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To call Helen Gurley Brown a study in contradictions is an understatement.

Helen Gurley Brown in her Manhattan office in 1985

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The threatening possibilities unraveled HGB to such an extent that she told, publicly, a nostalgic story about a good-natured game called “Scuttle” they used to play at a radio station where she had once worked. The men would chase the female employees around the office and try to pull off their panties. This, she averred, was just friendly sexual teasing and feminists were taking it far too seriously.

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You can take the girl out of the South but you can’t take the South out of the girl, at least not entirely. HGB possesses an instinctive, kneejerk patriotism; during the debate over drafting women she said she would willingly die for her country. But the rest of her politics have undergone a sea change that Scanlon describes in one of the book’s most fascinating passages:

Her leanings were from the start conservative if not libertarian in their favoring of the free market. “I believe so devoutly in the private enterprise system,” she stated, but ultimately feminism complicated her relationship to the American political system. . . . For much of her adult life, [she would] swing her vote from Republican to Democratic candidates as issues moved her. In the end, though, her political leanings were socially liberal and fiscally conservative, so as the Republican party moved further to the right she found herself, somewhat to her surprise, moving further toward the Democratic party. The abortion question in particular piqued her, and although she initially voted for Ronald Reagan because of his adherence to strict definitions of the free market, she found it difficult to fathom how someone so enamored of liberty came out against abortion rights. Her own stance on abortion, among the most liberal in circulation, would steer her so clearly toward the Democrats that in later life she would be more likely, regardless of her feelings on other issues, to vote Democratic. By 2007, when  . . . asked by Vanity Fair magazine to name the living person she admired most, she would, without hesitation, choose Bill Clinton.

Jennifer Scanlon delivers Helen Gurley Brown’s “delightfully knotty life story” in a neat and satisfying package, notwithstanding the contradictions that — she admits — leave her puzzled. As she notes, in a felicitous phrase: “The gift of biography is that it allows these various stories to tangle with each other.” A professor of gender and women’s studies at Bowdoin, Scanlon rescues the reputation of her own field, long notorious for its droning manifestos, with her witty and consistently readable literary style. This is not an authorized biography; Helen Gurley Brown has not read it, but she granted the author permission to quote from her published and unpublished writings covering her childhood up to the present, now stored in 47 boxes of literary papers at Smith College. In other words, this is not chick lit but cultural history, the first serious biography of the woman who, in Scanlon’s view, “ushered in and has long continued to define the feminist mainstream.”

— Florence King’s National Review columns are collected in STET, Damnit! The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. This review originally appeared in the May 4, 2009, issue of National Review.



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