I'm Wild Again … Helen Gurley Brown

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Helen Gurley Brown
Title: “I’m Wild Again” … Helen Gurley Brown
VTR: 12/15/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And if my wife didn’t already know it, I probably wouldn’t say on the air once again, just how much I adore today’s guest … to use one of her own favorite words … of course that’s not my usual kind of Open Mind introduction. Nor is today’s guest my usual kind of guest. Though over the years this table has several times been graced by Helen Gurley Brown, long time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and now editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan International.

Well, I’ve testified before that I hardly know what I’d do without my weekly fix, those so originally spelled, impressionistically typed, energetically capitalized and underscored, continuously exclamation marked letters that Helen Gurley Brown sends me most weeks after watching The Open Mind while wearing out her exercycle. And these letters are always quite wonderful, shrewd, funny, cerebral, loving, deprecating, always compelling, just like her new St. Martin’s Press book, I’m Wild Again which she subtitles “Snippets from my Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts”.

In her book Helen Gurley Brown tells us that everybody has a life. Good, not so good, inspiring, depressing. And if somebody likes to write as much as I do, she says, it’s hard to keep us from writing about that life. And then, true to her fashion, she asks, “What is writer’s block? Do you think I should send out for some?”.

BROWN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, the answer to be sure is No. But I want to ask my guest why I and so many others have so much of that writer’s block and she, happily, none at all. What’s the secret over all these years, Helen?

BROWN: Maybe you start early, as I did, when I was eight or nine years old, I had a diary and I wrote in it every day. I don’t guess I understand writer’s block because if you’re writing a diary it’s about you. It’s the most satisfying thing in the world to write about. And I tell anyone who wants to write, just sit down and keep a journal. When you get home at night say who you had…whom you had dinner with and how awful they were or how interesting it was. Now, in terms of writing on deadline, if you’ve got an assignment, that kind of writer’s block, professional writing … again, just sit down and do it.

HEFFNER: Well, there’s no deadline, there wasn’t any deadline for I’m Wild Again. What led you to write it?

BROWN: I have to work. I have to have something to do and my new job … I was International Editor of Cosmo all over the world. That’s a job and I’m busy all day long. But I have to do something in addition to that. And may I say nobody was waiting for this book … I don’t think. But I just sat down and started writing. And David put up with me every weekend, as is his wont … it’s a wonder he doesn’t have a girlfriend because … I don’t think … I … you never know for sure … but I think I know. I’m busy on Saturday. I’m busy Saturday night. I’m busy Sunday…Sunday writing this book. It’s a memoir, about a third of it, and I’ve revealed some things that I never talked about before, and we know I’m the biggest blabbermouth there is. But I write about having been “kept”, a “kept” girl for a little while. It didn’t work out, I was so lousy at it, I had to do something else for a living. But I wrote about that. I wrote about my dating years with Jack Dempsey, the prize fighter …

HEFFNER: I loved that story, I loved it.

BROWN: … if anybody even remembers him at this point. And I wrote about my…my breast cancer. I’ve never revealed that before. I said, “I had breast cancer, doesn’t everybody?”. That’s pretty flippant, but a lot of people do. I didn’t want my company to know about it at the time, because, you know, I am older and I didn’t want them to think, “Oh my gosh, this poor sick creature”. So I just very quietly didn’t say anything. But in my book, I can never not communicate with my reader, that’s my one…asset and maybe talent. I can write personally, so you probably will ready it …

HEFFNER: Well, I have read it. And not only have I read it, but, if you… don’t mind, I’d like to read what Frank McCort wrote about it. He said, and… I think he’s so right, “Open to any page of Helen Gurley Brown’s I’m Wild Again and you’ll claw (?) yourself with pleasure over an impish humor that would charm the balls off a pawn broker’s sign. Linger on any page and you’ll discover gems, nuggets of memory, hymns to New York, litanies of elegant name dropping”, and you do drop names, Helen, “reflections on breast cancer and plastic surgery. At 78 …”, and he’s not giving away any secrets that you haven’t given away, “At 78, and she doesn’t mind telling us, Mrs. Brown passes a literary Geiger counter over her life and opinions. She writes with such gusto and savvy about New York, you want to buy copies of the book for anyone starting out in this metropolis. The last section of the book, ‘Letter to my daughter’, an imaginary daughter, is such a powerful expression of love and so filled with advice on the business of living, it should be turned into a pamphlet and distributed to high schools everywhere. What higher compliment can one pay the irrepressible Helen Gurley Brown than to say, ‘Here is a teacher’.” And that is quite a tribute, Helen.

BROWN: He’s a lovely man. Do you know anybody who has a book that’s been number one on the New York Times bestseller list for…two years — that’s his fiction…

HEFFNER: Well…

BROWN: …excuse me, it’s not fiction, it’s not fiction , it’s the …

HEFFNER: It’s his life.

