What Made Helen Run?

Pussycat, I just want to tell you about a book that’s all about me, me, me! Who is “me,” I hear you crow. How funny. I never knew!

It’s called Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown (Sarah Crichton Books, $27). And the author, Gerri Hirshey—barred by my former employer, the Hearst Corporation, from quoting verbatim from the ample archives under its control—was never going to be able to help you figure me out, either. How adorable is that? So what you get is a mere five hundred pages on all my cute feminine wiles and wherefores, my stratospheric rise from mouseburger to mogul, and my many handy tips for fellow cupcakes on how to be more cupcakeable.

I disrupted the “sexual status quo,” Hirshey says! Well, a girl’s got to eat. What times! Apart from the wretched poverty of my youth, the horrific family catastrophes, the lifelong insecurities and the rage, yes, the rage that led me to throw a few things—just ashtrays, you know, and radios, and plates of food, oh, and the odd pitcher of gimlets (also, I used to bend silverware in half, under the tablecloth, when bored at banquets, and I screamed at a baby on a plane once)—but apart from all that, my ninety years were just divine! And, oh, the sex! I averaged ten lovers a year for eighteen years! How else do you learn? Then I married my darling David, and from then on had to borrow a friend’s apartment for afternoon trysts (too cheap to pay for a hotel room). But my dear, it’s only philandering when men do it. When women do it, it’s philanthropy.

Would I have preferred it if Ms. Hirshey had left out my daddy issues and pippypoo sads, my anorexia, hypochondria, and insomnia, my obese disabled sister with the fertile but futile four-leaf-clover patch out back, and the doomed stepson I tried to erase from history, not to mention those boooo-soms I bought myself in my seventies? You bet. She even reveals I got my nose done by the same guy who did Marilyn Monroe’s chin. Later I added some cheekbones, and had many, many face-lifts. Well, a girl’s got to eat!

But darling, let me tell you how it all began. I was born in Arkansas in 1922, the second of two daughters. Our births were excruciating for my mother; she never forgave us. She was a royal pain in the butt herself. She hinted more than once that I wasn’t pretty; I never forgave her. When I was ten my father was killed after he stepped onto a moving elevator in Little Rock. We moved to Los Angeles, where the house had gophers and I had severe acne. My sadburger sister Mary got polio and was paralyzed. My mom cried and cried and I, too, became a world-record weeper. What’s more, in the absence of deodorants we had to use talcum powder: It was “like dusting an apple strudel” all day! But after a few high-school mortifications, I willed myself, simply willed myself, to become sociable, and you can do the same. I was voted third-most-popular girl in my class!

Poverty overshadowed my upbringing, and a good marriage was my (ultimate) object. But my theory was “until you can collect a prince, you create a court.” I always had women friends (I liked everyone I ever met except that dodo Didion, who belittled me once in print), but nothing can beat a big bunch of men. One Hollywood radio station where I worked was just loaded with them. I’d never seen so many together in one spot “with so few corresponding females to louse things up.” The office was my milieu: During my twenties and thirties I had tons of secretarial jobs, mostly in showbiz and advertising. At MCA, the typing pool was kept behind glass like a great big fish tank: “It had everything but a rock castle and snails.” These were my Mad Men years of abject womanhood. “It was exciting to work for an important man,” and boy, did I learn how to sell a product, be it Purex or a person. Especially myself!

My sexual dalliances included users, abusers, and commie-hunters—really, anyone who wasn’t a complete mongoose. I didn’t even mind Republicans, or sitting cozily in a restaurant with a rabid anti-Semite, trying to identify Jews. If there were prezzies involved, the “temporary eschewal of a particular group” didn’t throw me at all. Well, a girl’s got to eat! Once in a while. And what did I eat, you may well ask, to preserve that sunken-chested little-girl figure in honor of my crushed dad? Teeny-weeny amounts of tuna, cottage cheese, soybean oil, brewer’s yeast, and liver powder. Yum yum!

