Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, died Monday in New York City at the age of 90 amid the 50th anniversary year of her international bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. Decades after Brown wrote the book about making the most of single life, Jennifer Scanlon, Bowdoin’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Gender and Women’s Studies, wrote the book on Brown.
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown (Oxford University Press, 2009. Penguin, paperback edition, 2010), traces the life of the maverick diva of New York publishing, from her humble, working-class beginnings to her ascent to the pantheon of 20th century women.
In demand for her breadth and depth of knowledge on all things Brown, Scanlon did a dozen interviews in as many hours, with media outlets ranging from the BBC to People magazine, and the Financial Times to Women’s Wear Daily. Scanlon kindly also took time to share some thoughts about Helen Gurley Brown with the Bowdoin Daily Sun.
When Helen Gurley Brown died yesterday, Frank Bennack, CEO of the Hearst Corporation, stated that it would be hard to overstate Brown’s importance to Cosmopolitan magazine.
It’s true. Some at Hearst have said that sales of Cosmo financed the fantastic new Hearst building just south of Columbus Circle.
Others have talked about how sales of Cosmo have helped the company weather tough economic times for magazines overall.
Certainly Brown made tremendous amounts of money for Hearst, but her legacies, as Bennack readily admits, are many.
Take the Cosmo Girl. A global icon, the Cosmo Girl is certainly one of Brown’s most significant and lasting legacies.
She took a lot of flack for the Cosmo Girl, with her impossible allure, but Brown readily admitted that only five or six women on the planet actually looked like Cosmo Girls — but, she argued, convincingly, many millions of others, with the magazine’s help, could see themselves as sensuous, playful, and accomplished — as Cosmo Girls in their own right.
Some would argue that’s hardly a legacy — that it’s merely celebrating the objectification of women. But again, Brown would have admitted that — and celebrated it too.
Anyone who feels attracted to anyone else, she’d argue, would in the process engage in a bit of objectification — it’s part of the sexual dance.
That kind of riveting honesty, about people, about sex, about sexual desire and about female agency — that may well be Helen Gurley Brown’s most lasting gift to American culture.