Helen Gurley Brown Only Wants to Help
If a lady rubs her thighs together when she walks and the squish-squash sound of nylon has a frenzying effect, why keep it a secret? One of the late great writer’s Esquire stories.
By Nora Ephron
Published in the February 1970 issue of Esquire
They are still screaming at her after all these years. They are still saying that Helen Gurley Brown is some kind of scarlet woman, leading the young women of America into reckless affairs, possibly with married men. And every time they say it, she sits there, little puckers beginning in her chin, and waits for the moment when the talk show will be over and she can run offstage and burst into tears. You might think that by now they would stop screaming — after all, this small, thin, dreadfully sincere woman is not to blame for the moral turpitude in America; you might think that by now Helen Gurley Brown would stop crying — after all, her attackers simply do not, cannot understand. But no. Just the other night, it happened again. On The Merv Griffin Show or The Joey Bishop Show. One or the other, She was just sitting there, talking in her underslung voice about how a single girl must go to lunch with married men, that a single girl with no other men in her life must somehow make the men who are there serve a purpose. She finished her little spiel and the screaming began. A singer on the panel started it. “Is this the kind of thing we want the young women of our country to listen to?” he said. “I wouldn’t want ay daughter of mine to go and date a married man.” The he turned to the audience and said, “Everyone out there who agrees with me, raise your hand or clap. And it began. Thunderous applause. Hundreds of hands flapping on the monitors. And as soon as the show was over, Helen Gurley Brown began to cry.
As it happens, Helen Gurley Brown cries quite a lot. She cried for three hours at Trader Vic’s the night Jerry Lewis attacked her on The Tonight Show.She cried one day in the beauty parlor just after returning from a trip to see her mother. She cried the day a Hearst executive refused to let her run a cover of Cosmopolitan magazine because there was too much boosom showing. (That’s the way she pronounces it. Boosom.) She cried the day Richard E. Berlin, president of The Hearst Corporation, put his foot down over a cover line that said, “The Pill That Makes Women More Responsive To Men.” She cries all the time because people don’t understand her. Jerry Lewis does not understand her, her mother does not understand her, and from time to time, the Hearst Corporation does not understand her. They don’t understand what she is trying to do. They don’t understand that she knows something they don’t know. She knows about the secretaries, the nurses, the telephone company clerks who live out there somewhere, miles from psychiatrists, plastic surgeons and birth control clinics. Only eight percept of Cosmopolitan’s readers are in New York City — the rest are stuck in the wilds, coping with their first pair of false eyelashes and their first fling with vaginal foam and their first sit down dinners and their first orgasms These are the girls who read Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook and learn — yes, learn — that before guests arrive for dinner, it is smart to put out the garbage. These are the girls who buy Cosmopolitan and swallow whole such tidbits of advice as: “Rub your thighs together when you walk. The squish-squish sound of nylon…has a frenzying effect.” These are the girls who have to be told “How To Tell If He’s A Married Man.” You don’t believe there are girls who cannot tell if a man is married? Listen, then, to this letter to Helen Gurley Brown from a young lady in Savannah, Georgia:
“My problem is a common one. I am an expectant unwed mother. The father of my child turned his back on me after he found out. Besides, he is married. However, I was not aware of this until after our affair had begun, and too weak to break it off until I realized he had never been serious about me. By this time it was too late.”
Helen Gurley Brown knows about these girls. She understands them. And don’t you see? She is only trying to help.
