Helen Gurley Brown

The Cosmo Girl, Part I

VTR Date: December 4, 1996

Helen Gurley Brown discusses the development of Cosmopolitan magazine.


GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
VTR: 12-04-96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And if my wife didn’t already know it, I guess I wouldn’t dare say on the air how much I “adore” to use one of her favorite words, my guess today. And that’s not my usual introduction. Nor is she my usual guest, though this table has often been graced by Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

As important, I hardly know what I’d do without my weekly fix, though so original spelled, impressionistically typed, energetically capitalized and underscored, continuously exclamation-marked letters that Helen Gurley Brown send me after she watches THE OPEN MIND while wearing out her exercycle. And it’s not just that my guests and I are just a view from her bike. These weekly commentaries by the real Cosmo Girl, on politicians, psychiatrists, relgiosos, Nobel laureates, feminists, anti-feminists, show-biz people, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, you name them, are absolutely wonderful. Shrewd, funny, cerebral, loving, depreciating, always compelling. Maybe she’ll even let me find a publisher for them.

Indeed, I almost enjoy reading her letters about The Open Mind as much as I do doing these programs. And I wonder what’s she’ll write about this one.

Well, Helen Gurley Brown became the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine 32 years ago, quickly building on the success of her best-selling book, Sex & The Single Girl, and though, as the new editor-in-chief of International Edition, she’ll be very much around the magazine world, the February 1977 Cosmo actually will be the last she’ll edit. And there is so much now to ask about it and about her.

First, of course, Cosmo is a women’s magazine. And so my first question to Helen then is: what has happened to women in these three decades plus since she gave it its spin, her spin? Helen, what’s happened?

Gurley Brown: The inside woman is the same as she always was. She hasn’t changed. She has the same emotions, the same needs, the same yearnings. She’s the same person. What has changed is the world around her. So many more opportunities are there for her. The world has opened up in terms of jobs. And now half the enrollment in law schools, female. Half the doctors, female. She can be, she can get in and do it and be it in any field virtually. So it is out there for her to achieve and she’s is achieving. But the inside woman, person, girl, female, if I may, she wants the same thing. She always wanted what she wants now, which is love and affection and cherishing. She wants a great job, she wants work to do. She may or may not want children. She is who she is; but the world has changed for her.

Heffner: Yeah, that’s funny, because our friend, Sigmund Freud, asked “what does a woman want?” And you’ve given the answer. But how could it be that that changes in the outside world that you’ve observed over all these years that you’ve edited Cosmo, how could it be that those changes haven’t changed the inside person?

Gurley Brown: There are just more women who recognize and will acknowledge what they really want. We, our sex, was supposed to want to be childbearing and nurturing and helpmates of men. We weren’t supposed to want anything else. And that was all tamped down for years and years. That has just come to the surface. But I think underneath that man-loving, child-nurturing helpmate creature was the real thing.


Freud said work and love were the two big numbers for men and women, I believe, especially men. Well, women finally are acknowledging the same need. They need to work, and they need to love. But my Cosmo girl, who existed in 1965, there are just millions more of her now. But I’m going to repeat what I said earlier. Basic woman has not changed. We are human, just like men. And, if I can go even further, I think men and women are very much the same emotionally. Got a terrific article on that in the January issue about men and women are not all that different. What does your sex want? I guess I should ask you and you should get to tell me. But what you want is what we want. You want love, nurturing, adoration, cherishing. You want to achieve. You want to be recognized. That’s male and female.

Heffner: But Helen, aren’t you sort of copping-out that way? Sure, we’re the same in many ways. Now, how are we different?

Gurley Brown: Anatomically we’re quite different. Vive la…

Heffner: …Viva la, Yeah. Right, right. Right. Hopefully.

Gurley Brown: And you’re bigger, mostly you’re bigger than we are. You’re bigger, stronger, tougher. Therefore, we can’t compete with you necessarily in tennis or volleyball or basketball. Anatomically, yes.

