Helen Gurley Brown, author of the groundbreaking Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and the founding editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, who died Monday at the age of 90, set the stage for Carrie Bradshaw. But Carrie Bradshaw was a kinder, gentler single girl. When it came to men, Brown was a mercenary who carries us back to the high-heeled world of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which actually came out about the time she was born), in which men existed to buy nice things for the single girl. In her essay “How to Get Men to Give You Presents,” Brown advised that, when an “out of town guy” offers to pay for your taxi, ask for cash, and hop out of the car the second it is out of sight and take a bus.
She did find happiness with the gentlemanly David Brown, a Hollywood producer with East Coast roots. Brown was her Pygmalion. He came up with the idea for her breakthrough book after stumbling across a trove of photocopies (!) of her letters to a former (married) lover. Together they nonetheless contributed to the vulgarization of our culture (a recent profile of her successor, Kate White, the current editor of Cosmo, in the New York Times attests to the durability of her creation).
Vulgar and brittle, yes. But she knew who she was. When Kate Millett and other militant feminists captured the Cosmo office in 1970, Mrs. Brown was dragooned into a consciousness-raising phone-athon. She didn’t fall for it. “I was only into my eighth hangup,” she subsequently wrote, “when I had to relinquish the floor to the next hangup-ee.”
Despite the damage done, I can’t help having a soft spot for her. Brown, unlike many in the Manhattan publishing world, felt little compulsion to kowtow to the Kate Milletts of this world, and, when you get right down to it, probably did less harm.