BROWN: … but, but now it’s number one on the paperback side. And Tis has been number one, his new book … now it’s number two. But he’s able to communicate …

HEFFNER: Well, that’s what…

BROWN: …a very nice man, nice man.

HEFFNER: That’s what he’s saying about you. And I want to ask you some questions about communicating. In fact, Helen, the honest thing to say is that it was my wife who suggested to me that — today and we’ll have to figure out why she suggested this. But she wanted me to ask you … was it then, turn back to when you were wild the first time … now you’re wild again … was it better to be a young woman then, than now? And the second question has to be, was it better to be an older woman then, than now?

BROWN: I won’t be able to answer whether it would have been better to be a young woman then than now. I see young women having come into their own so early. They have jobs that pay $60,000 a year when they get out of college. They can do so much professionally and be very free, sexually or in terms of romance. I can’t think it’s better now because it was pretty good then. You heard me on the subject of aging. We talked with each other when my book The Late Show came out, and if people ask, “has it improved now for older people”. And I’m older. I would have to say, “Gee, I don’t think very much [laughter] cause older means you’re closer to dead. And there’s nothing wonderful about that.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on. That’s not, that’s not what comes through in this book.

BROWN: However, I’ll just say, in the whole theme of this book is that if you get up, do the best you can, every day , it probably is going to work out okay, and my strongest piece of advice is do the terrible stuff first, and the other things will fall into place. And in terms of aging … what on earth can you do about that? A couple of things: you can be healthier than people … our mothers and fathers’ ages were — that is available to you. And although there is still a problem in many companies about having them keep you on … your bye-bye time when it’s 65. I worked for a privately owned company where you can work longer. So I’m being a little bit all over the map. On the one hand, I’m not saying “it’s not wonderful to be older, it’s closer to dead. You don’t look as good as you used to. People aren’t dying to go to bed with you the way they once possibly were. A lot of stuff isn’t there anymore. Still, we are living longer .. .that’s good, we don’t want to die at 39 or 42 like people used to do. So heath is better now. And work is better in my opinion, cause there’s something you can continue to do in the work world if you really are determined. So, I’ll … I don’t think it’s better to be young now than it was then, because young always has the world by the tail. But I think it’s better to be old now because we can feel better and we can look better and we can be stronger and we’re going to last longer.

HEFFNER: Well, okay, I got you to make that commitment. But I’m interested in what you say about younger. You don’t really think that it’s better because it’s always so good to be young? Is that the point?

BROWN: It’s so good to be young and it’s terrible to be young. When you’re young you can’t appreciate what you’ve got. Well, so …

HEFFNER: Well, so you, you’ve been ringing the toscan(???) for youth in Cosmopolitan for many, many years. What’s the down side?

BROWN: The downside …

HEFFNER: The downside of what’s happened in the years since you first took over Cosmopolitan.

BROWN: The downside, possibly, is that sex is almost too free and romance has been down…downgraded a little. Maybe life isn’t quite the thrill that it was in terms of man/woman relationships cause everything is so free and so casual. However the opposite side of that is that things used to be so repressed that it’s hard to get me to say…that either time is…is better. I think it’s terrific in that you can get where you’re going sooner now. You can be 24 and be an attorney. You can be a doctor. But the bad side is that any young person is insecure, to use that overused word. A young person doesn’t know how good he or she is or how wonderful life is and probably that can’t sink into them till a little later.

HEFFNER: Do you think that insecurity comes to any extent at all from not quite knowing where it is at while when we were younger, you knew … maybe you didn’t like it, maybe you wanted to break the bounds, but you knew where things were at. You knew what you had to do even if you didn’t want to do it.

BROWN: I haven’t a clue about what you are talking about.

HEFFNER: Come on now, Helen, I’m asking you whether it was perhaps a little bit easier then, perhaps a little more difficult now because there are, and it’s almost a paraphrase of what you said … there are no boundaries now. There were then … you knew, you knew then what you were allowed to do. Now Helen Gurley Brown perhaps broke through those prohibitions, those taboos, and I think to a large extent … to a considerable extent, I’ll modify that, you and Sex And The Single Girl were somewhat responsible for helping people break through those boundaries from years ago. Now, I’m asking the simple question … since you maintain there are fewer of those limitation upon young women today … they don’t quite know where they are at. Is that the reason?

BROWN: I’m going to go back and say that any young person doesn’t know who she or he is, so to speak, so there is great lack of self-esteem when you’re young. Everybody else looks more beautiful, having a better life than you are, so there’s quite a lot of jealousy, really, about people who are having more stuff than you are. There were boundaries in terms of home life. You pretty much did what your parents said you should do. And there was religion, which has rather gone bye-bye. If you were a church going person, which I was, you also had boundaries there. But, Dick, I absolutely cannot say that it was better then because of the boundaries. I’m going back where I started … youth is always wonderful and always terrible because you’re so all over the place. You don’t know who you are, what you’re going to be. I think it’s equal opportunity … there were good things then …now it has to be better because you can get further in your work life much sooner and there are medical breakthroughs that apply to young people as well as older people. So, I’ve got to say, “Now is better, now is better”.

