Helen Gurley Brown

The Cosmo Girl, Part II

VTR Date: December 4, 1996

Helen Gurley Brown continues the discussion of Cosmopolitan magazine.


GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
VTR: 12/4/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of a two-part series with Helen Gurley Brown, the real Cosmo girl, whose three decades and more as the acclaimed and innovative editor of Cosmopolitan magazine end with its February 1997 issue.

Now, Mrs. Brown and I began last time to talk about women and the world changing so much since she became Cosmo’s untiring editor in the early 1960s. Clearly, to me at least, change is what it’s all about.

Now, Helen, last time, you were talking about change on the outside world; not on the inside world in terms of your readers. And I was fascinated by this early glimpse I’ve had of the pictures that surround your own article in the February 1997 issue of Cosmo. And here’s one of the pictures. “Is that a cute baby?” it’s labeled. There’s the picture of Helen Gurley Brown as a baby. Now, what led this baby to do things that led, as you said last time, advertisers and would-be advertisers in Detroit to look askance at Cosmo and say that it’s a dirty book?

GURLEY BROWN: You’re covering a few years there, aren’t you, from babyhood….

HEFFNER: Yes, I am. From babyhood to dirty book.

GURLEY BROWN: (Laughter) From babyhood up to the present moment. So many people have heard the story of my life, I can do it in eight sentences. Sister in a wheelchair with polio before the Salk vaccine; father killed in an elevator accident; mother terminally depressed; me, wall-to wall acne, no credential, no college education, no money, no rich relatives; had to make a living. Nowadays I guess maybe you’d opt for drugs or prostitution (I wasn’t pretty enough). But in those days you just got out and did what you had to do. And I did what I had to do from age 18: 17 secretarial jobs, got fired sometimes, moved to get a few more dollars per week. And finally in the mid-Fifties I got to write advertising copy. From there came Sex and the Single Girl. From there came so much mail we didn’t know what hit us. I’m trying to answer the mail. David said, “If you had your own magazine, you could answer everybody at one time.” And we didn’t know any better. We got up a format for a new magazine, took it around town; nobody wanted it. Hearst said, “We’re going to fold Cosmo this illustrious old magazine. Maybe you’d like to have a go at putting your formula on our old magazine. And when it doesn’t work…” – not “If it doesn’t work, you can write for some of our other magazines and use up your contract.” So it’s basically as simple as that. And, no, didn’t do research for a new magazine. No didn’t have a great vision. I’m just doing what you do next, which is called getting up in the morning, doing your work, it the best you can. From being a secretary, finally got to write advertising copy.

Writing advertising copy, I’m about to get fired. There are too many of us doing the same thing on Mac Factor. I said, “David, think of a book I can write. You do that for people.” He did, and I did. So what’s the point here? I got from babyhood up to advertisers thinking I’m outrageously disrespectful of young womanhood, through that process I just told you about.

HEFFNER: Amazing. Amazing. But why did they think, looking at the end product. Cosmo, that it’s a kind of dirty book. You said in the last program. “I don’t use dirty words,” etcetera. Why did they think that?

GURLEY BROWN: Have you ever heard of something called the “Religious Right.?


GURLEY BROWN: They weren’t perhaps as religious or as right when I came along in the mid-sixties, but people virtually threw rocks at me. I remember being at Grossingers selling books – What else? – and people following me around like some of them were disciples and some of them were haters. And I mean, I think they literally had raw fruit and veggies in their hands, they’re going to stone me for being so outrageous. What was outrageous? It was the fact that I said you didn’t have to be married to have a good life; and if you happened to be having sex and you weren’t married, your sex life was probably better than that of your married friends, and you didn’t have to feel guilty: and if you having sex with somebody who was married and you weren’t you didn’t have to go to the kitchen and turn on the oven and put your head in [Laughter], that life could be okay. I’m saying these outrageous things which happened to be true, and they didn’t like it. And there were plenty of them who didn’t like it.

Do you know that when I first started talking on television you couldn’t use the word “sex” on a show?

HEFFNER: Oh, come on.

GURLEY BROWN: At CBS they couldn’t read the name of the book; they had to move around it somehow.

