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The Mixed Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, August 16, 2012

It took a poor girl from the Ozarks to look upon the candy store of sex and money that was postwar urban America and rearrange the shelves. Helen Gurley Brown was she, the brains behind the racy Cosmopolitan magazine empire and author of the 1962 sensation "Sex and the Single Girl." Was her influence good, bad or an in-between thing? Answer to come.

The Victorians had a name for the ambitious single woman who set up her own pad and dealt with men in a frank manner. It was "adventuress." Being an adventuress was hard to pull off. You needed wits and rare courage. Brown democratized her: Any gal could do it -- make money, take on lovers, enjoy sex and marry well. Brown offered advice for managing the challenges, from creating an exotic oasis in a fourth-floor walk-up to dealing with the gynecological fallout of casual trysts.

No men, including married ones, are off limits. (The exception was the alcoholic. One suspects Brown herself had been there.) Subtle seduction plays no part here. The quiet sexiness of a well-tailored skirt suit -- portrayed in the early episodes of "Mad Men" -- was replaced by plunging necklines and slit skirts for going to the supermarket. There was little need for exploratory flirtation when the sexual goods were already displayed in the front window.

One can find merit in some of Brown's philosophy while rejecting about 90 percent of it as delusional garbage. The good part was leveling the playing field between single women and sporting men, be they Playboy bachelors or bored husbands. The good part was telling single women that they could enjoy the present without a husband and without playing the spinster. Another good part was recognizing that healthy women had sexual desires and were allowed to meet them.

In the process, however, erotic sex was nearly destroyed. It's no news flash that female arousal differs from the male kind. Brown promoted cheesy role reversals, whereby men would strip or perform sexy dances for women. Headline-grabbing, these gambits were rather ineffectual. Romance gets short shrift in Cosmo, despite all those photo layouts of candlelit boudoirs. So does love, infatuation or whatever you want to call That Old Black Magic.

The copy tends toward how-to's on sex positions and updates on the newest sexually transmitted diseases. The cover girls look trashy and dumb.

The appeal escapes me -- but as a business proposition, one really can't argue with Cosmopolitan. There are now 64 international editions, including in such tradition-bound countries as Azerbaijan and Mongolia. Cosmo world reportedly has 100 million readers.

Its formula for success has defiled other venerable publications aimed at younger women. "Self," founded in 1978 as a health-oriented magazine for clean living, now sports tarty models and cover stories like the current issue's "Hotter and Sexier in 3 Days." "Seventeen" used to promote a fresh-faced female adolescence. Now the teen models wear giant heels and caked eye shadow.

Brown lost her father at age 10, had a sister paralyzed by polio and lived with a depressed mother. All the while, she worked like a dog. Valedictorian at her high school, she lacked the money to complete her education at the Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman's University). She held a bunch of secretarial jobs, during which she accepted favors from her male bosses. But she did the bulk of her work in a stable marriage-partnership that lasted from 1959 to her husband's death in 2010.

Whatever you feel about Helen Gurley Brown's product, you have to admire her verve. The original Cosmo girl, who died recently at 90, was without doubt an American original.

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