Book by Brook Hauser. Review and commenting by Lois Rubin Gross.
It started with Seventeen, the teenage girl’s bible. Each month, I would wait anxiously for the thick, glossy magazine to arrive on the magazine rack at the corner candy store. Every month I would scout the corner candy store until the thick, glossy magazine arrived on the stand. I especially loved the August book, full of clothes for the school year. There were stylish, yet modest A-line dresses, heather sweaters paired with pleated skirts, and lots and lots of tips. Seventeen taught me to style my unmanageable hair, cover my occasional zits, minimize my prominent nose, and get a date for prom even if it wasn’t the date I’d hoped for. I read Seventeen far beyond the titular age of interest.
After that, I graduated to Mademoiselle and Glamour, which had the same basic themes as Seventeen but cranked up the interest level to a college student or a young working girl. This was about the time that a scandalous book called Sex and the Single Girl hit the stores. Looking back, I must have read my sister’s copy. She was a secretary, then, and could purchase her own reading material without approval from my mother. I probably sneaked it from her closet and read it in the gap time between my arrival home from school and her return from work.
Surely, I didn’t understand the message, that young women should be free to choose not to be married, to enjoy extra-marital affairs, and to behave flirtatiously whether at work or on social occasions. Internalizing that message came later and was mostly outside my understanding. However, this history-making book also encouraged women to learn to budget and to care for themselves without calling upon a man for assistance. Later, I owned a spin-off cookbook that offered recipes for two designed for date night at home.
All of these ideas came (mostly) from the brain of Helen Gurley Brown, a self-described “mouseburger” from Arkansas who traveled from an impoverished home to life as a secretary in Los Angeles. Despite her lowly status and lack of college degree – always a sore spot for Ms. Brown – she worked her way up from manual typist (she never used electric) to well-paid advertising copywriter. Despite skin pocked with adolescent acne and thin hair, Helen managed a transformation in which, under layers of Revlon pancake makeup (the company was one of her accounts) and beautiful wigs, she became a “career the woman” in the style of the Rosalind Russell movies that she loved.
It could have stopped right there, but she met David Brown who was the love of her life and her Svengali. Under David’s tutelage, she promoted her book and parlayed it into media fame enough to get an offer from Hearst Publishing to reboot a homely magazine called Cosmopolitan, and thus was history made.
With zero magazine experience, Helen reconceived Cosmo in the style of her best-selling book. It featured beautiful models in seductive fashions spreads, and pushed a lifestyle unheard of until this time. Cosmo told young women, especially small town “mouseburgers”, that if they couldn’t have it all, they could grab a huge chunk of success, sex, beauty, and marriage if they wanted it. She pushed flirty behavior to her “pussycat” readers, including “teddy bear tricks” which involved making oneself seem small and dependent, but being in total control of the progress of the flirtation.
The cover “slugs” for articles largely came from David, and made no secret that they were about sex, sex and sex. Cosmo promoted the brand new birth control pill, despite the fact that it was found the cause cancer in some women. Cover photos by the brilliant photographer Scavullo were unabashedly seductive. Scavullo was also responsible for the game-changing centerfold of Burt Reynolds naked save for a cigar in his mouth. It nearly killed Reynolds’ career until it become so iconic that the demand for his “talents” became overwhelming.
At the same time that Helen Gurley Brown was writing down to her army of office girls, a new wave was sweeping the nation and some of its founders had worked for Cosmo at one time or another. Freelancers Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron became mainstays of the feminist movement and its magazine, MS. Letty Cotten Pogrebin also became a mainstay of the magazine. While Steinem initially sought Brown’s participation and financial support, Helen Gurley Brown did not see it as a natural marriage so Steinem launched her magazine under the auspices of New York Magazine.
The two magazines could not have been more dissimilar in their tone, their voice, and their subject matter. Still, their missions ran parallel to each other. Both were advocating a new kind of life for young women, one that did not rely on the traditional “happy endings” of husband, home, and children.
Brown actually dipped her toe into the feminist pool, supporting the ERA, marching down a Manhattan street with hundreds of other women demanding pay parity, and even attending consciousness-raising groups in full make-up but without her jewelry.
I expected Helen Gurley Brown’s story to be different based on my knowledge of her through TV appearances and her monthly column in Cosmo. I haven’t read an issue of the magazine in decades but the events of Helen Gurley Brown’s life and the trajectory of her rise to power made me reflect on the world in which I came of age. It was a time in which college was still optional for many women because who would marry an educated woman (my father’s words when I went for my Masters). It was a time when friends of mine moved in together but maintained separate phone lines so her parents never knew their relationship status. It was a time when boys went to college to start down a career path and girls majored in education or nursing while trying to get an
MRS degree. Over the years, our expectations changed and the bravest of us went on to build careers in law, medicine and business, all the time making $.76 to every man’s dollar and working forty hours in the office and another thirty hours caring for husband and family.
This week, we reached a pinnacle in our fight for equality when Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first major party nominee for President of the United States. Many of you may not like of you. Many of you say “any woman but that woman,” but Secretary Clinton is undeniably the product of decades of ascending the ladders that rested on the recognizable shoulders of the founders of MS, and the unlikely shoulders of Helen Gurley Brown. Mouseburgers, unite! That glass ceiling is just a little bit closer.