Monday, August 13, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown: A Broad We Liked

Re-posted from the original, February 2009

I recently finished reading Sex & the Single Girl as research for a mid-twentieth century period piece I'm writing. I always dismissed Cosmopolitan magazine and anything to do with it as fluff, but found myself strangely and surprisingly charmed by its wacky, long-reigning Editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown. It's hard to forgive her for presiding over the masthead of such a cringe-worthy and horrendous "lifestyle" publication, but from time to time she'll do something endearing, like titling her editorial column "Step into my Parlor" and other humorous -- intentional or otherwise -- flourishes.

When reading the book I realized that inside the Cosmo-girl morass, there was a woman I actually didn't hate. She's kind of an old-fashioned broad: tough, sassy, solo, offering up a great big "I don't give a damn what you think" to everyone. This woman was a single career gal for seventeen years in the late '40s and early '50s before she married a film producer, so she knows whereof she speaks. It must have been a tough climate for her. I also wonder if she was the inspiration for Peggy on Mad Men, because she started as a secretary and moved up into writing ad copy after being mentored by a boss-man who noticed her talent. Here's another endearing quality she has: she grew up desperately poor and gives some amazing advice about living on a budget, including a section on how to save, buy stocks ("Choose a company that has an asset to liability ratio of at least four to one"), and negotiate a lower rent with your landlord. Her warning never to buy anything on layaway seems like the lone rational voice in the wilderness in these days of post-credit card remorse.

HGB advises living life to the fullest while living solo, whether it means working your way up the ladder at your office, taking violin lessons or traveling to Australia for a year: "Paradoxically, living dangerously lengthens and strengthens your life." She does not advise waiting for a man to call, predating "He's Just Not That Into You" by several decades. She's all about getting out there, having fun, working hard and really relishing this world, an ethos that isn't so easy for any woman who's ever spent weekends and holidays alone with the "lonely fidgets." ("But how much easier it is to bear if you have a really intriguing job to return to next morning and enough money to buy yourself a Ferrari to race around in and forget.") Her hardworking no-nonsense advice and bloody-minded dedication to "routing out the trembles" and eschewing self-pity is quite astonishing when you consider the how-to-land-a-man sensibility she and her magazine would later become associated with.

For instance, Cosmo readers appear to have little do other than sleep their way to the top, right? Not such a great idea, advises Mother Brown: "You would ... do yourself more good by staying right where you are and learning to read a statistical report. After all, girls to go to bed with he can always find. No real training required, but where is a boss going to get a girl who can read statistical reports?"

I don't know, maybe the last 2.5 decades of backlash and post-feminism have lowered the bar, but I found HGB's "make yourself useful" philosophy kind of refreshing, and despite whatever she did later in life, despite all the unforgivable dating/dieting advice she doled out to women, I think this still stands:

"Those who glom onto men so that they can collapse with relief, spend the rest of their days shining up their status symbol and figure they never have to reach, stretch grow, learn, face dragons or make a living again are the ones to be be pitied. They, in my opinion, are the unfulfilled ones."

Or, put another way, "There's such a long time to settle down by the hearthside."

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