The Death of the Original Cosmo Girl: Helen Gurley Brown (1922–2012)

A journalistic legend, she saw and realized the commercial potential of the female libido in the magazine-publishing industry

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A gold record is presented to Helen Gurley Brown by a staffer as others look on at a party celebrating the millionth-copy edition of "Cosmopolitan" at their office

A kind of food chain is evident in the world and words of Helen Gurley Brown, who edited Cosmopolitan magazine for more than three decades. Her universal term of endearment was pussycat — warm, fuzzy yet still feline, with all that’s feral in the pet implicit. On the opposite scale, there is the word she coined, mouseburger, which came to be applied to a timid woman that a pussycat can presumably feed on and spit out, the opposite of the Cosmo Girl idealized by her magazine. One part of the genius of Brown, who died in New York City today at the age of 90, was her recognition of the consumer marketability of the female libidinal instinct in its quest for romantic happiness. She turned Cosmopolitan into a manifesto of that combination — a feat that both pleased and appalled feminists who saw liberation in weightier terms. To them, the Cosmopolitan ethos is a limited one. But it is persistent. Brown’s ideological offspring include Carrie Bradshaw (as played by Sarah Jessica Parker) on Sex and the City and Megan (portrayed by Melissa McCarthy) in Bridesmaids. The other part of her genius was her own example as an explicit way to escape the tyranny of the implicit food chain. Mouseburger was originally her description of herself — a woman born neither beautiful nor powerful. But, as the editor of one of the most influential magazines in publishing history, Brown made herself influential and attractive, a big cat to be reckoned with in the concrete jungle.

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Born Helen Gurley on Feb. 18, 1922 in Green Forest, Ark., she began her career as a secretary and advertising copywriter before turning to editorial work. She became a household name and best-selling author in 1962 with the publication of her first book, Sex and the Single Girl, an instant blockbuster that sold 2 million copies in three weeks. Offering witty tips on everything from decorating to dieting, Brown encouraged young women to embrace their sexualities and financial independence (“Nobody likes a poor girl. She is just a drag.”) instead of relying on a man or marriage. “It’s not a study on how to get married,” Brown once said of the book, “but how to stay single in superlative style.” In her own love life, Brown didn’t need any manuals — she wed film producer David Brown in 1959, and the two remained married until his death in 2010.

Brown arrived at a struggling Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965 without a college degree or previous editing experience. She became the magazine’s first female editor in chief, a role that would establish her as a publishing and cultural icon. On one level, her success was the numbers: in her 32-year tenure, Brown increased circulation from 800,000 to 2.5 million readers and made Cosmopolitan the best-selling women’s magazine — and one emulated by competitors such as Glamour and Marie Claire.

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But her transformation of the magazine was about much more than financial figures. Brown reinvented the glossy, coining the “fun, fearless, female” moniker and unapologetically featured sex, skin and splash on its pages. It was a lifestyle she not only promoted but had experienced: she had notoriously slept with some of her bosses, though later told women, “You can’t sleep your way to the top or even to the middle.” She was known to ban four-letter words in the magazine, but never feared being provocative. In 1972, she published a nude Burt Reynolds centerfold, which epitomized the sensationalism she strove for in her pages.

Her boldness and brashness emboldened generations of women, but at the same time, upset feminists like Betty Friedan, who thought her advice encouraged women to become sex objects and called Cosmopolitan “obscene and quite horrible.” Fellow feminist author Gloria Steinem told the New York Times that Brown “deserves credit for having introduced sexuality into women’s magazine’s — Cosmo was the first. But then it became the unliberated woman’s survival kit, with advice on how to please a man, lover or boss under any circumstances and also — in a metaphysical sense — how to smile all the time.”

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Brown retired as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan in 1996, but remained publisher of its international editions, which now number about 60, propagating her vision around the world. And she continued to champion journalism until her death, most recently donating $30 million to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University’s school of engineering in January. The endowment established an institute for innovation in journalism — both in print and digitally — a fitting legacy from one of publishing’s most colorful and controversial pioneers.