“It was a terrible life.”
— Helen Gurley Brown on the misfortunes of her mother, Cleo Sisco Bryan
Thin, tiny Cleo Sisco was hardly the only little girl in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas to have a baby on her hip at age four; it’s just that she would have so many of them, in succession, to care for. Born in 1893, Cleo Fred Sisco was the first of ten children welcomed by Alfred Burr Sisco and Jennie Denton Seitz Sisco. Jennie, born in 1876, was a robust twenty years younger than her husband. For a time, Alfred ran the general store his father, Granville Sisco, had built in Alpena, a hamlet of a few dozen souls; he is also listed as a farm laborer in the Osage Township records. Alfred and Jennie lived in Alpena Pass (now Alpena), then moved to nearby Osage. Over the next twenty-five years, the babies kept coming. The last, and Cleo’s favorite baby brother, Jack Harvey Sisco, was born in 1918.
It was understood that the eldest child would take care of the youngest baby, so Cleo was kept busy with child care until the blessed day that she was old enough to go to school herself. Even then, she was expected to get straight to her chores when she got home. Cleo’s best chance to act like a child was during visits to her maternal grandparents, Isabella and Lawson Seitz, who pampered her with attention and oatmeal cookies. At home, Cleo was afforded none of the playtime that her siblings enjoyed. Instead, Helen wrote, “she was nursemaid.” Gladys, the Siscos’ second child, was as blond and beautiful as Cleo was plain; Gladys was smothered with attention by family members and later by adoring classmates and beaux. The injustice would gnaw at Cleo for decades. Once she had her own daughters, Cleo would deliver ominous warnings on the unfair advantages of pretty girls.
Not long after Gladys clambered down off her older sister and started walking, she was also given nursery duties — until she dropped the infant she had been carrying. (“Smart kid,” Helen cracked.) From then on, the weight of child care rested primarily on Cleo’s slight frame. The strain on still-growing bones had a lasting effect: Cleo’s right hip was permanently higher, from hitching it up to support the succession of wiggly babies. Cleo concocted an escape plan. Most of her contemporaries had only an eighth-grade education; there were few high schools. At fifteen, Cleo wangled a miraculous reprieve when her uncle, a well-to-do dry goods merchant, and aunt agreed to let her live with them in Green Forest, twenty-two miles northwest of Osage, so that she could attend the high school there.
Green Forest was a teeming metropolis compared with Osage. For the two years she was with her aunt and uncle, Cleo shone in high school. As graduation approached, in the spring of 1913, one of her teachers, Jim Birney, hectored her skeptical parents into letting her enroll in the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He told them that she was a brilliant student who deserved the chance, and pleaded Cleo’s case again and again, until they finally let her go.
In later life, Cleo would tell her daughters every detail of her spring of 1914 semester at the university, over and over. She would remember it as her happiest, most hopeful time. She had only herself to look after, and she quickly made a close friend there, Miss Ola Stephenson. Though Cleo was a shade under five feet tall, she was an aggressive stealth player on the basketball court, darting below the taller girls’ elbows to steal the ball. It was all so exciting and audacious for a daughter of Osage.
Then, after just a semester, it was over. While Cleo was home for the summer, Alfred and Jennie thought of a new way for their eldest child to help out. Given the less rigorous teaching certifications acceptable in isolated rural schools and Cleo’s claim to some college education, she would be eligible to teach, earn a salary of about thirty dollars a month, and help feed all those Sisco mouths. There would be no more college.
Summoning what became a lifelong habit of resignation, Cleo accepted her lot. She loved teaching; it was what she had wanted to study in college. Every weekday morning at seven, regardless of what sort of weather the Ozark Mountains might fling at her, twenty-year-old Cleo got up with the sun and saddled the family mare. Daisy was a small chestnut horse suited to Cleo’s tiny frame; the animal was patient and docile and much beloved by Cleo for the sense of freedom and escape she represented. For the rest of her life, Cleo would have a fondness for horses.
The two settled into the clop-clop cadence of their long, all-weather commute up the winding road to the school house in Rule, on the northern side of Osage Creek. Rule wasn’t much of a town. There was just the school, a church, a post office, and a graveyard; students came from nearby farms. Given the wild mood swings of the area’s rivers and creeks, the poor mountain roads, and the distances, many teachers would board in homes near their one-room schools. But more often than not, Cleo and Daisy made the weekday trek, about two hours’ ride.
They headed northwest, away from the rising sun. Disappearing behind them in the morning mist was the small, unlovely, and very crowded Sisco house, where the wail of the newest infant regularly sounded reveille through the quiet Ozark dawn. Cleo was relieved to become a career girl, although they didn’t call it that. “Schoolmarm,” “teacher” — the title didn’t matter. This job was sweet deliverance. At least, during those long days in a one-room school house with a privy out back, she was free of the domestic drudgery she had endured for as long as she could remember.
She was content to have her own classroom domain, where she juggled six grades. Her students numbered ten to fifteen on any given day, depending on who was needed at home. Their teacher understood the absences all too well. No note was necessary, just the terse explanation that they had been kept home to “hep out” with planting, mowing, milking, feeding chicken and cattle, and child care. Most students preferred to be in school, with the gentle Miss Sisco teaching them history, reading, geography, math, and the few extras she could manage. She colored Easter eggs for them, an unheard-of frivolity, and carefully carried these to school aboard Daisy.
The bigger boys listened for Daisy’s tread in the morning and took her reins as Cleo dismounted. They fed and watered the little horse. In cold weather, the older children chopped wood and tended a small wood stove. School lunches, toted from home, were basic and portable: a roasted yam, a chunk of bread or pone. Discipline was rarely a problem in Miss Sisco’s class. Though some of the bigger boys towered over her, they were respectful. Helen had a couple of photographs of her mother in those days, prim and unsmiling in a starched white blouse and an ankle-length cotton skirt — “a solemn girl-woman,” she observed.
Excerpted from “Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown” by Gerri Hirshey, published in July 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Gerri Hirshey. All rights reserved.