And we are so used to man being the one who fought off the saber-toothed tigers and went out there and killed the lions and brought home the deer meat while we were at home waving and sewing and taking care of the babies, that there is that residual feeling, it’s almost ingrained in us, about what a man is. A man is masculine and strong and he’s out there fighting tigers and we’re weak and little and resourceful and we’re the homemakers. So it’s hard to rid everybody of that idea that indigenously we are that way. But I don’t think so. In pioneer times, women were out there, if not fighting the Indians, at least they’re mending the covered wagon. They’re also doing a lot of strenuous stuff. So, repeat, some of it’s left over, the idea of man being strong, whomp ‘em, and woman, a little weak creature. But it’s not true. In really never was.

Heffner: All right. Now, I go back to my question, about 30 years. First, I suppose I should ask: is there a different Helen Gurley Brown 30 years later? Is that a good question?

Gurley Brown: [Laughter]. I am so rigid, I don’t change in the least degree. I know how you feel about change and what you say about change. And change is out there happening every minute, every second. Change is what we do, or what we should do, but…

Heffner: But not with Helen Gurley Brown?

Gurley Brown: I’m afraid I’m as rigid as a board. One of my numerous psychiatrists – you know I believe in shrinkage – said to me about 25 years ago I was the most rigid person he ever met. I mean, he should see me now. He died, unfortunately. But let’s say the good stuff is still the same, and the bad stuff is still the same. I didn’t know we were going to get personal so early. I feel guilty already not to be talking about women’s issues and about the work and about magazines and advertising and selling it.

Heffner: But wait a minute. We’re doing that. We’re talking about…

Gurley Brown: No, we’re talking about me, which is… I’m not…

Heffner: We’re talking about the chief honcho of Cosmo.

Gurley Brown: But I’m not a representative of a while generation or a whole sex. Let’s just say that some people have changed and can change more easily than I.

Heffner: Well, Helen, I’m not going to let this go. Why this glorification of supposed rigidity?

Gurley Brown: “Glorification of rigidity.” I’m not glorifying it; I’m apologizing for it and trying to explain not why but just that it exists. Because my rigidity has made a lot of things possible. I was too rigid to go out and screw anything up in terms of jobs. I went through lots of jobs, then I found the right one. Why wouldn’t you stay with something that’s working? Ditto the husband, if we can use that adjective, ‘the’ husband. Took a long time to find him. It took almost as long to get him. Having so achieved and acquired why would I change? I can’t do any better. That’s what keeps us married. People… we’ll get to him later. I know you like him. I like him too. People are always asking, “why the long marriage?” It’s because I am of sound mind, and I know that even though I could kill him, I couldn’t do any better. If I were out there floundering around as a single woman, where would there be a David Brown? So that accounts for some of the rigidity or the lack of wanting to change or needing to change. I still have girlfriends who were in Pulaski Heights Grammar School with me. We started at age eight in the second grad, third grade. Arts and Entertainment is doing a bio on me, and they went back to all my old childhood friends. I’ve got about six of them. They went to Little Rock, they went to Muskogee, they went all over to talk to my childhood friends. They’re still my friends. I think you can fit in new friends, thank goodness. Now new husbands, necessarily. Not even new jobs. But while you keep the old, you surround yourself with the new.


Heffner: Yeah, but now let me ask you something. Thirty years with Cosmo becoming increasingly successful. I mean, it sounds like a strange thing to say: “increasingly”, it’s so successful now. Isn’t that that a function of your, to some extent, following what’s happening in this country? So where is the notion of our friend, rigid Helen Gurley Brown? You have obviously adapted to what’s been happening in this country.

