Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Not Pretty Enough

As a young woman I read Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan magazine. At least until the bulk, the very energy of the mag became almost overwhelming. But that was the effect HGB had on American culture. I thought I knew about the tiny woman from Arkansas; now that I’ve read Gerri Hirshey’s exhaustively researched book Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, I understand so much more! The book was published this week by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. You can buy it at local booksellers and here and here. Our excerpt starts as Brown takes over the magazine, a general-interest publication that is sagging badly.

AS THE LEFTOVER ARTICLES were used up, Helen began to stamp her imprimatur on Cosmo editorial. Over the next three decades, she would order up, edit, and publish countless responses to that famous rhetorical question posed by Freud to his favoredGurleyBrown2web patient and muse, the brilliant and tormented heiress Marie Bonaparte:

“Was will das Weib?”

“What does Woman want?”

After his own thirty years of study, Freud confessed himself baffled by the vast and mysterious “female continent.” Helen, who had been plumbing her own complex desires in and out of therapy for almost as long, felt it was her mandate to toss out as many appealing answers to the Big Question as she could: Her readers wanted good men, a great job, better posture! Cheaper car insurance! Help with problem perspiration! They wanted to better understand themselves; as she had planned in the Femme [a magazine she had proposed to various pubishers] prospectus, she also hired a psychotherapist to write what would become one of the magazine’s evergreens, a monthly column, “The Analyst’s Couch.”

Dr. William Appleton, a Boston psychotherapist, wrote that column for nine years. Yes, his editor Bobbie Ashley sent him real reader letters; he collected some of the funnier ones over the years. But Helen was not looking for sensational or sexy topics; Appleton said: “I think Helen’s idea was to keep the lonely girl company. It was about women understanding their own psyches, about being fearful and getting through the night. It was mostly about hurt feelings, more interpersonal stuff than the techniques of sexual acrobatics.”

Gerri Hershey

Author Gerri Hirshey. / Photo by Sam Zwonitzer.

Helen’s expanding fan base responded almost instantly; the letters poured in. As she steadied her course over the first year, Hearst executives were astonished by her numbers. In her first three years, circulation went from 782,000 to 1.05 million and kept rising. Ad pages more than doubled. Cosmo was finally, emphatically, out of the red. Handwritten hosannas from Dick Deems arrived scrawled on the weekly memorandums of newsstand sales estimates: “In the merry month of May—just wonderful!” “The word is FANTASTIC!” “This must be the best June report in the entire industry!”

The whole industry took note: for seven years straight, Mrs. Brown’s Cosmopolitan would enjoy an unprecedented “sell-through” rate. More than 90 percent of the issues that went out to vendors for single-copy sales flew off the racks. The sales appeal lay in Helen’s editorial mix, the monthly recipe of service, celebrity, fiction, and emotional/psychologi- cal pieces, later known as “emo” articles. She delivered a variety pack of interests far more diverse than those in conventional women’s magazines. “There’s always the basics,” she said. “Office politics, men and women in love and wrong relationships, ambition, personal fulfillment, health.” But she went far beyond those categories.

Hers was a “Questions in the Night” form of editing; she took note of the crazy things that troubled her in the wee hours, the sorts of queries that we now compulsively type into search engines at 2:00 a.m., unwilling or unable to ask anyone else. It took in everything from bad boyfriends to going Dutch treat (never!), stubborn armpit stains, masturbation, and the gorgeous (rich) bitch who covets your boyfriend. Some article titles offered the same guilty pleasures that now churn massive traffic to list-heavy websites. Seeing the title “What’s the Oldest Thing in Your Refrigerator? Celebrities Confess Their Leftovers,” who wouldn’t be tempted to peek inside?

Given her efforts to please most of her readers all of the time, some of the juxtapositions in Cosmo’s table of contents could be breathtaking. The January 1966 list featured the psychotherapist Albert Ellis on “New Kooky (but Workable) Cures for Frigidity,” just above “Religious Retreats for World Weary Girls” and “Six Tricks to Fake Discotheque Dancing.” Love, Pray, Boogaloo.

Helen’s nonfiction and service articles covered the waterfront and then some:

“Have You Heard About the New Catholicism?”