That crowd is still out there, and I say, devoutly, “Whatever works for you, that’s for you. But please do not tell me what works for me. And if I wanted to say to some other young women, “This is how I did it and how my girlfriends did it , and we got along okay, maybe it’s true for you also. Would you just please mind your own business and I will mind my business and let’s get on with our lives.”

HEFFNER: Do you think we’ve gotten on with our lives well or poorly?

GURLEY BROWN: Both. We’ve gotten along with our lives very well because of the strides that have been made by woman. We haven’t talked much about them. All I’ve said was that we haven’t changed emotionally. But we’ve changed in terms of what we are accomplishing. And that’s really a change for the better. Someday we will have our own president. We will have more women in Congress. We will have more women CEO’S, more women on boards of directors. We’re getting there. That is an absolutely wonderful change. And congratulations, feminists, of whom I’m one.

But what isn’t so red – hot and wonderful is that there’s still a lot of prejudice out there. Still a lot of fear of sex. How can you be afraid of sex, for heaven’s sake? But there’s still a lot of—

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You say, “How can you be afraid of sex?” The last time I looked at the illegitimacy numbers, at the numbers of out-of-wedlock birth – or are you going to say,” So what?” to that? – or kids having kids.

GURLEY BROWN: I could not possibly say, “So what?” to that, nor could any sane, caring person.

HEFFNER: All right.

GURLEY BROWN: And I guess I was being subjective again and talking about grownup sex. Sex for teenagers, to me, is anathema. And having no child of my own I’ve always thought what I would say to my daughter, and that would be that. “Sex is the most wonderful thing there could be. It’s fantastic. Would you just kindly wait for it a little bit?” I’m going to tell you a couple reasons why you should. I think anything under 20 is too soon to be having sex with…”

HEFFNER: You’re a prude!

GURLEY BROWN: Right (Laughter) You can do a lot of other things. You can have orgasms, but you shouldn’t be having bumper-to-bumper sex. And the illegitimacy rate is horrendous, and I am working on behalf of trying to do something about that. Very active with the National Abortion Rights Action League, which is trying not only to keep abortion legal, but to keep young women from participating sexually to soon.

But we were talking about what’s bad in the country. Of course illegitimate births. It’s outrageous. I can’t ear it. It was almost better to grow up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where you were told that sex was bad and mean and rotten, because at least you didn’t go to bed with anybody (you were scared), than to have what we have now. So that is not good. And what is also not good in terms of change is that women are a little fagged out, to use an old-fashioned, Little Rock expression. We are exhausted. Not me, because I don’t have children. But the girls, the women who have the children and the job and the husband, and they’re trying, indeed, to have it all. Your sex is not helping as much as it should. You’ve come a long way, Baby. You take the kids to the ballgame, and you know how to get the laundry into the washer/dryer, but you don’t know how to get it out and stack it and fold it. You’re coming along. But women, my sex, are exhausted. That’s not so wonderful. But that just requires great organizational ability, giving up girlfriend lunches, giving up shopping. So we’re okay.

HEFFNER: wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You say, “That just requires…” and then you talk about a little organization. We did a program once when you wrote about having it all. How do you feel about that now? That’s been a question that I’ve kept here, and I knew that someday I’d have an opportunity. Years later, how do you feel about this concept of having it all?

GURLEY BROWN: I feel as strongly enthusiastic about it as ever. But I must say, religion is your business. Yours, mine, and our audience’s. That is up to you, and nobody else’s business. So is sex. You want to abstain the rest of your life, that’s none of my business. That’s up to you. You want to re religious, go to church, fine. That’s for you to decide. Whomever you’re for politically, that’s none of my business either. But I can’t help saying that I think it’s wonderful to have work that pays you, gains you respect, your peers like you, they talk to you at a party instead of your husband. It’s so wonderful to work and have all those things accrue. And I’m sure it’s wonderful to have children. I never wanted them. I have not a regret in the world. It wasn’t for me. But it must be great to have children if you want them. And one friend of mine said she couldn’t fit it all in, the husband, the children and the job, so he would have to go. But I happen to think that he is pretty wonderful to have around too. If you don’t have a wonderful one, get another one. So I have to believe that having it all is a wonderful concept. Sure, it’s causing a few problems in terms of too busy, but I can’t back down and say, “Give up some of it.” I think having it all.