Gurley Brown: Sorry to catch you and trap you so early. But Cosmo’s success is not predicated on what’s going on out there in the country. Cosmo’s success is predicated on having a wonderful formula that works. I’ll explain it in just a second. What goes on out there in the country certainly affects the life of a Cosmo woman, but we don’t go out there with a research team and say, “let’s find out what’s happening and let’s that advantage of it.” What we do is inculcate what’s happening into our basic formula. Marriage is in this year; it’s not in. You’re barefoot in the park when you get married; you going to a cathedral to get married. Lifestyles change. Job opportunities change. Politics change. Travel changes. Activities change. But the basic woman, the one I described earlier, she don’t change. Plus the Cosmo formula does not change. And I’ve had a tough time with that for at least 31 of those 32 years advertisers every month, every second say, “what’re you doing to change Cosmo? The tired old thing. What’re you doing to perk it up? And I have to kind of dissemble with them and do the lifestyle bit. But basically the Cosmo woman and the Cosmo formula remain. It’s a magazine to help this young woman realize dreams, hopes, ambitions, to help her find a man, keep a man, get him back if he’s going, get a new one if he left. It’s a magazine to help her deal with the goblins, as Frank Sinatra used to call, it, “Getting’ through the night…” It’s a magazine to help for the inside girl and the outside world hasn’t effect Cosmo or me all that much. We change fashion and beauty and travel and money and health. We report what’s going on. But the basic Cosmo formula to help her become who she ought to become, we’ll help, we’re your friend and that doesn’t change.

Heffner: That’s probably the best statement I’ve ever heard about someone’s philosophy or psychology about anything. And in this instance, about a successful magazine. The most successful women’s magazine. So Helen Gurley Brown’s formula is: recognize it for what it is and then don’t change it.

Gurley Brown: I was talking to a young, British editor who is here doing a magazine, Mary Claire. And she explained to me that there is the insecure woman who reads Cosmo and there is a secure woman who reads Mary Claire. And she’s an awfully smart girl, Glenda Bailey. And I didn’t say, you’re full of nonsense, Glenda. “ But the truth is, every woman is emotional, every woman, if I may, is insecure. I’m fond of point out that Audrey Hepburn wanted to marry Albert Finney, who wanted nothing to do with marrying her. You think that wasn’t a problem? You think she didn’t get emotional about that? Audrey Hepburn was one of the three reigning goddesses. We can go on to Jackie Onassis, a womanizing husband. Was that any fun? Did she not get emotional about that? Was she not what we call, cliché, insecure? Moving right along to Grace Kelly, who because a certified princess. Her husband was cheating in the polo stands while she was home watching television or whatever. Not a certifiable goddess. I’m just using three almost cliché ideas of what a supposedly secure woman is. There’s no difference. I don’t think there’s a woman in the world that doesn’t have emotional stuff that needs to be dealt with.

Heffner: Then we go back to your statement earlier that, not so different from a man. No different from a man, right? I mean, we’re now talking about the warrior and gong out and bringing home the foodstuff.

Gurley Brown: And we’re also not gainsaying that there’s a book out there called Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, or the other way around, which has been a best seller for a hundred and…. I don’t even want to think about it. Hundreds of weeks. Saying the exact opposite of what I am saying. Good for him. I think men want to think that you’re very different from us and women want to think that you’re different from us, and we are different sexually, but not all that different in terms of our needs and wants and abilities to enjoy ourselves.

What was our original point here?


Heffner: The differences. The business of change in Cosmo. And you say, “don’t be silly. There are things outside that change, and we reflect them. Travel, beauty hints, etcetera; but not the real woman.”

Gurley Brown: Three are smart women and dumb women, and smart men and dumb men. That used to be not acceptable. All men were smart and all women were dumb, whether they were blonde or not. Certainly there are vast differences in human beings, but I learned that men and women are alike. About 102 years ago in my group therapy sessions when the man that I, or the person that I always identified with, was a Lockheed engineer. And we had the same emotional problems. And he and I were always bonded. And I though, “gosh, he’s no different from me. We’re more alike than the rest of the people in this group,” so, never mind how I came upon this theory.

Heffner: Yeah, but let me ask you have the advertisers and the bosses, the people who really must respond, are my figures correct that in the description of Cosmo as a cash cow, 2.5 millions copies a month are sold? Could that be true?

Gurley Brown: Uh, huh.

Heffner: And $159,7000,000 in ad revenues?

Gurley Brown: I believe so.