“Women and Snakes”

“Give Your Husband an Alcohol Rub”

“How to Read a Painting”

“The Poor Girls’ Guide to America’s Rich Young Men”

“Foiling Flashers”

“How to Talk Jazz”

“How to Give Your Cat a Pill”

“A Day in the Life of a Nuclear Power Plant”

Over the first several months, Helen leaned heavily on her live-in magazine maven. David Brown had promised that at least in the beginning, he would read and choose all fiction to be run, which short stories and novels to buy, and which to condense. He also wrote Cosmo’s cover lines for more than thirty years. A brief sampling:

“The Bugaboo of Male Impotence”

“I Was a Nude Model (and this is what happened)”

“Things I’ll Never Do with a Man Again”

“The Astonishingly Frank Diary of an Unfaithful Wife”

“How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something”

“Why I Wear False Eyelashes to Bed”

“65 Depressed Celebrities Tell How They Fight the Gloom”

“What the Pill Is Doing to Husbands”

“Living Together Is a Rotten Idea”

When she felt herself to be the shakiest of rookies, Helen would call David at some point, nearly every day—she had a dedicated phone line installed in her office—and ask him to pick her up in a taxi. Their “nooners” were all business. Said David, “We’d ride around Central Park in a taxi while I went over page proofs, cover blurbs, captions, article ideas, and read manuscripts hurriedly.” It was undoubtedly the only time in her long Manhattan life that the fiercely frugal Helen Gurley Brown took taxicabs with abandon. Fear allowed for such an extravagance—and she didn’t dare expense the fares.

The Browns also conferred at their dining room table. She would read a snippet from an article, he’d blurt out a cover line, and they would tweak it to perfection. Running gobs of fiction that readers could settle in with was a part of Helen’s master plan to deliver value; up through the 1980s, her issues would average thirty-four to forty-two pages of fiction and poetry (much of the latter erotic).

Guided in large part by David’s input, Helen’s fiction choices ranged from mysteries and thrillers to bodice-rippers and well-crafted, somewhat feminist short stories. David Brown had an eye for the literate as well as the potential blockbuster; the affable, high/low cultural dynamic that characterized the Browns’ marriage was clearly visible in Cosmo’s contents page, month after month. In Helen’s second issue, August 1965, she ran a story, “August Is a Wicked Month,” by the fiery young Irish “It Girl” of letters, Edna O’Brien, who would go on to write nonfiction for Helen as well. In the same issue, Helen used a little nonfiction bagatelle that [author] Jacqueline Susann had pulled out of a drawer somewhere called “Zelda Was a Peach.”

Helen wanted to get in on the ground floor with Susann. She had some insider’s tips about her friend and fellow Geis [publisher] author. The Browns and the Mansfields [Susann and husband, press agent Irving Mansfield] kept close company, and all four of them had a penchant for mutual, remunerative log-rolling. They all knew that Geis was planning a typically socko launch for Susann’s first novel, Valley of the Dolls, which had finally coalesced as the tale of three Hollywood agony sisters and their struggles with men, the movie biz, depression, and “dolls,” slang for prescription barbiturates. [Publicist] Letty Pogrebin had an unusually strong feeling when she got her hands on a newly minted copy of Dolls. “I just knew that it was going to sell and sell and sell,” she said.

While Susann’s aggrieved and exhausted editor, Don Preston, was still wrestling her ungovernable prose to the mat, Geis had used smoke, mirrors, and flat-out lies to gin up a paperback deal with none other than David Brown’s friend at Bantam, Oscar Dystel. This (and bigger lies about Susann’s literary chops) gave Geis leverage when talking it up with the movie guys. In that “all loving hands at home” spirit that Helen had invoked, the movie rights to Valley of the Dolls were snapped up early by David Brown. Fox optioned the book for $80,000, with a series of escalator clauses that would bring the Mansfields up to $200,000 in up-front fees—the equivalent of about $1.4 million today.

Letty Pogrebin began her mightiest campaign; thanks to the paperback sale, her Dolls publicity budget was the fattest yet, at $50,000 for this first-time novelist. She began to tease book reviewers and editors with a few campy gimmicks. One mailing held notices that looked like a doctor’s prescription pad, with the scrawled message, “Take 3 yellow ‘dolls’ before bedtime for a broken love affair; take 2 red dolls and a shot of scotch for a shattered career; take Valley of the Dolls in heavy doses for the truth about the glamour set on the pill kick.”