We are sitting in her yellow and orange office across the street from the Hearst headquarters at Fifty-Seventh Street and Eight Avenue. ON the floor is a large stuffed tiger. On the bulletin board is a picture of her husband David. She calls him Lambchop. On the wall is a long magazine rack, containing, along with a number of popular periodicals, the last twelve months of Cosmopolitan magazine. Read all about it. “Why I Wear My False Eyelashes To Bed.” “I Was A Nude Model.” “I Was Raped.” “I Had A Hysterectomy.” On her desk — along with some dental floss she uses before all editorial meetings — is a tear sheet of the next in a series of advertisements she writes for Cosmopolitan; this one, of a luscious girl, her hand poised deftly over her cleavage, has the following to say:
“What does a girl do if she’s wearing a hairpiece and she and her date are getting quite romantic? Well, we all know that a hairpiece can’t live through very much in the way of stress and strain so I just take out the pins and take mine off. So far, no boy I’ve known has ever fainted dead away because everything that basically counts is me…adding extra hair is just an accessory. When I think of all the subterfuge and pretending girls once had to go through I’m thankful I live now to be truthful…and there’s a wonderful magazine to help me be the honest female-female I really am. I love that magazine. I guess you could say I’m That COSMOPOLITAN Girl.”
Helen Gurley Brown is now in her fifth year as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. She took is over when she was forty-three and it was in trouble, turned it around, breathed new life and new image into it, became the only editor in America to resurrect a dying magazine. She is now forty-eight and tiny, with tiny wrists, tun face, tiny voice. “I once heard her lose her temper,” a former Cosmo editor recalls, “and it sounded like a little sparrow — she was chirping as loud as she could but you still couldn’t hear her.” She wears Rude Gernreich dresses, David Webb jewelry, a Piaget watch, expensive hairpieces, custom-cut false eyelashes — but it never quire seems to come together properly. An earring keeps falling off. A wig is askew. A perfectly matched stocking has a run. All of which not-quite-right effect is intensified because Helen Gurley Brown relentlessly talks about her flat chest, her nose job, her split ends, her adolescent acne, her forty-nine regimen of isometrics and exercises to stay in shape. She does not bring up these faults to convince you she is unattractive but rather to show you what can be done, what any girl can do if she really tries. “Self-help,” she says. “I wish there were better words, but that is my whole credo. You cannot sit around like a cupcake asking other people to come and eat you up and discover your great sweetness and charm. You’ve got to make yourself more cupcakable all the time so that you’re a better cupcake to be gobbled up.” That’s the way she talks when she gets carried away — exhortation, but in the style of girlish advertising copy. She talks about “hot-fudge-sundae-kind-of-pleasure” and “good-old-popcorn-eating-being-transported-to-another-world-going-to-the-movies.” Ten years as an advertising copywriter pays off for this girl. Yes sir. She can package anything. Titles for articles fall out of her mouth involuntarily. A staff member will suggest an article idea, and if she likes it, she has the title in an instant. “The Oh-So-Private World of the Nurse,” she will squeal. Or “The Bittersweet World of the Hillbilly Girl.” Or “The Harried, Happy World of a Girl Buyer.” One day someone suggested an article about how most girls worry about having orgasms. “Yes!” cried Mrs. Brown. We’ll call it, ‘It Never Really Happens To Me.’”
I am in Helen Gurley Brown’s office because I am interviewing her, a euphemism for what in fact involves sitting on her couch and listening while she volunteers answers to a number of questions I would never ask. What she is like in bed, for example. Very good. Whether she enjoys sex. Very much. Always has. Why she did not marry until she was thirty-seven. Very neurotic. Wasn’t ready. It all seems to pour out of her, her past, her secrets, her fears, her innermost hopes and dreams. Says her husband David: “Whether is was group therapy or what, there’s nothing left inside Helen. It all comes out.”