HEFFNER: Why do you have to say? I mean … what I mean, Helen, not…not because of the things you just said, but do you really feel constrained to say, “Now is better, now is better”. Is that part of being Helen Gurley Brown?

BROWN: No. I never say something just because you’re “supposed” to. This is a little bit profound, what we have been speaking about, although my contribution may not be profound. What you’re saying was “is it better now, or was it better then for young people and for older people?” And I’m going to categorically say, because I believe and know it to be true, that now is better. Because we can feel better. So many medical helps are there even for bad things like lupus and lymphoma and bad, bad things. They can be helped now and that wasn’t true then. So, now has to be better. And some of the values that might not be here now. We’ve still go values.

HEFFNER: But not the same ones, you wouldn’t say. Would you?

BROWN: Yes. I would say we still have the same values. And I’ve tried to write about that, in that the good guys do win. You see the bad guys out there having wonderful things happen to them, but if you get up every day and do the best you can, do the bad stuff first, wait for the good things for later and if you are as good a person as you know how to be, you can fight back and life is pretty good.

HEFFNER: Remember Hoagy Carmichel singing “As time goes by, the fundamental things still apply”. Do you think that’s true. I mean I love to hear that?

BROWN: Of course the fundamental things apply. You have children, grandchildren, that’s about as fundamental as it gets. And I know how…how much pleasure they bring to you. Well, that’s now, that’s not 1920 or 1930 or 1947. Fundamental things apply. Friendship. I’ve said… in my book … friendship … a girlfriend, a good girlfriend, if you are a girl yourself. That’s as good as it gets. You don’t ever have to lie to a girlfriend unless it’s about her husband or her lover. That’s a fundamental truth. Friends are there. If you’re a good friend, you’ll have friends. What else is fundamental? Sex. Very fundamental and now …

HEFFNER: Still the same?

BROWN: … I believe so. It’s a yummy feeling. I have always said it’s one of the three best things we have and I don’t know what are the other two. And that’s fundamental, right this minute. The feelings of sex and how good that feeling is. Romance. That has prevailed, existed, stayed around. That’s very fundamental.

HEFFNER: But presumably there are so many people who are critical of contemporary times because they say that sex has taken the romance out of sex. And your feeling about that?

BROWN: As a long-time editor of a young woman’s magazine and knowing a lot of young women who are having both sex and romance, they co-exist and it’s true that all sex doesn’t lead to romance and sometimes that gets a young woman, maybe a young man into trouble. This person thinks because he or she is having sex that this has to be the love of his or her life. They gotta marry this person because the sex is there. Well that, of course, is ridiculous.

HEFFNER: That goes back to my day.

BROWN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: That goes back to my day.

BROWN: Well, it should have gone bye-bye. Sex can exist and be very pleasurable without love.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the … but the…the… charge is made … and you know this that the charge is made so frequently that there is so much freedom in sex that romance has been driven out of it. That the concentration is on the sheer multiple physical pleasures and that that’s not quite compatible with romance and love.

BROWN: We’re talking empirical opinion here. I haven’t surveyed 100,000 people, but my observations of a great many young women and men lead me to believe that romance is just as much alive as it ever was. Not with every sexual assignation, but sex plus romance, that is really something and yes it has stuck around and it’s very much alive and well.

HEFFNER: I’m glad to get that message from you, Helen. Look, Helen, Frank McCort talks about, write about your “Letter to a Daughter”. Why did you write that? What do you have to say to a young person … your young person.

BROWN: Why I wrote it, and you know I don’t keep anything from you … or from a reader … I wrote it because the book needed an…an ending.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