HEFFNER: Just because you can’t back down? Come on, Helen.

GURLEY BROWN: Why don’t I back down? It’s because I don’t believe that one should.


GURLEY BROWN: I think work and love are equally important, as Sigmund Freud said a little earlier than me.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) In this program.

GURLEY BROWN: I think work is just as important as love, for men and women. You don’t have to give up one for the other for one second. So why not have both? They bring unbelievable rewards. And, if you want to fit children into the equation, go right ahead. Go for it.

HEFFNER: Helen, why have you been attacked, both as a feminist and as an anti-feminist?

GURLEY BROWN: The feminists, in the beginning, attacked, as many have, the covers of Cosmo, and the concept that a woman should be a sex object. “For heaven’s sake, how rotten can you be to suggest such a thing?” And I have said from the first hour, “It’s fabulous to be a sex object! You’ve got to worry when nobody wants to go to bed with you.” (Laughter) No, you do not have to look like Claudia Schiffer or Christy Turlington, but having somebody want you sexually is fabulous. Well, the feminists, many of whom, most of whom are of sound mind, I think, finally got it through their heads. They also acknowledged, finally, that you could try to look as nice as you can, and it’s not problematic in terms of getting ahead in the world and being taken seriously; you’re apt to be taken more seriously if you look good. So they kind of came off it a little. And then, finally I believe they decided, as I knew all along, that men are not the total enemy. Once in awhile they are. But the total enemy is you, yourself, for not getting off your duff and getting out there and doing the best you can. We haven’t got time to go into what I mean by “the best you can.” Just get up and do something. And you d o it as well as you can for a long time, then maybe you get to be the best there is, and you open your flower shop or your nursery, or you write the book or you do research, or you go to Wall Street, you get to be a hotshot. Or you don’t have to be a hotshot; you can just do something simpler like start a little antique business. So work and love. And the feminists finally got it through their heads that I’m not the enemy; I’m one of them. Outside there we talked about Detroit, but there are others who are still uncomfortable with sex. It makes them nervous. And I also think that some of them regret that they didn’t get to have a lot of fun when they were young. You weren’t supposed to do that. Now they’re 95 or they’re 65 and they think it’s too late. Not true. But they’re jealous, because I’m out there saying. “Do it, have it, go for it. You can be the one.” And they’re kind of regretful that it didn’t happen to them.

Who know why people are nervous about sex? Don’t ask me. I think men are nervous, some men, about women being sexual creatures, because then she can go off and she can compare somebody to them for heaven’s sake. They’ve got a comparison scale. So men would like to keep women barefoot and pregnant, some men, so she can’t make any comparisons. And there is the insurance business, who wants women to be totally dependent because then the men will buy insurance for them. So there are a lot of different reasons why men are nervous about sex. We don’t have time.

HEFFNER: I hadn’t heard that one bout the insurance business before. But the comparison matter, sure, you can understand that. And you said men and women earlier on, at the beginning of our first program, you talked about men and women wanting the same things. Don’t women feel that way about men? They don’t want to be compared? They don’t want them shopping?

GURLEY BROWN: No. We’re more realistic than your sex. I’m big on saying that we’re alike, but the difference is women are quite realistic, and we know that when you look at cover of Cosmopolitan of Stephanie Seymour of Claudia Schiffer or Linda Evangelista, boy, would you like her, would you like her to be the one.

HEFFNER: What makes you say that, Helen? (Laughter)

GURLEY BROWN: Because they’re gorgeous.

HEFFNER: I’m only kidding.