While my mother thought I was still a virgin, I was “feeling as alive as an eel from having been at it all night.” Once I taxied across Paris “in rumpled red chiffon . . . loved senseless.” Having perfected the eye lock, the light caress, and of course the blow job, I reeled in many an unsuspecting catch. I knew never to sit higher than a man (unless I was on his lap). I treated them all like the King of Siam! “A man must feel he runs things,” after all, as Jacqueline Susann put it. And still nobody rich enough would marry me.

Professionally, my breakthrough came when Glamour magazine declared me one of its “Ten Girls with Taste.” It took two goes to win this competition. The problem was “I had the taste of an aardvark.” But soon I became one of the highest-paid female ad execs on the West Coast, and got to invent darling little lipstick names like I Like Men!, Rubies by Firelight, and Oh You Kid!

Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown, 1963. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown, 1963. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

David Brown, a journalist and movie producer who later made a fortune off Jaws (can I pick ’em?), was recently divorced and hooked on bimbos. But despite all the girlfriends, and the sixty-six stoplights between his Pacific Palisades place and my own LA pad, and that louse of a doctor who refused to issue me a diaphragm because I was single (idiot, that’s why I needed one!), reader, I nabbed him.

We made oodles of cash together. David was my Svengali. We were “pimp and prostitute,” as he romantically liked to say, and together we hatched a plan: I would write a book about the sexual life of the single girl—eels, rumpled chiffon, and all. I wanted girls like me to know it was OK to pilfer petty cash, attract men to your office by installing a chinning bar in the doorway, and simply exhaust yourself trying to approximate femininity. Married men were not off-limits. Keep them as pets, I said! And as for those muddleheads who moon for motherhood, “if you’ve gotta foal, you’ve gotta foal.” But broodmares rarely need encouragement.

Once my revolutionary treatise was finished, David pulled some strings and the fabulous Berney Geis immediately published it. In those days, people really knew how to promote a book! Soon I had a movie deal and a book tour. I was on TV and radio, and oh my, the book had to be reprinted three times in the first three weeks! The American Weekly devoted a whole issue to it, so all fifteen hundred newsstands in New York were emblazoned with the naughty words Sex and the Single Girl. Two million copies sold lickety-split! I milked myself for all I was worth.

When I took over the ailing Cosmopolitan in 1965, I’d never worked in a magazine office before in my life! After the first day, David found me cowering in the fetal position under his desk. But before long I’d decorated my office to look like what a staffer called “the inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle” and started directing every article and DIY insight at the debauched working girl. I taught them makeup and miniskirts, how to drop names as fast as your panties, and how to marry with precision. I just wanted to help the underdog. And make money. Well, a girl’s got to eat! By 1972, the monthly ad revenue had risen from $57,000 to $434,000. So why Burt Reynolds regretted becoming Cosmo’s first centerfold, I don’t know. Others would have humped at the chance.

I was always pro-pill and abortion, but the AIDS scare seemed to me a backlash against my teachings on sexual freedom, so I ignored it. I’m good! Yet the Hearst Corporation never appreciated me. I saved that nothingburger company from ruin, but those crumb bums didn’t even invite me to their stupid fiftieth-anniversary party in 1969, saying it was a stag do. When they finally fired me as Cosmo’s editor, just a few decades later, I moaned about their misdeeds so relentlessly that David said if I just made a tape, he’d prefer to listen to that every night.

Some say my ideas were trivial, and that any book about me, like this one—although competent, nimble enough, and richly detailed—will inevitably be trivial, too. Some say men and prezzies aren’t the only sources of happiness for a girl (there’s always masturbation). And Andrea Dworkin might well have been talking about me when she said; “Slaves characteristically internalize the oppressor’s view of them, and this internalized view congeals into a pathological self-hatred.” Well, pittypoo, Irving Berlin said I really knew my onions.

Lucy Ellmann is a novelist; her most recent book is Mimi (Bloomsbury, 2013).