NOT PRETTY ENOUGH: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, by Gerri Hirshey. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 500 pp., $27.
If there’s nothing more American than a rags-to-riches story, then Helen Gurley Brown was truly an All-American Girl. The author of “Sex and the Single Girl” and later editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, writes biographer Gerri Hirshey, began life as “a very poor and traumatized child of the Depression,” the fatherless daughter of a miserable mother, a skinny girl beset by acne, not pretty enough to succeed in a world where, her mother insisted, beauty was a woman’s only weapon.
Born in Arkansas in 1922, Helen Gurley’s world was rocked at age 10 by her father’s death in a freak elevator accident. Helen and her older sister were left to endure their mother’s unpredictable moods, strange ideas and disastrous plans. After running through what money they had, Cleo Gurley packed up her daughters and moved the family to Los Angeles. (She had, Hirshey writes, “unreasonable and unfulfilled hopes” of financial support from some nearby relatives.)
Yet even as her mother and sister faced one calamity after another, Helen began to display the grit, perseverance and creativity that would fuel her eventual success. It didn’t happen overnight: There were 19 secretarial gigs before she landed her first non-menial job, as a copywriter at a downtown L.A. ad agency. Along the way, she honed another set of skills — how to live stylishly on very little money, build a tightknit circle of supportive girlfriends and (most crucially for her future career) how to have fun, in and out of bed, with men.
“She understood the fierce tyrannies of conventional beauty,” Hirshey writes. But in its absence, Helen developed “her signature skill, a flexible double whammy of psychological and sexual seduction.” She took lovers, married and unmarried, and had what even today seems an impressive amount of sex. (Later in life, she told a friend she had slept with 178 men.) Whatever emotional turmoil she felt was soothed by psychotherapy — she was an early adherent — even when some of it sounds cringe-worthy, as in the case of her California group therapy that included “nudity, hypnosis, and intense role-playing.”
All would become fodder for “Sex and the Single Girl,” the 1962 guidebook that made her famous — and, Hirshey argues, was in its own way as radical as Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” published the following year. When her book came out, she herself was no longer single; she married movie producer David Brown in 1959, a match that would move her to New York, enable her to write a book and ignite her career as a magazine editor for the next three decades.
It was through her husband’s publishing connections that Helen Gurley Brown landed at the top of the Cosmopolitan masthead, charged with turning around a moribund magazine. Under Brown’s editorship, Cosmo became a cultural juggernaut. Its articles covered just about every topic its young female readers wanted to read about — and undoubtedly several they hadn’t known they wanted to read. (A small sample includes “The Poor Girls’ Guide to America’s Rich Young Men,” “How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something” and “How to Give Your Cat a Pill.”) Cosmo also published movie and book reviews, celebrity profiles and fiction by writers as disparate as Edna O’Brien and Jacqueline Susann — a consequence, writes Hirshey, of “the affable, high/low cultural dynamic” between Helen and David.
In an era of rapid social change, Brown’s once-revolutionary attitude toward women, work and sex quickly began to seem dated. Feminists demonstrated against her daffy femininity. Although sexism “had dogged and demeaned her relentlessly” dating back to her secretarial days, Hirshey notes, Brown didn’t focus on systemic issues of inequality; “instead she addressed herself to bettering the small, quotidian lives toiling within the status quo.” Her editorial instincts faltered at times; under her leadership the magazine barely acknowledged issues faced by black women, ignored the tangle of motherhood and work and reacted bizarrely to the AIDS crisis, publishing a 1988 article claiming women couldn’t contract HIV from men. By the time she was gently nudged toward retirement in 1997, her Cosmo seemed woefully out of step.
Still, Hirshey, a veteran observer of the cultural scene, argues effectively for Brown’s enduring influence, not only in the world of magazine publishing, but in the way women live and talk about their lives. Her own writing sometimes slips into the same kind of breathless frivolity her subject was known for — readers may yearn for fewer girlish exclamations and winking wordplay. Still, the book, like its subject, can be surprisingly thought-provoking, and even at its lightest, it’s vivid, funny and terrifically entertaining.