HEFFNER: They are the most beautiful… Well, not you personally. Most men would like to have that young woman in bed. But my sex is very realistic, and we say, “He can’t have her. There are only ten of those women in the world, and one of them is engaged to David Copperfield, she’s bit available.” And we say, “All right. We cannot be that woman.” But this is a Cosmo credo as important as all the others: You look as good as you can, and you get your self-esteem up to speed by working and being respected for your work, and finally you get it through your silly head, darling, that you may not be Cindy Crawford, but you don’t have to be. There is some man who will worship you if you do the right things. What are the right things? The right things are loving him inordinately, not taking to much scruff (I’m not going to use four-letter words here). If he’s bad to you, leave him and get somebody else. But find a worthy man, love the daylights out of him. Look as good as you can. Enjoy sex. Help him enjoy sex. Be a wonderful person, and it won’t matter so much what you look like. So women, my sex, are quite realistic about that, I believe. And your sex is not secure enough (Laughter) to not want women to make comparisons.

HEFFNER: But yours is?

GURLEY BROWN: Uh huh. Many of us are.

HEFFNER: You know that I’m not going to argue with you about that Helen. No. because we just have just a little less than ten minutes left. And I’ve got to ask you: With all this excitement that you’ve brought for all these years to Cosmo and to everything you’ve done, what does retirement… I can’t even say that word, because I can’t picture you in retirement. You’re going to retire as editor of Cosmo magazine. But what do you, how do you feel about the next years?

GURLEY BROWN: As far as I’m concerned, “retirement” is the ugliest word in the English language. There might be a few runners-up. Retirement is not possible for me or for David. David is 80. I’ll be 75 in February. And we think when you retire you die. This is not to gainsay that a lot of people are retired, they’re not dying they’re getting along just fine. But there are a lot of men who had the company executive jet and a thousand employees and $5 million a year income. Monday morning they’re out on the golf course, nobody wants them or needs them or talks to them. I’m not going to go through that, because I work for a fabulous—only I didn’t have all that in the beginning—but I work for a fabulous company, the Hearst Corporation, who knows me. I don’t think there is any benevolent society out there who is going to give you everything that you think you might need or want, but my company is coming pretty close because, knowing and understanding me, they’re saying, “Retire? Don’t be ridiculous. You move across the street to work on the international editions.” And I’ve got some other projects in mind. But again, like religion, politics, sex, and whatever else you make the decision. If you want to retire that’s for you, it’s not for me. And I will be as busy as I can possibly be working on the 29 international editions of Cosmo. We’re opening five this year in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Thailand, and Korea. I will go to all those launches, help pick and editor, tell them about the Cosmo format and how they ought to do that instead of reinventing the wheel. I’ll be busy.

HEFFNER: Do you think that format works elsewhere? I mean, I do know about the trips you make to Tokyo, to here, to there, the other place. You always have. And clearly, at least in the past, it looks as though the formula or the format whatever you call it, works for women generally because you’ve really put your finger on, as Freud said, or asked. “What do women want?”

GURLEY BROWN: It does work. May I say one testimonial to its working is that there are ten new women’s magazines since Cosmo’s format was established. And they all use a ton of the same kind of material that we do. If it weren’t working, they wouldn’t be doing it. The fashion magazines have cut fashion pages in order to do articles. So it works here in the United States. The women’s magazines who never went near sex – i t was heaven when they didn’t do it; I had it all to myself – they are now writing articles about sex. The format works. And in these international countries (we don’t “foreign countries”), I just convened the editors, 29 of them, in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago to rap their baby knuckles, saying, ”Don’t reinvent the wheel, because that isn’t what your management signed up to do.” Plus, the basic Cosmo formula works. Why is that? Because it’s dealing with us. It’s dealing with human nature. It’s dealing with woman’s real being, our core being. In South Africa, for example, we got a new, young editor. She wants to do a unisex magazine. She wants to talk about new South Africa. Well, that’s one way to go, but it’s not Cosmo. Whether I’m going to get reeled back in. I’m not sure. The most successful international edition, if I may, in terms of sales, is Russia. And they are virtually a line-for-line copy of the United States edition, except they have stuff that’s indigenous to Moscow women. May I say the ones that are doing the best are the ones who are true to the Cosmo formula, but they are all their own person. Sure they want to do a different magazine. I’m going to try to keep them from doing that. Toward that famous word, “profit,” they will do better if they do Cosmo.

HEFFNER: Helen, there’s something that I do have to ask you. I know that you’re talking about formulas and formats, and what you believe we are as human beings, particularly your sex. Do you see, you eschew this word, “change”; I’m the one who uses “change.” Do you see any changes in the 21st century that make you either happy that you and I aren’t going to be there too long, or make you very sad about that?