It all comes out — in interviews, on television, in editorial conferences, in memoranda, in the pages of her magazine. Helen Gurley Brown spends twelve hours a day worrying, poring over, agonizing about her magazine; if her insomnia is acting up, she may spend most of the night. She writes endless memos, in lowercase letters, to her writers, full of suggestions for articles she is particularly concerned about. “would like to go into a little detail about what goes through a girl’s head as she is unable to have an orgasm,” went one recent memo. “maybe a soliloquy. this subject has been treated so clinically…as though she couldn’t do push-ups.” She writes memos to her editors praising them, nudging them, telling them how to fix stories that need fixing. “She has a very clear picture of what will and will not fit her magazine,” says Hearst special-projects editor Jeannette Wagner. “If she sends you back an article with a note that says, I want a lead that says thus-and-such, you go back and do exactly what she says
She works over every piece that goes into the magazine, doing the kind of line-by-line editing most editors leave to their juniors, rewriting, inserting exclamation points and italics and capitalized words and Cosmopolitan style into everything. “I want every article to be baby simple,” she often says. Not surprisingly, most of the magazine sounds as if it were written by the same person. And in a way, it is. Helen Gurley Brown. Cute. Girlish. Exhortative. Almost but not quite tasteless. And in its own insidious, peculiar way, irresistible. Says Cosmo articles editor Roberta Ashley: “Helen manages to walk that line between vulgarity and taste, which isn’t easy. The magazine is like a very sexy girl — you don’t mind that her dress is cut down to her navel because her hair is clean. If her hair were dirty, you’d be revolted.”
And if, at times, Helen Gurley Brown and her magazine are offensive, it is only because almost every popular success is offensive. Mrs. Brown — like High Hefner and Dorothy Schiff, to name two other irritating publishing successes — offends because she is proving, at sizable financial profit, the old Mencken dictum that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. She is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are over 1,000,000 American women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female-liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man.
I have not been single for years, but I read Cosmopolitan every month. I see it lying on the newsstands and I’m suckered in. “How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something,” the cover line says, or “Thirteen New Ways to Feminine Satisfaction.” I buy it, greedily, hide it deep within my afternoon newspaper, and hop on the bus, looking forward to — at the very least — a bigger bra size and a completely new kind of orgasm. Yes, I should know better. After all, I used to write for Cosmopolitan and make this stuff up myself. But she gets me every time. I get home — or sometimes, if I simply can’t wait, I open it on the bus, being careful to remove my glove so that onlookers will see my wedding band and will know I’m not reading Cosmopolitan because I’m That COSMOPOLITAN Girl. And there it is. Buy a padded bra, the article on bust lines tell me. Fake it, the article on orgasm says. And I should be furious. But I’m not. Not at all. How can you be angry at someone who’s got your number?
In a recent article in The Antioch Review linking Cosmopolitan and Playboy, Peter Michelson, wrote, “Cosmopolita, or more likely the Hearst hierarchy, had recognized how Playboy was making the world safe for pornography, and it very neatly cut itself in on the sex-profit nexus.” That explanation, while interesting, gives The Hearst Corporation more credit than it is due. In 1964, about all the Hearst people realized was that Cosmopolitan was in bad shape. Circulation had dropped to under 800,000 copies a month. Advertising was down to twenty-one pages an issue. Early in 1965, Helen Gurley Brown came to see Richard Deems, President of the Hearst Magazines Division, with a dummy for a new magazine. He had vaguely heard about her, had no idea she was at all controversial, and had never read her 1962 best seller, Sex and the Single Girl. But he liked her, he liked her idea for a magazine aimed at single women, and, most of all, he liked her long list of companies that might be willing to advertise in such a magazine. It is safe to say that if Deems had thought that Helen Gurley Brown was going to turn Cosmopolitan into something that would repeatedly be called the female counterpart to Playboy, he would not have employed her. “We happen to be a company with a conscience about what it publishes,” he said recently. “Out paperback division is the only book company that doesn’t have a married-sex book. We’re very studious about this kind of thing.”
There are, of course, many similarities between Cosmopolitan and Playboy. Both magazines contain nudity. Both are concerned with sexual freedom of a sort. Both are headed by people who are the products of repressed, Wasp backgrounds. Both publish the worst work of good writers. Both exalt material possessions. Both are somewhat deprecating to the opposite sex: Playboy turns its women into sexual objects; Cosmopolitan makes its men mindless creatures who can be toppled into matrimony by perfect souffles, perfect Martinis, and other perfectible manipulative techniques.
