Helen Gurley Brown, the tiny, tough and influential editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, who transformed the staid family magazine and took circulation to giddy heights, did so by lubricating its pages with one word: sex.
Make that extra-marital sex.
Under her bold auspices, the once stolidly suburban magazine gleefully smashed the prevailing taboos by pushing single women to play by the same sexual rules that applied to men. Sex, sermonized Cosmopolitan, should be uncoupled from marriage, made guilt-free and available to all women. In the three decades (1965 to 1997) that Gurley Brown wielded her audaciously outré blue pencil, Cosmopolitan went from minivan to Mustang.
But there was one piece of cargo from the minivan that Gurley Brown retained: food. The Jell-O salads and roasts weren’t tossed out – they were tarted up. Canny enough to know that food brought in lucrative advertising, she merrily worked the food-sex angle, commissioning features like: “After Bed, What? (a light snack for an encore).”
The legendary Cosmo editor is back in the news, thanks to not one but two recent biographies: Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman by Brooke Hauser, followed by Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, by Gerri Hirshey. Both Hauser and Hirshey delve sympathetically into the contentious, often neurotic, but ultimately moving story of Gurley Brown’s hard-knuckled climb to fame. Born in 1922 in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and raised in straitened circumstances (she enjoyed playing up her hillbilly “collards, fatback and privation” roots, writes Hirshey), she died in 2012 with a bank balance that rocked $170 million.
“Cooking is part of wooing,” Gurley Brown stated in her 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. By devoting several pages in her highly controversial book to recipes, she demonstrated that she was as serious about the benefits of premarital cooking as she was about premarital sex. She took the food-flirtation theme to such lengths that her bemused friend Nora Ephron wrote in her Esquire profile of the editor: “Cosmopolitan makes its men mindless creatures who can be toppled into matrimony by perfect soufflés, perfect Martinis, and other perfectible manipulative techniques.”
There were rules for entertaining, depending on the man’s marital status. If he was a bachelor, Gurley Brown counseled, “go out while the going is good!” and invite him home once for every four meals he treats you to. Cooking for married men was “sheer insanity,” but “if he comes trooping over with two mallard ducks he shot especially for you with a bottle of Cordon Bleu, cook his dinner!” There was no need to compete with his mother or favorite restaurant. Just avoid sexless casseroles and shoot instead for easy “man-pleasers” like double lamb chops. And keep one eye skinned for freeloaders who guzzle all your expensive booze and then disappoint in the bedroom.
Feminists of the time were appalled by these brazen and demeaning entrapment strategies, but there was more to Gurley Brown than vapid seduction. When she published The Single Girl’s Cookbook in 1969, its aim was not just to “impress that cute guy that lives down the hall” but also to help unmarried working women “host gatherings without being embarrassed as to what you bring to the table.”
Her thinking aligned with that of the 19th-century suffragists who published cookbooks not just to raise funds but also to counter vicious accusations and hurtful jokes about them being incompetent, kitchen-hating harridans. Gurley Brown’s message to career women was similar, if characteristically brash: Stun your guests with “impeccable Eggs Benedict” to show you aren’t “stuffed with schemes for becoming the first woman President or stealing someone else’s husband.”
In her personal life, however, Gurley Brown’s food habits bordered on the farcical. Dogged by the deep-rooted conviction that she was “not pretty enough,” she lived in terror of gaining an ounce more than her regulation 105 pounds. “Yes, skinny is sacred to me,” she wrote. Her standard lunch at her favorite haunt, the Russian Tea Room, writes Hirshey, was a small salad and Perrier sipped through a straw. Every morning, she made her husband David Brown (a Hollywood producer who made Jaws) hop on the bathroom scales. She called him “Lamb chops” and “Basker” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, because, “my Baskerville howls until something substantial is put down (not tuna salad with lots of celery chopped in).”
Far from a good cook herself, she sportingly publicized her kitchen disasters, such as an alarmingly slapdash attempt at fondue which caused the Gruyere to be marooned “like Moby Dick” in an ocean of vodka, flour and Neuchatel. Undone by Escoffier’s demands for “poached tapioca,” she sought refuge in coquetry. “Some cookbooks,” she wrote, “can’t seem to get it through their thick heads that up to now poaching to you meant stealing another girl’s boyfriend and grilling is what he gets when she caught him.” Eschewing Escoffier, she fled to the sensible comforts of Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking.
The Single Girl’s Cookbook sold close to 150,000 copies. But how did an editor who couldn’t cook and who described herself as a “grown-up anorexic” end up writing a cookbook? She didn’t.
The recipes were ghost written by cookbook author Margot Reiman. Gurley Brown simply added the garnish. But despite her punning chapter titles, like “Come Fry With Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses,” the book was “fried by critics,” writes Hirshey. Recently, however, one recipe got a chunky endorsement from the writer Nancy Weber. “Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook has gone the way of the diaphragm,” Weber wrote, “but science has yet to improve on her gazpacho.”
Cosmo’s food articles were written in the magazine’s hot pink boudoir style, and most of the recipes were unremarkable. But Gurley Brown saw to it that clear instructions were provided, and refrained from pabulum like “add a little love to the dish,” in the way of today’s TV chefs. She focused on technique: How to undress for a man and how to dress a salad were addressed with the same practical efficiency.
A child of the Great Depression who reached her prime in the prosperous Baby Boomer years, Gurley Brown was a curious confection of parsimony and progressiveness. She was always imploring the Cosmo Girl to buy offal – not only were sweetbreads and liver cheap, they made for the perfect break-up entrée. No man served lamb kidneys was likely to return. In another book, Sex and the Office, she scolded working women for wasting money on hotdog junk. Her reasoning, writes Hauser, was that “if they just packed their lunches, they could save enough money to spend Christmas in Jamaica and look better in a bikini.”
In and out of therapy all her life, Gurley Brown lived for many years on a healthy diet, prescribed by a Los Angeles nutritionist. She became evangelical about soy pancakes, spinach noodles and stone-ground whole wheat flour. But as she got older, her diet was shriveled by paranoia. Her weeknight treat was a dish of gummy diet Jell-O with less water than called for. Hauser says, “When she was feeling really wicked, she allowed herself two Triscuits and four potato chips.” Towards the end of her life, that iron willpower finally cracked and she indulged herself recklessly with chocolate cookies.
Gurley Brown’s collards-to-caviar story was an inspiration to millions of women. Her father died when she was 10, her beloved sister was partially paralyzed by polio, and she had a conflict-ridden relationship with her mother (who never forgave her for writing, “Mother’s steaks resembled the hide of an armadillo.”) Her fortunes began to change when she proved herself as a copywriter in Los Angeles. A quick study, she learned, writes Hirshey, to “distinguish a fish fork from a salad fork, a Beaujolais from a Chablis.” Elocution lessons saw to it that the Arkansas accent was “hog-tied and slaughtered” and the “vexatious gaucheries” of her salad days – when she served canned sausages and bourbon and vanilla ice cream cocktails – were swiftly expunged. Her reinvention demon drove her to undergo so many cosmetic surgeries that her front-page New York Times obituary stated, Helen Gurley Brown had died at 90, but “parts of her were considerably younger.”
But through it all, she retained some aspects of her old self. Even as Cosmo editor, she ate her salad with her fingers.
Nina Martyris is a literary journalist who lives in Knoxville, Tenn.