GURLEY BROWN: Let me say about change, you’d have to be in the ground or someplace else than where we are to suppose that change isn’t what we’re all about. So even though it hurts me sometimes, I don’t want to not be the editor of Cosmo anymore. I’d like to go on until I’m 102. But change is what it’s about. I’ve had trouble predicting what’s going to happen three months from now, six weeks from now, so to ask me about the 21st century… But let’s say my hopes are – I can’t predict – my hopes are that we will go on being really enlightened and terrific about health. Isn’t it fabulous what’s happened? Isn’t the change absolutely incredible and wonderful? We are diagnosing cancer earlier. One of these days we’re going to get it wiped out. Surgery has become state-of-the-art. Laser surgery. Fantastic. You can do wonderful things with cosmetic surgery. We are healthier than we were. We’re living longer. The biggest-growing segment of the population is over 60. Great! So, what do I predict? Just that more of that will continue to happen. We will live longer, we will be healthier. I hope someday we get the mental thing fixed up. We’re working on that. So that some of us don’t get depressed every morning.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “The mental thing fixed up”?

GURLEY BROWN: So that some of us don’t wake up kind of melancholy every day. I think the drug therapy…

HEFFNER: Prozac kind?

GURLEY BROWN: All of those things will become refined. I believe, Dick Heffner, it’s even possible we will be happier. Not in terms of getting rid of all the challenges and all the disease and all things that make us terrific, but just a little bit more peace of mind. Plus, we’re going to wipe out teenage pregnancy somehow. If everybody just got up and did the best he could. But how are we going to do that? Is there a religion that’s going to make that possible? I believe in religion. Maybe we haven’t… Not for me… I’ve got my own ethics and moral code; not a formal religion. Maybe religion of a certain kind will make a big dent, and people will be nicer to each other. Who knows? These are things I hope; not that I predict.

HEFFNER: Are we going to talk about Brave New World to, not exactly to coin a phrase? You know, it’s funny, as you talk about those things, Helen, it seems to me, gee, what a dull, dull place it would be. You’ve got everything taken care of in the future. You’ve got all these pills and the surgery and the lasers. Where are we going be then?

GURLEY BROWN: As I listened to myself talk and then heard you question, I thought at the same moment, “Helen Brown, are you crazy?” (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

GURLEY BROWN: Going to take away all the challenge, and therefore all the fun. Because really getting beyond some stuff that’s now bothering you is kind of exciting and thrilling. So could I go back to square one and say, “I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen in the year 2005.” I hope we’ll make some improvements in terms of medical breakthroughs, but life’s challenges, I daresay, will go on being as they are. And glory be.

HEFFNER: you know, we’re at the end of the program now. But I have to say, you’ve mentioned David Brown a number of times, but I guess I ought to leave a little room to say, and because you’ve said it to me so often, how very much of an important role David has played in all of this success of yours.

GURLEY BROWN: David has written every cover blurb for Cosmo for the last 32 years, so that’s a little bit of an important contribution. Aside from that, he did think of the original format for Cosmo along with me. He is a real participator in my world. Along with that, we’ve been married 37 years. And people ask, “Why is that?” I said earlier it’s because I knew I couldn’t do any better, that if anything ever happened to him I would be in real trouble. My recommendation, if possible, is that you marry…

HEFFNER: David Brown?

GURLEY BROWN: No. You marry a good man, a man who won’t be really rotten to you, let alone beating up on you or anything physical along that line. But a man who is going to be good to you. And that’s what ensures the happy marriage. It has in my life. And since I went with some (What’s the word? “Went with?”), I was involved with a few people who didn’t meet that criteria for many years, finally found the right man and married him. And I’m grateful to my tippy-toes. He didn’t want to marry me. I got the hook in and wouldn’t let it get out of him until… Whatever. I’m a lucky girl. In every way, particularly in terms of David.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re both very luck people. He’s the nicest guy I know, and you are the nicest gal I know. Thanks so much, Helen Brown, for joining me today.

GURLEY BROWN: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check of money order to: The Open Mind. P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

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