This year, Helen Gurley Brown even commissioned a Playboy-type foldout picture — of actor James Coburn, nude, his vital parts somewhat obscured by a potted palm. “It was a very pretty picture.” said Mrs. Brown. “But… I don’t like being in the position of turning James Coburn down… but the particular picture I needed didn’t come out this shooting. The pictures were very hippie and mystical, strange and ethereal and a little sad, and Jesus, that isn’t what I had in mind at all. I wanted a cute, funny, wonderful foxy picture, with that great mouth and marvelous teeth. I am going to do a foldout — I’ll have another whack at it — but I haven’t got the picture I want yet.”
There is one major difference between Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The Playboy man has no problems. The Cosmopolitan girl has thousands. She has menstrual cramps, pimples, budget squeeze, hateful roommates. She cannot meet men. She cannot think of what to say when she meets them. She doesn’t know how to take off her clothes to get into bed with them. She doesn’t know how to find a psychiatrist. She gets raped, though only by rapists with somewhat unlikely dialogue. (In “I Was Raped,” Cosmpolitan introduced the only rapist in history who lay down on his victim and murmured, “Let’s make love.”)
“It drives my management wild to be compared with Playboy. We are not like Playboy. We are all the things we’ve been talking about — onward, upward, be it, do it, get out of your morass, meet some new men, don’t accept, don’t be a slob, be everything you’re capable of. If you’re a little mouseburger, come with me. I was a mouseburger and I will help you. You’re so much more wonderful than you think. Cosmopolitan is shot full of this stuff although outsiders don’t realize it. It is, in its way, an inspirational magazine.”
There is very little that has happened to Helen Gurley Brown that she has not managed to extricate a rule from. Or learn a lesson from. Or make a maxim of. Or see, in hindsight, that it was all part of a plan. If it weren’t for her unhappy childhood, she says, she wouldn’t be enjoying herself so much now. It it weren’t for her years of difficulty, she would never have had such a drive to improve her lot. She has led a hard life, a perfect life out of which to build inspirational books and an inspirational magazine.
She was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, in the Ozarks, the second daughter of Cleo and Ira Gurley. Both her parents were schoolteachers, but her father turned to politics and was elected to the state legislature. In 1925 he moved his family to Little Rock. He was killed in a freak elevator accident in the State Capitol Building seven years later. His daughter Helen was 10 and his daughter Mary was 14.
“That really changed our lives considerably,” Helen Gurley Brown remembered one day recently. “That sort of finished things, finished a phase of my life which I will never get back. The security… They say a great deal of your life is formed by the time you’re about seven, so these drives and rages and ambitions and yearnings and needings and cravings of mine must have been formed before that time, some of them. I never have gotten to the bottom of all that. Why am I so driven? It seems logically to have derived from things that happen dot me after my father died, but some of it must be residual from very early. I don’t know.
“But anyway, here we are in Little Rock, little fatherless children. I don’t think my mother and father were particularly happy together, but my father’s death was a horrendous thing in her life. She and my father had been very poor. She gets disgusted with me because I keep carrying on about how poor I was. I always ate. I always looked O.K. I really never was eating pork and beans out of a can and putting cardboard in the soles of my shoes. Bt it’s what you get in your head, it’s how it seemed to you that motivates you. Whereas my parents were really poor, and just a bout the time things were beginning to go rather well, she and my father had resolved their differences they had, poosh, he’s taken away, snapped off.
“We stayed in Little Rock for about three years after my father’s death,” she continued. “But he left a limited amount of insurance and apparently our house was mortgaged to the hilt. So because mother felt we couldn’t keep up the nice little standard of living in Little Rock on this particular stipend she had been left, she decided we’d all go move to Los Angeles. It was very brave and gutsy of her. But my sister didn’t want to go to California. I didn’t either. And my mother didn’t level with us, because you didn’t in those days. She said, ‘Oh, I think it would be nice to go to California, we have relatives there.’ So we move to California and Mary gets polio.” She paused. “She was 19. There was no March of Dimes and there was nobody to help. Schlurp, in one big thing, in one year, it took all the money we had. I got good and scared out of my wits about that time.”