To get through the 250 promotional appearances in 11 cities—in just 10 days—Susann did pop amphetamines, so as not to “droop on TV.” And she did not. Like Helen, this former TV pitchwoman was an indefatigable doyenne of hype and this was her Moment. Within the year, the hardcover would hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list and stay there for 22 weeks. When the Fox movie came out in 1967 it was enthusiastically panned, very well attended, and destined for many half-lives as a trashy cult classic. Helen completed the two-family cross-promotion with a feature story in Cosmo; after all, this was a movie her girls flocked to. The article was about the lead actresses Sharon Tate, Patty Duke, and Barbara Parkins and was titled “The Girls Who Play Jennifer, Neely and Anne.” She got Rex Reed to write it. In the year of Dolls’s release, David Brown’s studio grossed more than $44 million in domestic ticket sales in return for its $200,000 option and $5 million filming budget. The Mansfields had solidified the foundation for a burgeoning empire; by the 1970s, Dolls would be registered by the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling novel of all time, surpassing Peyton Place with 17 million copies sold to date. And Susann kept writing.

To Helen’s advantage, Cosmo was assured of a direct line to All Things Jackie; she had items for her editor’s column, book excerpts, and an enviable “girlfriend” presence in the magazine. The bestselling fascinator wrote and contributed to articles such as “The Camille Complex,” about getting over a cold. (“Take two aspirins and a glass of milk with a jigger of Scotch.”)

Helen and Jackie made a fabulous pair of media molls, one petite and whispery, the other tall, loud, throaty, and gleefully foul-mouthed. Both adored the designs of Emilio Pucci, the Florentine purveyor of clingy, wildly patterned frocks, the sort that announced, “Here she is!” Jackie ordered Pucci drapes for the Mansfields’ hotel suite; her closet was crammed with thirty Puccis dresses. Helen indulged in about half as many and wore them for forty years. By the late 1960s, the output of Helen Gurley Brown and Jacqueline Susann flared across American pop culture on newsstands, bestseller lists, radio waves, and TV talk shows. It was a bright, binary constellation: two brazen dames, two canny producer/husbands, two bestsellers, two hit movies, and a vast marketing universe as yet unexplored.

Helen did suffer one brief and public stumble, a largely forgotten foray into daytime television: In December 1967, she sat in a Manhattan television studio in a hot pink dress, waiting for her eyelash glue to set and fielding questions from a New York Times reporter about her latest venture in expanding the national dialogue—well, at least in eighteen King Features Syndicate cities—on intimate subjects, mostly s-e-x. For a very short time, she was the interviewer/host on a half-hour show named after her anthology of syndicated columns, Outrageous Opinions. It was a one-on-one interview format. She would be coaxing famous people to talk about sex. Helen reasoned that she could be a compassionate but provocative interviewer thanks to her own years of analysis: “It teaches you to be casual and informal. I mean, it makes it seem all right to air your dirty linen in public, and to talk about bouts with drinking or cancer—or your little mongoloid brother. You used to keep him locked in the attic.”

Despite such a gauzy and bizarre summary of her modus operandi, Helen did lure some big names to her hot seat: Otto Preminger, Cleveland Amory, Barbara Walters, David Susskind, Woody Allen, the comic Jackie Mason, the actress Joanna Pettet. Helen was confident that she could get them to loosen up and dish. Pettet did reveal a glancing lesbian encounter; Woody confessed a compulsion to kiss mailmen (“Probably the uniform and the leather pouch get me”). The show had its moments, thanks to Mrs. Brown’s breathy directness as an interviewer.

She marched into the studio to cross-examine Norman Mailer, who seemed confused at first. He was told they’d be discussing “ideas.” In her soft little voice Helen braced the literary lion: “Norman, why are you so violent?”

“I’m not violent.”

“Does it have something to do with proving your manhood?”

“You’re the first lady analyst I’ve ever seen in pink.”

They thrashed their way through a prickly thicket; yes, Mailer surmised, every man worries at some point whether he’s homosexual. And it was just nobody’s business why he had stabbed his second wife, Adele, at that party.

As a host, Helen was still Charming’s Mother. She didn’t see the upside of being a tough interviewer: “Nobody likes you when you’re a bitch, nobody wants to go to bed with you or take you to Bermuda.” Alas, charm was not enough for the daytime audience of housewives, never a robust constituency for HGB. There was a history of mutual enmity; materializing between the detergent and diaper rash commercials to prod guests on their sexual peccadilloes, Helen Gurley Brown was still that woman. When the show was quickly canceled, Helen had to accept what she had suspected all along: she really was most effec- tive as America’s guest.

