Author and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown died yesterday at the lovely age of 90, after having been declared a “living landmark” in New York.
In her honor I dusted off her 1962 blockbuster, Sex and the Single Girl. I remember buying it at a used book store in graduate school. At that time I delighted in its wit, joy, compassion, bravery and zeal, amid the drearification of my feminist soul that tends to happen when you’re reading a steady diet of monographs about race, class and gender oppression.
How did Brown make it? She wrote of herself, “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant….” Oh, and she was an introvert, and frequently “mean and cranky.”
Brown had it rough. She was desperately poor, growing up. Her father died when she was 10. Her sister Mary had polio. They lived in a tiny house in a small town, and at night when they weren’t hearing the trains roaring by on the tracks, they could hear gophers trying to tunnel their way up into their bedrooms.
Brown settled in Los Angeles. She had 17 jobs before she became the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965. She married a successful Hollywood producer who, on paper, she “shouldn’t” have been able to snag. But it wasn’t a “miracle” that she married late in life, and well. To the contrary, she said, “I deserved it!”
Sex and the Single Girl stayed on the bestseller lists for all of 1962. Interestingly, it was published within months of Betty Friedan’s galvanizing and equally sensational The Feminine Mystique. The two paired well together, if accidentally. One was a chatty, hilarious redemption of the putatively less “successful” single woman’s feisty life of careers and affairs; the other, a more studious, researched expose on the morose, gloomy, unfulfilled life of the socially more “successful” married woman with children.
Clearly, Brown’s book satisfied a craving. Before she wrote it, she’d found no books on single women. She read only propagandistic, mythologizing magazine pieces (as did Friedan) on “couples and families.” And, “to further depress you,” she writes, “the couples and families are always blueberry pie normal.”
Brown’s still-timely advice in the face of media myths of womanhood was not to “fold up” in life “over what you read” about the hopeless plight of the single (or career) woman. “Part of what you are…missing in marriage may be well worth missing,” she reassured.
Reading this time around, I was struck by how everything Brown describes is “sexy.” Having a stock portfolio is “sexy.” So is an ashtray. And a career, that’s most definitely “sexy.” She writes about the “sexy kitchen.”
I felt this time that “sexy” for Brown was a sort of cover story, or an alibi, although one sincerely believed, that allowed her to convey an even more audacious message to women: the quest for sexy is nothing less, really, than the quest for Having a Life—a self-realized, self-designed, “rich, full life,” as Brown calls it. Sure, it’s all sexy, and it's something to have for the sake of charming the men, let’s not forget about them (glimmers of the Cosmo we know today are evident here). The pursuit of men and marriage provided a socially accepted cover story for the single woman’s journey, but they’re not the purpose, not really. Just have an adventure, be daring, catch as catch can, and get a life—and sexiness (as well as men) will follow.
ON THE MARRIAGE IMPERATIVE:
I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course at every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.
Frankly, I wouldn’t want to make the choice between a married hell or a single hell. They’re both hell.
It takes guts. It can be lonely out there out of step with the rest of the folks. And you may not find somebody later. But since you’re not finding somebody sooner as things stand, wouldn’t it be better…to start recognizing what you have now?
ON WHERE TO MEET MEN:
Church: Friends tell me it offers spiritual benefits, but few men.
Alcoholics Anonymous: [A friend] was about forty-three, had no drinking problem of her own, but since outsiders are permitted to attend A.A. meetings … she wandered into the Beverly Hills Chapter meeting, sat next to a famous writer, and bagged him within the year. .. if you are going to try this approach to men, I suggest you pick a wealthy chapter of A. A. Might as well start with a solvent problem child, like say someone with liquid assets.
ON THE MAN SHORTAGE:
According to statistics there isn’t even one man for every girl… Actually, the statistic merely states there are not enough marriageable men to go around. Nobody said a word about a shortage of men.
ON THE AFFAIR WITH THE MARRIED MAN:
I think he is much maligned. [He doesn’t get a divorce because] he doesn’t want one. Because of the children, because of the community property and because in many cases he doesn’t really dislike his wife.... Basically they are pretty good friends…. Between the thought [of divorce] and the final decree lies an area as broad, stormy and unnavigable as the straits of Magellan.