BROWN: [Laughter] I’m yapping away about my life with David, about travel, about how to be successful, about how to be a good boss, about diet … which I know more about than maybe anybody. And I’m writing about exercise, which I know nearly more about than anybody. I’m giving a tiny touch of advice. I’m talking about things that absolutely worry me to pieces and things that I like. Blah, blah, blah. But the book needed an anchor, it needed to finish. And I thought, “well, I’ll…I’ll write to a mythical daughter and tell her the truths that I think I have learned along the way”. And we’re sitting down together and I’m asking her what would I say to keep her off of drugs. I don’t know … we would work it out. I’m just telling her things that I think I know about … men … about life. About things are not always fair. There is jealousy. There is envy. And that’ll go on forever and I say that is not going to be assuaged with the fact that somebody you’re jealous of … big success … suddenly loses his or her job with the network, or is no longer beloved of his or her husband. I’m saying to my daughter the true truth. Knowing that that person has now fallen off the pedestal isn’t going to help you very much because somebody else will come along and you’ll be jealous of them. Just true truths that I would tell a daughter. I would tell her that looks do count, alas. They count as much as they ever did. When I was born in 1922 they were important then. They’re maybe even more important now cause there’s so much you can do about it. And I would exhort her to have a dermatologist and go and…see him occasionally. I’m sounding very trivial, aren’t I? I haven’t got to the point with my daughter to tell her what philanthropy to be interested in. I’m just saying life is better if you care something about other people and find a formal philanthropy to be involved with. It can be multiple sclerosis, it can be one of the great hospitals in New York, it can be my philanthropy, if I may. It’s the…National Abortion Rights Action League. I don’t want abortion ever to become illegal as it was when I was a young girl. Whatever your philanthropy, devote some time to it. And there’s a catch to everybody that you love. There is a huge catch, big enough to drive a Mack truck through in the man that you will love. You have to decide is he worth it? If he’s not worth it, go get another one. If he is worth it, well stay with him. It’s just the wisdom that I think I might have acquired through the years I wrote to a mythical daughter.

HEFFNER: Do you think she’d listen?

BROWN: [Laughter] You don’t get to ask questions on this program, on Open Mind, you’re supposed to answer the questions. And I believe she would listen, for this reason. I would keep telling her how valuable and wonderful she was. I would keep telling her how pretty she was. Never mind she needs her teeth straightened, never mind that she’s not Gwentyth Paltrow or Jennifer Lopez. Never mind, never mind … you my darling daughter look okay and you just keep looking like that and getting better. Looks matter. And at the same time I would tell her that she is a fabulous human being. I don’t think many of us got enough of that when we were young. My mother helped me with my homework, and I got straight As. But I had to do it to be good enough. It was the price I paid for being me. So to be acceptable I had to be a fantastic student. I had to enter the debating society. I had to be elected President of the Scholarship Society. I did that because I wasn’t adequate, and my mother kept pushing me to be more and more and more. Well, I say to my daughter in this book, “it’s okay to get the best out of yourself. You are okay, just getting up in the morning. Everybody is created equal. We know that. But some people are a little more equal than others. Therefore, although, if you believe in God, God made everybody equal, but you’ve got to do some stuff to have self-esteem. So the two things are true. You are okay as you are, you’re fine. On the other hand, let’s get it out of you, whatever talent you have. Still, aside from that you are a worthy human being. Your mother adores you and thinks you are the cat’s pajamas. Occasionally you do something that I don’t think is quite right and I’m going to tell you about it.

Okay, I’m finishing now. So two things I would try to impart to this child … self-esteem, “you’re okay kid. You are a real winner human being”. At the same time I’m going to tell you a few things I think might be good for you. I hope you’ll listen. Drugs will kill you. Cigarettes will possibly kill you, hope you stay away from them. Your peers, your girlfriends, boyfriends are going to tell you the things that you actually believe, but I get to say what I think and you’re going to listen for a minute, cause I love and adore you, and think you are the best thing that ever lived.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve been saying what you think and I think you’ve influenced a great many of these surrogate daughters throughout your editorship of Cosmo.

BROWN: Richard …

HEFFNER: No?

BROWN: I’d … oh, yes. I think that I have … I’ve tried to … people tell me they grew up with Cosmo and they are still reading Cosmopolitan, it has helped them. But I just know that in every person there’s something you can do that’s going to turn out to be a good career. So let’s find out what it is. And I am such an example of what can happen to you if you do some of the things that I have suggested in other books, and particularly in this new one, I’m Wild Again. If you… do the bad stuff, get it over with every day, and if you don’t lie or cheat or steal, too much. We used to have fun with Cosmo expense accounts because there were people who lived on their expense accounts, and there were others who never put in for anything except what they actually spent. I suggest to young women that it’s better not to have to lie too much, and, to get back to the point here, having a not very high I.Q., we don’t know for sure what it is, that’s not very high. And I didn’t go to college, and I had an invalid sister in a wheelchair that I had to take care of, and … I mean that was embarrassing … boys would come over to take me out and here’s my sister in the wheelchair. But I never shirked that responsibility. But it didn’t help anything. My mother was terminally depressed. My father was killed when I was a little girl in the Little Rock State Capital Building in an elevator accident. To get to the point here, I didn’t start out very good and I had only hillbilly relatives, they couldn’t help. But by just doing what’s there every day, gradually, gradually … I was 43 years old before I got to be the Editor of Cosmo, I was 40 before I wrote a book. So, I am a good role model.

HEFFNER: You’re a darn good hillbilly.

BROWN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Helen Gurley Brown. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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