Another pause. “I just didn’t know what was going to become of us. It was still the end of the Depression, jobs were very hard to get and my sister — she’s never walked again. I don’t know, we were sort of a pitiful little tribe.” Her voice cracked and she began to cry. “My word,: she said. “I never talk about this anymore.” She daubed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Well, this is the way I was for years. It was the three of us sort of huddled together. My sister was in a wheelchair and needed constant care. My mother couldn’t go back to work or do anything for a number of years.” Tears continued to roll down her face. “I was terrified,” she said.
The Gurleys moved to the Was Side of Los Angeles near the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital, and Helen enrolled at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School. Her memories of that period — aside from her sister’s illness — have mainly to do with having acne. “I was a cute little girl, but who could see past those pus pustules?” Like that. She became a student leader, graduated as valedictorian, and was taken to the prom by the student-body president. “It was the coup of the year,” she recalled with some amusement. “He had a real case on me, because he got close enough to find out what I was like. I always have to get men close enough to me to be interested in me. I have to do what I call Sinking In before they pay attention. I’m never anybody that some man sees at a party and says, ‘Get me her.’ Never. But once they get near me and I turn on what I call Plan Girl Power — well, it worked with the student body president.”
Following high school and a year at Woodbury Business College, Helen went to work answering fan mail at radio station KHJ to pay for her second year of college. Her mother worked in the marking room at Sears, Roebuck. Her sister did telephone work for the Hooper rating service. Then Mrs. Gurley and Mary moved back to Arkansas and Helen was left as a single girl in Los Angeles. Friends who knew her in the 1940s when she held eighteen consecutive secretarial jobs, remember her as a shy, self-effacing, attractive girl who always did the sorts of clever things that seemed astonishing twenty years ago, like putting egg in spinach salad. She was, they recall, completely neurotic about money. She sent one week’s salary each month to her family and she was convinced no one would ever marry her because of her financial obligations.
To make ends meet, she took the bus to work, drove her car only on weekends with gas she pumped at the serve-yourself station on Beverly Boulevard, brought her lunch to the office in a paper sack, read other people’s newspapers, made her own clothes, traveled by Greyhound bus. She tried every angle. because she washed her hair in Woolite, she wrote the president of the company to tell him — and he sent her a free box of the stuff. She wrote an unsolicited memo to the proprietor of the beauty salon in her office lobby telling him how to hype up business — and he did her hair for nothing. She entered the Glamour magazine Ten Girls With Taste contest three years in a row, and finally won. “I used to enter all the contests,” she said. “I bought so many bars of Lux soap to enter the ‘I like Lux soap because…’ contest. I couldn’t enter under my own name, because I worked in an advertising agency, so I would send them to Mary and say, ‘Please, Mary, have a picture make of yourself in a wheelchair and send these off.’ Well, that didn’t work. That’s one that failed. But I did it. I tried.”
She tried everything. Vitamin therapy. Group therapy. Psychoanalysis. Hair therapy. Skin therapy. Her persistent self-improvement dazzled her friends. “She decided the kind of person she wanted to be, the milieu in which she wanted to live, how she wanted to look,” said one longtime California associate. “In a very real sense, she invented herself.” There were a number of men in Helen Gurley’s life — two agents, a married advertising executive, and a Don Juan whom she spent nine years off and on with — but to hear her tell it, her job always came first. She became secretary to Don Belding, a partner in Foote, Cone & Belding, and after five years she was made a copywriter. “It was so heady,” she recalled in a near-whisper. “I adored it. Instead of making $100 a week I’m making $10,000 a year, and this is in 1955 and that was considerable money for a girl then, very heady. You know, everything adds up. It’s what I keep saying in my books and in Cosmo. If you do every little thing you can do in your own modest position, one thing leads to another. So do it and be it and write the letters and make the phone calls and get on with it. And this is what I was doing every hour of the day, every day of the year.
But I’m still living in my frugal way. I’m still bringing my lunch to the office. And I was conservative enough to have saved a little money. I had managed to save $8000.” One day, Helen Gurley walked into a Beverly Hills used-car lot and paid $5000 for a Mercedes-Benz. Cash. “The next weekend I went to the Beldings’ ranch in total shock because of this money I spent. It just was not like me. I was in pain, physical pain. Everyone told me all of the reasons I should have that car — that I was a successful writer and a gifted girl — they pumped me up and held my hand. But every time they looked at me I was sitting over in the corner in a catatonic heap thinking of this money I’d spent.