ON THE MARRIED LOVER:
It seems to me the solution is not to rule out married men but to keep them as pets. While they are “using” you to varnish their egos, you “use” them to add spice to your life. I say “them” advisedly. One married man is dangerous. A potpourri can be fun.
ON THE BETRAYED WIFE:
I’m afraid I have a rather cavalier attitude about wives. The reason is this: A wife… will get her husband back every time. He doesn’t really want her not to. … She may have played herself on occasion. If she doesn’t get him back, it’s probably because she’s lazy, blind, or doesn’t want him. If he’s a hopeless chaser,…he will chase regardless of who does or does not give him succor, so no need to feel guilty. Many people have said this before me but no man or woman is attracted to just one person…
What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex. Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman…with all the functions of a woman….Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable…. You even welcome menstruation as the abiding proof of your fertility. A woman who feels all this is sexy. She wears it like perfume. … She’s got smell No. 5, which is even better than Chanel of the same denomination…. Gorgeousness has little to do with sexuality, either. The physiologically sexy woman, be she droop-shouldered, flat-chested, horse-faced or bone-headed, will find somebody to be sexy with. She’s got it. He’ll find it.
We’re born sexy and will “stay that way if nobody interferes.”
ON CAREER AND MOTHERHOOD:
The girl who is hell bent for motherhood [and therefore doesn’t pursue a career] is missing another great creative experience, which is to get paid for producing things in her head. Then she could have babies, but I guess if you’ve gotta foal, you’ve gotta foal.
ON HAVING IT ALL:
[Gurley Brown tells of her husband’s production assistant]: Pamela’s four year old son is one of the sunniest, most secure moppets I have ever met, and a housekeeper has looked after him since birth. Pam’s husband…is proud of his smart successful wife. They are having another baby that will also be cared for by a nurse when Pamela goes back to work. If you are working for toads, drain all the experience you can from the pond and move to a new one… Don’t be a scaredy-cat.
ON THE SEXINESS OF THE CAREER GIRL:
I needn’t remind you, career girls are sexy. A man likes to sleep with a brainy girl. She’s a challenge…Some men are supposed to prefer weak headed women. I never met one who did. Not ever in my life!.... If a few more rushing brides stopped rushing and worked for a few years, they might not find themselves so thoroughly bored at thirty.
Scrimp on what isn’t sexy or beautiful or really any fun, so you can afford what is…. Buy half gallon jugs of red table wine…and serve it in a shimmering Blenko glass decanter. Drugged by your charm, aficionados will swear it’s Richebourg ‘53
ON HAVING YOUR OWN APARTMENT:
If you are to be a glamorous , sophisticated woman that exciting things happen to, you need an apartment and you need to live in it alone! After your thirtieth birthday, a Great Dane would do more for your image than two roommates, and dogs don’t borrow sweaters!
Being one in a world of twos is a bloody bore and lonely at times….Throw in a possible half-starved body (even though it’s ten pounds overweight) and no wonder you have the blues!
As for marrying to have children, you can have babies until you’re forty or older. And if you happen to die before they are forty, at least you haven’t lingered into their middle age to be a doddering old bore. You also avoid those tiresome years as an unpaid baby sitter.
ON SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL:
If all the unmarried girls having affairs in my city alone felt called upon to do [Start Over by leaving town], there would be the biggest population scramble since Exodus. Nice, single girls do have affairs, and they do not necessarily die of them!
Suppose you like girls. You’ve already worked out a way of life for yourself to which I could contribute no helpful advice. I’m sure your problems are many. I don’t know about your pleasures. At any rate, it’s your business and I think it’s a shame you have to be surreptitious about your choice of a way of life.
I never met a completely happy single woman…or a completely happy married one.
ON SURVIVAL SKILLS:
Every smart single woman I know gets adopted by a good butcher, an expert mechanic, and an influential and/or rich couple.
Put your guilt away. Would it surprise you to know that our most wicked and base thoughts—secret fantasies—even leanings to homosexuality, are not unusual, and should not alarm you? You may share your desire to make love to an African lion with the vicar’s wife—or even the vicar! Far from making you a depraved monster, your thinking is probably not even original.
ON “A RICH, FULL LIFE”:
There are a lot of half alive people running around in the world, any number of whom are single women. .. Paradoxically, living dangerously lengthens and strengthens your life.