The Browns and the Mansfields grew closer. Yet no one but Susann’s husband and doctors knew of her very private sufferings that included an autistic son, Guy Mansfield, living in an institution, and Susann’s recurrent breast cancer, serious pill dependencies, heavy cigarette habit, and deep smoker’s cough. Nonetheless, she was determined to celebrate her ascent to “N.Y. Times Bestseller!!” with her dream team. Don Preston, Susann’s editor at Geis, recalled the evening when he and his wife were invited to the lavish celebration that the Mansfields threw for themselves and the Browns at ‘21’: “Jackie stage managed that dinner, and they must have worked on it a week . . . I think [the wine] was a Chateau Lafite. Caviar and vodka was standing in front of us when we sat down, and I drank Helen’s vodka because she didn’t want it. She tried to send it back, but I wouldn’t let her.”

There would be no mad abandon for HGB; she was thrilled for her friend, but there was always an issue to get out. I have work to do. It was a mantra she would invoke before cossetting herself away even in the most glamorous and exclusive playgrounds that success had admitted her to—at friends’ Hamptons estates, on exotic movie locations, even at Wyntoon, the “Bavarian Village” retreat in rural Northern California that William Randolph Hearst plundered and imperiled his publishing companies to build. Helen wrote to friends that she and David had slept in the bed of Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies; the tycoon had retreated to Wyntoon with Davies and their dachshunds shortly after Pearl Harbor. Each morning when Helen rolled out of that historic bower, she hit the floor for an hour and a half’s exercise, then went at the manuscripts she had packed with her hiking clothes. She would never let her work go. Back in New York, she put in seventy to eighty hours a week at the office; staffers who had been out to dinner and walked home past the office building looked for her office light, always the last one glowing.

Helen believed in delivering a big bang for sixty cents per issue; in short order, her magazines were mammoth. The small, dense type ran nearly to the edges of the pages, so close to the cut that one could barely read the page numbers. The issues grew thicker, the ads plentiful. The dense bound volumes of late sixties, seventies, and eighties Cosmopoli- tans require effort to pry and keep open; piled high on a library cart, they seem to possess the atomic weight of lead. It was a magazine that a reader could spend a lot of time with. Hearst was sanguine about losing some of that valued “pass-on” readership beloved by advertisers, so long as more and more women bought their own copies and hung on to them. Cosmo readers were exceptionally loyal; between 92 and 96 percent of sales were single-copy purchases rather than subscription, more than double the industry average, month after month.

Helen’s night terrors had subsided somewhat as the circulation grew. Life as a real editor in chief was dizzying, but it was becoming rather divine. Blasé New Yorkers began to recognize Helen in the street. Advertisers were jostling for placement up front and in the editorial well; young women were still writing for advice in the thousands.

How exactly did she do that—and so quickly?

Though Helen’s editorial message and mix had their multifaceted appeal, her numbers were also buoyed by a demographic tsunami that she could not take credit for. The baby boom, that massive postwar urge to breed that Helen had so disdained, had produced many more daughters of working age. The first wave was hitting the workforce in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, there were half again more working American women between the ages of twenty and thirty-four—15.1 million— than there had been at the end of the 1950s (9.6 million). This increase delivered a new and relatively solvent readership, with spenders even more attractive to advertisers than the daddy-dependent teens, college students, and housewives who bought Glamour, Mademoiselle, or Ladies’ Home Journal. Running the only magazine specifically geared to that independent, employed woman, Helen saw her circulation jumps keep a brisk pace with the surging female workforce.

Work and sex, the twin linchpins of Sex and the Single Girl, were coalescing in a robust new constituency—the “singles scene,” part of what magazine trend stories were calling the sexual revolution. Far fewer young strivers were still living with their parents, or were financially dependent upon them. They were free to make decisions as to how and where they chose to live, and with whom. It was not their mothers’ stay-at-home-until-marriage sort of young adulthood. As Helen was assigning more articles on birth control and cohabitation, the term “sexual revolution” began popping up elsewhere in the media. Jacqueline Susann saw it; her Dolls heroine Anne Welles fled Papa’s house in “Lawrenceville” for a secretarial job in Manhattan:

“She had escaped. Escaped from marriage to some solid Lawrenceville boy, from the solid, orderly life of Lawrenceville. The same orderly life her mother had lived. And her mother’s mother. In the same orderly kind of a house. A house that a good New England family had lived in generation after generation, its inhabitants smothered with orderly, unused emotion, emotions stifled beneath the creaky iron armor called ‘manners.’ ”