Heffner: What about the people who own the publication? I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Helen Gurley Brown owns women’s magazines,” but you’ve edited Cosmo. What about the people who own it, and what about the people who pay for it, the advertisers, do they leave you alone?

Gurley Brown: The ones who own the magazine, bless their hearts. There couldn’t be bosses like them in the entire world. It’s the Hearst Corporation, and from the first hour they have left me totally alone as long as we don’t get sued, or whatever, or the sales don’t go plummeting, or I don’t do something really rotten, they don’t pay much attention to me. Its called benign neglect. God bless. As long as Cosmo is doing well and sales are up, they say, “go to it, kiddo.” They like me, they reward me. They are the world’s fabulous-est-est bosses. Advertisers….. and they own the magazine, the Hearst Corporation. It’s not a publication; it’s owned by the Hearst family. They have the best executives in the world. The CEO, Frank Biondi, is without peer. And the family is wonderful also. We’re all friends and pals. And the advertisers, who pay the bills…..

Heffner: Yeah? Don’t they say you’re wrong?

Gurley Brown: Advertisers are not totally enthusiastic about the Cosmo message. A- they don’t understand it; B-they want you to change it because it was good last year, well, what’re you doing this year? C-they’re not sure they want their daughters and grandchildren, female, to read Cosmopolitan. You should go to New York to get a good bucket of cold water poured on top of you, vis-à-vis who you are and what you are. But they do have a choice. They can stay out of the magazine, they can get along without you. But they read the demographics, they see that this young reader is exactly who is out there buying automobiles these days, so they kind of bestir themselves to pay attention. I finally got the Honda advertising in the February Cosmo for the first time ever. I am so thrilled. I don’t know what their problem was, but there was somebody there who didn’t think Cosmo was a suitable magazine for women. I think a devout feminist, which I am. But whatever her problem, she finally came around. So advertisers are always, not the enemy, but they are the adversaries. And you have to say, not necessarily to them, but to your staff, to your publisher, who sells the advertising, I can’t change Cosmo to accommodate them. If we do that we don’t have a magazine anymore, we don’t have what made us good and what makes the magazine sell. Do you know there isn’t an hour virtually that I’m not thinking about my reader: Will she like it? Is it right? Is it good? Does it help? Am I doing my very best for her? The advertisers just have to string along.

Heffner: Yeah, but, you know, there’s something strangely contradictory about that, because you talk about “there’s nothing like getting cold water poured on you when you go out to Detroit.” I gather you’re talking about the advertisers for cars. But, buy gosh and by golly, you’re done it. I mean, how can cold water be poured on Helen Gurley Brown when she produces these figures, this kind of circulation, and these kinds of profits?


Gurley Brown: We haven’t talked about…

Heffner: it’s just that they want to see you agonize a little?

Gurley Brown: No. We haven’t talked about other women’s magazines, which are numerous, which are more like Cosmo than they ever used to be. Maybe we’ll have time to chat about that later. These advertisers in Detroit don’t have to have Cosmo. They’ve got a big potpourri of magazines to place their advertising inside of. I’m not in Detroit because I’m a masochist; I’m in Detroit because I’m not getting as much advertising as I would like. I have sat with the Chrysler people who have explained to me that Cosmo is a dirty book. And they can say that. I don’t get insulted. I show them a few other women’s magazines that use four-letter words, which we do not, who have really sexy cover blurbs, sexier than we. I can show them all that; they’re not listening. They have their minds made up about Cosmo. But we’re there, they are leaning back, me leaning forward because I want their advertising. And occasionally they will point to an article that they though was outrageous, but I’m not sure they read. I can be very outrageous myself now that I’m not going to be the editor of Cosmo. [Laughter]. And I love all our car advertisers who have been loyal. The Ford Motor Company was one from the very first. The point is that you need all the advertising you can get. I’ve never had as much as I would like from Detroit. Every so often I’ve gone there to try to talk some sense into their heads. I have not always prevailed. But I’m there not because they ask me, but because I said, “Can I come and see you?” I’d like to explain a little bit.”

