Originally Published October 2008
An elevator tragedy launched Helen Gurley Brown on a path toward her world changing career. She was just 10 when her father Ira Gurley, a schoolteacher and an Arkansas state legislator, was killed in the State Capitol Building in Little Rock. The death left behind two girls and a desperate widow, who packed up the kids in a car and drove off to California in search of a better life.
“So I was a poor little girl at age 10. He didn’t leave us any money,” Gurley Brown, 86, tells SUCCESS from her New York City office of Cosmopolitan, where she oversees nearly 60 international editions.
A high-school valedictorian, Helen Gurley moved from secretarial classes at Woodbury Business College in L.A. to a variety of secretarial jobs before becoming one of the nation’s highest-paid advertising copywriters and then author of the explosive 1962 best-seller Sex and the Single Girl, which helped launch the sexual revolution.
She blasted onto the national scene with that book, which bravely attacked the societal double-standard. She then turned an ailing Cosmopolitan magazine into a sexy young woman’s phenom. Her numerous honors include a research professorship named for her at Northwestern University’s journalism school and being deemed a “living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
From the time she was 7, she has said, Gurley Brown rejected the world’s expectations that she would be “ordinary, hillbilly and poor.” She wildly succeeded.
Gurley Brown recalls a world that the modern-day woman wouldn’t recognize: Secretaries were forbidden to use the ornate lobby staircase reserved for male executives and clients, and women in 1962 were absolutely expected to marry in their early 20s. Against this backdrop, she made her mark in a male-dominated publishing world.
A key to success, she says, is this: Figure out something you do better than other people, then pursue it as a way to make money. Gurley Brown credits her childhood fondness for letter-writing for her ability to write good letters as a secretary, which in turn opened to a career in advertising. That happened after the wife of a boss, ad-mogul Don Belding, read a letter and said: “Don, your secretary writes nicely. Why don’t you let her try writing advertising copy?” He dismissed that at first, but relented after Gurley Brown won Glamour magazine’s “Ten Girls with Taste” contest. Its entry form incidentally asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? Gurley Brown wrote “copywriter.”
Vicious competition among colleagues at her next advertising employer led her to ponder how to stand out. She sought advice from her husband, David Brown, producer of such movies as Driving Miss Daisy and Jaws. He suggested she write a book about being single. He told her she had been like no other single girl he knew because she was never home. (“I was home,” Gurley Brown later admitted in another one of her books, The Writer’s Rules. “The phone was in the fridge so I wouldn’t hear it ring…. If I’d heard the phone, I’d have caved in and answered and he’d know I was NOT out, busy and popular.”)
So it was then Gurley Brown wrote her first book, selling millions of copies in 16 languages. “I never had anything published before. But I just sat down and started making notes about being single and I talked to my girlfriends and I wrote about them,” Gurley Brown recalls. “And we found an obscure publisher, Bernard Geis, who was willing to publish the book.”
One precept to the book encouraged single women to pursue livelihoods. “There must be something you can do competently and successfully, and it doesn’t have to be a big important kind of work. Just something that you do well.”
She struck a chord. Besieged by mail, Gurley Brown set out to reply to each fan letter. That sparked her husband’s idea: Why not start the first magazine for young women, which would serve as a venue to answer these letters and address their concerns?
Hearst Corporation bit, naming Gurley Brown editor in chief of ailing Cosmopolitan in 1965. “To be a magazine editor, I had no experience, but I just used my common sense,” Gurley Brown says. She kept the title until 1997, when she moved to editor in chief of its international editions.
The secret to Cosmo’s meteoric ascension under Gurley Brown can be explained by “economics 101: She filled a void,” says Steven Cohn, editor in chief, Media Industry Newsletter. “Brown broke Cosmo out of the traditional magazine mold in which women’s magazines focused on traditional topics like how to cook dinner for your husband. She boldly discussed cooking in the bedroom.” She also discussed careers for women and taking control of their own destinies.
“Obviously, sex is a draw. As far as I know, women had never seen this before, and they embraced it,” Cohn says. “It was an empowerment thing... In 1965, that was revolutionary.”
To illustrate how far Cosmo came under Gurley Brown’s reign, consider this: In 1964, before she took over, the troubled magazine sold only 250 ad pages for the whole year. By 1984, the peak of her tenure, the page count soared tenfold to 2,513 ad pages. It’s close to 2,000 now. Cosmo became and remains “one of the most profitable magazines in the world,” Cohn says. “Helen became a household word, a very powerful editor.”
She also was a good manager. Gurley Brown recalls writing an article for Fortune magazine stating that people stayed for years in Cosmopolitan jobs because of how she treated them: She was clear about what she wanted from them. She got back to people who needed decisions quickly. She’d go to their offices to talk to them, and remember that their personal life is as important as their office life. She didn’t criticize them in front of anyone else. She gave all the credit away. Today, Gurley Brown says, those tenets “still sound pretty reasonable and sensible to me.”
Looking ahead, Gurley Brown says she doesn’t plan to retire: “I like having somebody need me to show up every day and do what I do.” She looks forward to her 50th wedding anniversary next year to David Brown, with whom she shares a tiny apartment overlooking Central Park. “I owe him everything,” she says. Without Brown, “I wouldn’t be who I am or achieved what I did.”
And when asked what she still hopes to accomplish, the original Cosmo girl gives a Cosmo answer: “That surely is a good question. I guess my goal is to now get rid of 10 pounds around my tummy.”