The runaway popularity of Cosmo and Dolls was concomitant with the loosening of hidebound, male-dominated sexual etiquette. Women were beginning to listen more closely to their own desires, and act upon them. There was even new science about women’s sexual lives in the laboratory discoveries of Dr. William Masters and Virginia John- son, researchers who probed the uncharted physiology of human mating. The New York Times reviewer, a physician and Planned Parenthood administrator, admitted his own prudery in writing (favorably) about their book, Human Sexual Response: “. . . somehow I find the thought disconcerting that at bejeweled dinner parties across this nation . . . gentlemen on miladies’ right will ask, ‘Did you know that old Sigmund Freud was wrong? Masters found that clitoral and vaginal orgasm are essentially the same?’ The reply will be, ‘I found that interesting, but even more fascinating the fact that the size of the male phallus bears no demonstrable relationship to the degree of sexual satisfaction.’ ”

The doctor noted the shift from the old Freudian vaginal orgasm–only paradigm: clitoral exploration got twenty-two pages, vaginal forty-two. He warned that no one should buy the book for their porn collection; the prose was ponderously academic and chilly; sexual partners and masturbators were wired like lab rats. But the findings were heralded by the “new woman,” who, like Helen two decades before, found the conventions of married life in suburbia—sexual and otherwise—little more than Colonial-style coffins. Like Anne fleeing Lawrenceville, they packed their bags and shopped for vibrators, discreetly wrapped.

Their migrations were unprecedented and liberating. In Re-Making Love, an insightful post-analysis of the sexual revolution subtitled The Feminization of Sex, the authors contended, “The birth control pill . . . contributed to women’s sexual revolution but by no means caused it. The causes of the sexual revolution were more sociological than technological: Without a concentration of young, single women in the cities, there would have been no sexual revolution.”

During the 1960s, there was an 80 percent rise in single households. Most of the change was happening in urban areas, where young men and women flocked for employment opportunities. Cosmo was reaching them back in Lawrenceville, and in the cities. In 1969, two-thirds of Cosmo’s readership lived in the cities or suburbs; by 1983, the figure would jump to seven out of eight. The book/TV series/movie colossus Sex and the City was still three decades away from Helen’s debut Cosmo. But the stage was being set in countless sixties fern bars.

It all made for a fruitful and seemingly limitless synergy of message and demographic, and Helen was running far ahead of the pack. Yet at Hearst, she was still on a short leash. As she watched her numbers come in, Helen asked for a bonus structure keyed to circulation increases and without a cap. Richard Berlin, the cost-slasher in chief, refused to entertain the idea. Despite the incredible and growing circulation numbers, the huge increase in ad pages and revenue, Helen’s “bonus” was limited to a thin dime per copy sold over the previous year’s circulation. Millions more were pouring into Hearst coffers by the early seventies and her salary hovered around sixty thousand dollars.

As often as she dared, Helen asked for a decent editor in chief’s travel budget and was repeatedly rebuffed. Instead, she traded shameless editorial mentions, often in her “Step into My Parlor” column, for free flights and accommodations to spread the Cosmo gospel. Of TWA’s New York–to–London night flight, she gushed, “It is simply a floating pleasure palace! If they’re not filet-mignoning you, they’re white and red wining you, and there’s the movie and the stereo. (David accused me of waking him up out of a sound sleep so I wouldn’t even miss even the hot-towel course.)”

Hearst also sought more control over Helen’s public image. She was proud of her frequent television appearances and growing visibility, yet her extracurricular efforts were frowned upon in the executive suite. In a letter stiff with censure and condescension, Dick Deems suggested that since she would be receiving vast sums of money in her next contract—richly deserved, of course—perhaps she should take care in accepting outside assignments that might “decelerate your progress on the magazine.” To hell with daytime TV gabfests, then; the Hearst men wanted more growth and revenue, faster.

Helen would also receive a demoralizing note from Richard Berlin. Though he had congratulated Helen on her stunning sell-through numbers, Berlin expressed regrets that the woman who saved Cosmo and shored up the entire company’s sagging bottom line would not be welcome at Hearst’s fiftieth-anniversary party in the summer of 1969. He explained that “it’s strictly a stag affair.” By way of consolation, Berlin made a lordly offer to reserve a conference room in order to instruct her in the august history of the privately held company. The message was clear: though Helen’s triumph had indeed made Berlin a hero, though her new office was certainly an improvement on the fusty dentist’s suite at her last ad agency, the glass ceiling at Hearst had the primal fixity of a polar ice cap.

—Gerri Hirshey

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.

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