Heffner: You know, it’s funny, in the February issue of ’97 when you say goodbye, and HGB remembers the Cosmo years, there and elsewhere you talk about a kind of, you joke about a kind of economic illiteracy. I mean, I’m the one who says, “when we deal with economic subjects here my eyes glaze over.” But you’re pretty darned shrewd about your dealing with how to bring the money in. Maybe you don’t deal with…

Gurley Brown: …the figures….

Heffner: …the computers.

Gurley Brown: When you told me how much money we made from advertising, I didn’t really know that. {Laughter]. I’m glad you’ve done your research. One does not work for money. After you get enough to live on, you work for the love of work, or whatever. And in terms of money, somebody else at Cosmo has always done the budget. It’s getting more and more and more and more complicated. They bring it to me and I say, “that look about right. We’re going to spend $10,000 more for stationery this year and we have to account for raises for this many people, and this is about what I think. Yeah, it looks good.” They do the initial thinking and planning and I say yes or no. But one of my great strengths, if I may, is that I am real shrewd about and respectful of money. I don’t understand figures, but I understand money and profit. And that’s what Cosmo is there fore. We are there to make a profit, and we do.

Heffner: Listen, a mutual friend of our from years ago – and you will not guess the name – said to me, “Helen Gurley brown is so damn cheap in running the magazine.” Is that what you’re talking about?

Gurley Brown: Uh huh. Uh huh. I knew somehow from the first hour that you didn’t have to spend more money than was necessary. I knew that if you offered a writer twice as much money as he’d been getting, he would give you, or she wouldn’t any better article that you had been getting. The same thing is true for employees. The same thing is true for photographers. And I’m fond of mentioning magazines and editors who spend twice as much as they need to. I don’t know why they do that. It isn’t necessary. What you need is a great idea for a magazine format, you need the best writers, and yes, you have to pay them. You can’t get them for $15.00. When I cam to Cosmo they had been paying people $5000 an article. My top price was $1,500. Mostly I paid $1,000 for a major piece. You don’t get any better because you pay more; it’s just called ‘showing off.’ Can you be too cheap? I don’t think so.

Heffner: Can you?

Gurley Brown: I don’t think so.

Heffner: What do you mean, you can’t be too cheap?

Gurley Brown: What counts in my magazine is the article ideas, the basic idea of the magazine, and the people gathered around you to do what you need: A-assign. B – get the piece in. C- evaluate it; D-recommend that it be bought; E-work their brains out making it good and wonderful. I’ve got the best staff of magazine people in the world. That’s what matters. And they get paid. But they don’t get paid hundreds of millions of dollars; they get paid the going rate plus a bit more because we don’t have too many. I don’t have a whole lot of people; I have the right, brilliant ones, and they do the magazine. And spending a ton more money on this or that or whatever would get you anywhere.


Heffner: That’s what I’ve always heard, that the thing to do with Cosmo is be inside, because Helen is so good and her staff is so loyal, and that then you negotiate if you’re on the outside. And I guess that’s your philosophy, your economic philosophy, your own brand of Adam Smith economics.

Gurley Brown: If we can mention a few names: Vanity Fair is a brilliant magazine, and they have always paid so much money it makes your teeth rattle and your head swim. Dominick Dunne gets, I don’t know, $50,000 an article or he gets $50,000 spread over two or three articles. If I paid $100,000 to Nick Dunne, I mean, my head is swimming. I don’t understand those figures. I couldn’t get him because he was a contract with Vanity Fair. So forget Dominick Dunne and a few other writers who write only for them. I have to find my own ersatz or on-the-way-up Dominick Dunne, and pay him… We’ve gone up from fifteen hundred bucks, but I now have to pay three to five….

Heffner: Helen, I’ve got a sign that says, “Goodbye.”

Gurley Brown: What?! [Laughter]. Are you out of your mind?

Heffner: Meaning I have to say goodbye to you. But stay where you are and we’ll do a second program for next week, okay?

Gurley Brown: I’d love to. I’d love to.

Heffner: Thanks, Helen Gurley Brown, for joining me this week.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”