thirty-seven, she “hooked” the eminently eligible and attractive movie producer David Brown. She told her readers, “He was sought after by many a Hollywood starlet as well as some less flamboyant but more deadly types. And I got him!” She got him and kept him—“the world’s best husband” is now ninety-two, and this year he and Helen will celebrate their golden anniversary. (David, according to his partner in the film business, Richard Zanuck, believed that if Helen had ever caught him having an affair she would literally have killed him.) Scanlon writes, “Consciously or not, the couple found a workable formula for their marriage: he would support her, unequivocally, in her professional life, and she would serve him, unequivocally, in their domestic world.”
After reading a cache of her love letters to one of his predecessors, David decided that Helen had the material, and the talent, to write a best-seller, and “Sex and the Single Girl” was conceived. He has always acted as her mentor, agent, business manager, promoter, and confidant, and he helped with both moral support and editorial advice at Cosmopolitan, where he wrote the cover lines. (He had been the magazine’s managing editor in the nineteen-forties.) But the books and the magazine were her babies, and together the Browns had no others. “We’re just too selfishly well-mated,” David said. But pregnancy and motherhood repelled Brown for complex reasons: the privations they had imposed on her mother, Scanlon suggests, but also, perhaps, getting fat, and losing one’s sex appeal—the illusion of nubility. The womb, Brown once wrote, was a “built-in mechanism” for turning women into drudges. She sympathized with the plight of single mothers, and sometimes featured stories about them, but Cosmopolitan was famously child-unfriendly. Gloria Steinem, among other critics, urged her to moderate her hostility, and even David told her to “shut up” about it—she was alienating her subscribers.
Had David Brown met Helen Gurley at twenty, she wrote, he wouldn’t have looked at her, and she “wouldn’t have known what to do with him.” But he was, she believed, seduced by her independence and by her singularity, rather than by her feminine wiles. (She had just spent five thousand dollars of her savings on a new Mercedes sports car that symbolized to both of them how far she had come in the world on the strength of her own wits and determination.) To “package” her charms irresistibly for a good provider, she preached, a single girl should provide for herself. And that may be Brown’s most enlightened lesson: that sexual autonomy and fulfillment are inseparable from the autonomy and fulfillment that a woman gets from her career.
At her most radical, Brown was a subversive rather than a revolutionary; a sexual libertarian rather than a liberator; and an unapologetic partisan of free enterprise. (She once called Margaret Thatcher a “Cosmo Girl.”) “How could any woman not be a feminist?” she wondered, in 1985, in an interview on her twentieth anniversary at Cosmopolitan. “The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”
Feminists come in every bra size, and what feminist would deny or belittle Brown’s achievements? But, whoever her reader was, the dewy model or celebrity who appeared on the cover of her magazine every month for thirty-two years never resembled Mrs. Thatcher, and, indeed, looked suspiciously like a bimbo to the older generation of militants for women’s rights, who were less inclined than Scanlon is to acknowledge Brown’s contributions to the history of the movement. Steinem suggested to Brown that she was a victim of the patriarchy. To Brown’s chagrin, Cosmo was often described as Playboy’s twin sister. A British journalist coined the indelible phrase “deep-cleavage feminism” to describe the magazine’s philosophy. In 1970, Kate Millett led a group of protesters who occupied Brown’s offices and demanded that she publish more articles with a feminist perspective. (She did publish an excerpt from Millett’s manifesto “Sexual Politics,” and she agreed to participate in a consciousness-raising session, of which she later said, “I was only into my eighth hangup when I had to relinquish the floor to the next hangup-ee.”)
One hesitates to seek a moral in the glittering life of a bad girl, and Helen Gurley Brown, thank goodness, is incorrigible. That is the dissonance in Scanlon’s redemptive approach: the colorless prose that keeps its ankles decorously crossed on the dais; the savant discussions of second-wave and third-wave and “lipstick” feminism; and the vision of Brown as a transitional species of New Woman. No, she was a classic poor girl on the make, lusty and driven, who, with her husband’s help, found a clever formula that wasn’t unique, except perhaps in its crude honesty, for marketing her own worldly wisdom. And now she is a great old tough cookie, whose survival one applauds. Most of all, Scanlon’s portrait reminds one it has never been easy to be both a woman and a person—that femininity (like masculinity) is, to some extent, a performance. What has changed since Brown wrote “Sex and the Single Girl” is that women have more roles to play, on a greater stage. She helped—but only modestly—to expand the repertoire.
In one of her incarnations, Brown was the host of a radio talk show. A caller asked if she thought that diamonds really were a girl’s best friend. That notion, Scanlon points out, was first proposed by another shameless, enterprising native daughter of and famous escapee from Little Rock: Lorelei Lee. She was the adorably mercenary heroine of Anita Loos’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and the first Material Girl in a lineage from which the Cosmo Girl, Madonna, and Carrie Bradshaw all descend. Brown began her answer by lamenting the demise of gold-digging: “I think all the sugar daddies dissolved in their own sugar or something, and chorus girls have to compete with all the other pretty girls there are nowadays.” Then she added that one could marry a rich man for big diamonds, or a poorer man for smaller diamonds, but maybe the best idea was to buy one’s own diamonds. Attention shoppers: a girl’s best friend is herself. ♦
PHOTOGRAPH: SANTI VISALLI/GETTY IMAGES