“A week or so later a friend of mine set up this famous date with David Brown, whom she’d been saving for me. I thought it was going to be a big thing. I felt it in my bones before I met him. She’d been talking about him for three years, and it felt right. It was an interesting, lovely evening. And he took me to my car after dinner. I could see him looking at this car, this nice car. And I said, Yes, I just bought it and I paid all cash for it. And that was a nice thing, he liked the fact that I’d bee able to save all that money, because he had been married to very extravagant women, particularly his last wife.”
Helen Gurley and David Brown were married one year later, in September, 1959, at the Beverly Hills City Hall. He is now Executive Vice-President of Creative Operations and a director of Twentieth-Century Fox, and his wife continually says she could never have become what she has become without him. He gave her the idea to write Sex and the Single Girl. He gave her the idea to aim a magazine at single women. He was once an editor of Cosmopolitan; and in her early days there, he helped her run the magazine, rushing over in taxicabs for street-corner conferences about copy. He still writes all the cover blurbs for the magazine. Both Browns live work-oriented lives — long office hours, dinners out with business friends. They spend at least one night a week at Trader Vic’s with Darryl Zanuck; they travel to Palm Springs and the Riviera with Richard Zanuck. Several nights a week they eat at home, in the Park Avenue apartment, and spend the evening working.
At one point in 1968, Mrs. Brown was also emceeing a television show and overseeing the editing of Hearst’s Eye magazine. Both operations are now defunct, and she is left with just Cosmopolitan. Now selling 1,100,680 copies a month. Now pulling in 857 advertising pages a year — compared with 1964’s 259. There are still the little setbacks, of course: old friends who are jealous; reader complaints over increasing nudity in the magazine, The Hearst Corporation’s censorship. But though Helen Gurley Brown cries frequently, she cries much less than she used to.
Why just the other day she managed to get through a major flap without crying once. It all had to do with the breast memorandum. Perhaps you remember it — one of her staff members leaked it to Women’s Wear Daily, and many newspapers picked it up. The memo began, “We are doing an article on how men should treat women’s breasts during lovemaking. It will either help us sell another 100,000 copies or stop publication of Cosmopolitan altogether.” Its purpose? “To help a lot of men make a lot of girls more happy.” It went on to say… But stop. Let her tell the story.
“It started with my idea of how boosoms should be handled,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the articles here are assigned by other editors, but this particular thing was a secret of mine that I felt only I understood. I called my own writer in California and told her about it. She tried it and turned it in and it was beautiful, but God, it didn’t have anything to do with how men should treat women’s bosoms. It had to do with love and companionship and the wonderful relationship between men and women, but it just didn’t have anything on the technicality of the subject. I wanted techniques. What does she like and how does she tell him and what does he do and how does he shape up. So I called my writer and said, ‘This is your personal reminiscence of all your love affairs, and fascinating as it is, it doesn’t have anything to do with boobs.’ And she said, ‘I know. Can you supply me with any material?’
That’s when I sat down and wrote my memo to the girls in the office. Just give me your thoughts about boosoms, I said. Has anybody ever been a real idiot in making love to you? How could men improve their techniques? What would you like done that’s not being done? I just got a wonderful response. All the girls responded except two. I’d like to know who the two were because I don’t think they’d be happy at Cosmopolitan, but I had no way of knowing because a lot of girls didn’t sign their memos. I’ve sent many memos before — give me your definition of a bitch, have you ever dated a very wealthy man — and this was just another one of those memos. Then I saw it in Women’s Wear Daily and I really did hit the roof. A lot of people said, ho, ho, ho, how lucky can you be? You probably mailed it yourself in an unmarked envelope. But that’s not true, because I tread a very careful path with Hearst management and I don’t want them to get exercised about anything. If I just very quietly developed these articles and show them the finished product, it’s much better. But this big brouhaha started because this little bitch, whoever she was, sent the memo to Women’s Wear, and I would still fire her if I knew who she was. Because then the turmoil started. My management said to me, We want to see a copy of the boosom article the minute it’s finished. I didn’t want this attention to be called to what I was doing. Furthermore, we have trouble with supermarkets in the South and I didn’t want them stirred up ahead of time.
