This guest post was written by AARP Editorial Director Myrna Blyth, who was the longtime editor of “Ladies’ Home Journal” and founding editor of “More” magazine.
Legendary magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, who died today at 90, was a remarkable woman: I wrote for her at “Cosmopolitan”; saw her at parties in New York; once even defended her on the “Phil Donahue Show,” when people in the audience were putting her down for editing a magazine that told women there was nothing wrong in looking, feeling, and being sexy. Afterward, she called to thank me and later sent me one of her famous handwritten notes.
Oddly enough, I interviewed her mother once for an article I wrote for another magazine about the mothers of famous people. I learned Helen was a poor girl from Arkansas who had a sister crippled by polio. Her father had died when she was very young. Later, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she began her career as a secretary in an ad agency. She worked hard, stayed late, wrote ad copy on her own time. Her work was so good that she was promoted to copywriter. Yes, it was those “Mad Men” days, L.A. version. She had trouble making ends meet and later admitted she had a married boyfriend who paid some of the bills.
Throughout her life, Helen was realistic, honest, ambitious, and contradictory. She thought a woman who put her mind to it could do anything. She celebrated female sensuality, and once famously said, “Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” She believed it was important to always look your best, even if you were born a “mouseburger,” which she thought she was.
Helen also laughed at the notion of sexual harassment and said she remembered fondly the days in the ad agency when her bosses tried to grab at her panties. And even after she married David Brown, a wealthy film producer, she was so tightfisted that when she moved from California, after writing the bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl,” to take the helm of “Cosmopolitan,” she sent a box of empty soda bottles from New York so she could get the deposit back.
Under her leadership “Cosmopolitan” — a failing general-interest magazine — became a circulation and advertising powerhouse that reflected the times and the changes in women’s lives. The cover lines, always super provocative, were sometimes written by her talented husband. And along with the monthly features about sex, the magazine was filled with beauty, fashion, and career advice. She made headlines with various attention-getters like the male centerfold of a buff Burt Reynolds.
As far as I could tell, she wasn’t interested in family life. I remember once talking to her about a piece I was writing when my two-year-old was giggling in the background. “Oh, dear, what is that noise?” she asked. “It’s my little boy,” I said proudly. “Is he having a fit?” she wondered.
Until recently, Helen still came to work in her pink corner office, overseeing the magazine’s many foreign editions — proof that her formula of advice, encouragement and frank talk about female sensuality appeals to women everywhere.
Above all, Helen was a believer in the power of women. I once wrote an article for her about women in the 1964 Olympics, a time when female athletes were not particularly admired. She told me I had it all wrong. “You should praise them,” she told me. “These girls go for what they want and they get it. They are wonderful.”
Helen, so were you.
Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage