Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of the book “Sex and the Single Girl” shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but also thoroughly enjoyed it – and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more – died Monday in New York. She was 90.
In a release, the Hearst Corp., Cosmopolitan’s publisher, said that she died at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital after a brief stay there.
As Cosmopolitan’s editor from 1965 until 1997, Brown was widely credited with being the first to introduce frank discussions of sex into magazines for women.
The look of women’s magazines on the newsstand today – a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines – is due in no small part to her influence.
Before she arrived at Cosmopolitan, Brown had already shaken the collective consciousness with her best-selling book “Sex and the Single Girl.” Published in 1962, the year before Betty Friedan ignited the modern women’s movement with “The Feminine Mystique,” it taught unmarried women how to look their best, have delicious affairs and ultimately bag a man for keeps, all in breathless, aphoristic prose.
Brown had never held an editing job, but her influence on Cosmopolitan was swift and certain: She did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it. Where just months earlier Cosmo’s covers had featured photos of demure, high-collared girl-next-door types like Mary Tyler Moore, Brown’s first issue, July 1965, showed a voluptuous blond model whose deep cleavage was barely contained by her plunging neckline.
A child of the Ozarks, Helen Marie Gurley was born Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark., the younger of two daughters of a family of modest means. Her father, Ira, was a schoolteacher, as her mother, the former Cleo Sisco, had been before her marriage.
“I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me – ordinary, hillbilly and poor – and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old,” Brown wrote in her book “Having It All” (1982).
In 1932, when she was 10, Ira was killed in an elevator accident, leaving her mother depressed and impoverished. In 1937, Gurley moved with her daughters to Los Angeles. There, Helen’s older sister, Mary, contracted polio; she spent the rest of her life paralyzed from the waist down and in later years battled alcoholism.
Helen Gurley eventually became an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles. In 1959 she married David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan who had become a Hollywood producer.
“I look after him like a geisha girl,” she told The New York Times in 1970.
David Brown, who produced “Jaws” and other well-known films, died in 2010; the couple had no children. Helen Gurley Brown’s sister, Mary Gurley Alford, died before her.