“Well, the girls wrote their wonderful memos, I put two other writers on the story — because the girl in California suddenly got very haughty and said she didn’t want to deal with the material. She just went absolutely crackers about the whole thing. So these two writers took it on and between them they turned in wonderful stuff, their own ideas plus all my material. I got this fantastic article. But my management wouldn’t let me run it. The actual use of anatomical words bugs them. Well, you cannot talk about love and relationships when you’re talking about how to handle a breast. You must be anatomical. You’ve got to say a few things about what to do. I’m not mad at them — they do it because they’re afraid we’ll have too much flack. But I plan to lie low for a while and come back with my boosom article later. I read it tenderly, like a little love letter, every so often. I’ll try it again after a while.”
One day a couple of years ago, a Cosmopolitan editor named Harriet La Barre called me and asked if I wanted to write an article on how to start a conversation. They would pay me $600 for 1000 words. Yes, I would. FIne, she said, she would send a memo Helen had written on the subject. The memo arrived, a breezy little thing filled with suggestions like “remember what the great Cleveland Amory says — shyness is really just selfishness” and “be sure to debunk the idea that it is dangerous to approach strangers.” I read it and realized with some embarrassment that I had already written the article the memo wanted, in slightly different form — for Cosmopolitan, no less. I called Harriet La Barr.
“Omigod,” she said. “And I even edited it.”
We talked i over and decided that I might as well take the assignment anyway.
“After all,” said Miss La Barre, “if it doesn’t bother us to run the same article twice, it shouldn’t bother you to write it twice.”
“I have just one question though,” I said. “What is this about the great Cleveland Amory and his theory that shyness is just selfishness?”
“Did she say that?” said Miss La Barre. “She must be kidding — I don’t even think she likes Cleveland Amory.”
A few weeks later, I turned the article in, and Harriet La Barre called. “We’re going to run it,” she said, “but there are two things we want you to change.”
“All right,” I said.
“First of all, I was wrong about Cleveland Amory,” she said “I’m afraid we do have to say that shyness is really selfishness.”
“But shyness isn’t really selfishness,” I said.
“Well, I know, but that’s the way we have to put it.”
“What’s the second thing?” I said.
“Well, it’s just one little change Helen made, but I wanted to read it to you. You have a sentence that reads, ‘It’s absurd to think that any girl who asks a nice-looking man how to get to Rockefeller Center will be bundled up in a burlap bag and sold into a Middle Eastern harem.’”
“Yes,” I said, realizing it wasn’t much of a sentence.
“Well, Helen changed it to read, ‘The notion that any girl who asks a nice-looking man how to how to get to Rockefeller Center will be bundled up in a burlap bag and sold into a Middle Eastern harem is as antique and outmoded a myth as the notion that you can’t take a bath while menstruating.’”
“Is that all right?” she said.
“Is that all right? Of course it’s not all right. How did that particular image get into my article?”
I don’t really know,” said Harriet La Barre. “We’re doing a piece on menstruation and maybe it was on her mind.”
I hung up, convinced I had seen straight to the soul of Helen Gurley Brown. Straight to the foolishness, the tastelessness her critics so often accused her of. But I was wrong. She really isn’t that way at all. She’s just worried that somewhere out there is a girl who hasn’t taken a bath during her period since puberty. She’s just worried that somewhere out there is a girl whose breasts aren’t being treated properly. She’s just worried that somewhere out there is a mouseburger who doesn’t realize she has the capability of becoming anything, anything at all, anything she wants to, of becoming Helen Gurley Brown, for God’s sake. And don’t you see? She is only trying to help.