Editor of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley Brown discusses her new book.
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GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And whenever today’s guest graces this table I find myself at first rather much at a loss for words. Which, as you can guess, is quite unusual 37 years after I began this program. But I also always puzzle somewhat at what a fairly straight laced and conventional college professor like myself is doing here with the doyen of magazines and books for and about women — particularly sexy, unabashedly with-it women –which is just what my guest today is.
Helen Gurley Brown is the long-time Editor of the enormously successful Cosmopolitan magazine, the author 30 years ago of her sensational “Sex and the Single Girl”, who later made her “Having It All” the rallying cry for a great many American women, and who now, for what we might some time back rather delicately have called “women of a certain age” presents us with her perfectly hilarious and wonderful, “The Late Show”, published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. and subtitled “A Semi-Wild But Practical Survival Plan for Woman over 50”.
Now I’m going to watch very carefully what I say today — because it was next to last time Helen Gurley Brown was here, I think it was next to last time, that she literally gave me what-for because of some foolish challenge I offered concerning the lot of women versus the fate of men in America.
So, today I’ll just welcome my guest, indicating that “The Late Show” is perceptive and terrific — as is everything Helen Gurley Brown does — pointing out that it’s better late than not at all. So, Helen, welcome once again, and it was time before last that you just gave me the business.
Brown: Well, you are a chauvinist … you’re an adorable, charming, brilliant, articulate
Brown: …fabulous … (laughter) … but you have this tiny streak of chauvinism running through your soul, and I know you’ve tried to stamp it out, it’s just not possible.
Heffner: Well, two things: you don’t mean that it’s tiny … and you know perfectly well that I haven’t really tried to stamp it out. But, you know, Helen, I asked you just before we started the program whether you’d ever begun a program, particularly about this book about “The Late Show”, which is a terrific title … with someone who was going to whip out his dog- eared copy of Plato’s “Republic” … because I want to just take the liberty, and then I’m going to keep quiet, of reading to you something that I fell in love with 50 years ago when I was 17 years old and first in college and read Plato’s “Republic”, and there’s this section at the beginning where he’s talking to the old man Sephelus and he says, and he asked him a question about how it feels, “isn’t this a difficult time of age being old, or at the cusp of being old”? “Well, my dear Socrates”, he said, “I will tell you how I feel. We often meet … a few of us much the same age … like to like as the old proverb says … most of us when we meet are full of lamentations, we miss the pleasures of youth, we talk of our old love affairs, and drinking and feasting, and other such things, and we regret them as if we had been robbed of great things, as if that were real life and we were hardly alive now”. “But, in fact”, he goes on, have met others who don’t feel like that about it, Sophocles, the poet, for instance, I was with him once when somebody asked him ‘What about love, now, Sophocles, are you still able to serve a woman?’ … hush, man, he said, ‘I’ve escaped from all that, thank goodness, I feel as if I had escaped from a mad, cruel, slave-driver’.” Now, how do you react to that slave-driver answer?
Brown: I was getting ready to say that nothing has changed … people were sitting around commiserating with each other about being older, but it has changed, because a great many people don’t feel the way Socrates felt about having “served” women … a great many men are stilt ‘serving’ women at a rather advanced age, and it’s got better. That’s what I think about that passage from Plato.
Heffner: But the slave-driver aspect of it … being a slave to your passions? And your book is about your passions and satisfying them.
Brown: Listen, were a slave to our appetites of, of all descriptions … eating and drinking and sleeping and trying to stay cozy and warm … those are all appetites which we have to assuage, if we can. And sex is an appetite that I think should continue not only to be assuaged, but continue to “be”, period. And that’s something of what the book is about … it’s that you shouldn’t give up sex just because you’re older.
Heffner: Well, you shouldn’t give up food, you shouldn’t give up gossip, you shouldn’t give up all the other things that … good looks, that you feel that you can have even while “the late show” is, is going on. Helen, we’ve talked about this before in terms of “having it all”. Aren’t you urging upon, now your audience, presumably women over 50, but really it’s the whole kit and caboodle, it’s all of us … aren’t you really urging upon us something that can’t be, never could be, never is gonna be, so why build up these expectations?
Brown: Richard, I’ve forgiven you for being a chauvinist, but I don’t forgive you for being so negative about this condition of being older. That’s the standard party line that we should just relax and take it and say, “well, all that other stuff is finished, and it can never be again” … that’s just propaganda. And with all my writing, it’s very personal, and subjective and empirical … I’m just saying in this book what happened to me. In my mid-sixties I woke up, and realized “I. ..was…older”, and I found it just unacceptable. And I sort of got the better of it, I think, and I believe people can get the better of it in terms of not letting too much escape from your life that used to be there that you’d still like to have, if you weren’t so old. You have to fight back.
Heffner: Fight back, and fight back, and when do you stop fighting?
Heffner: Oh, come on, Helen.
Brown: You know … you know my husband, David Brown, who’s 77 and has a movie up for the Academy Award … maybe it will be over by the time this show is seen, so I should shut up … but David has had a terrific year … he’s 77, and I’m 71, and David said to me the other day, “(laughter) Helen, I’m too old to retire”, he said, “I missed my chance”, (laughter) he said, “it could have happened, but I blew it, and now I’m too old”. And I think that’s the way it is for both of us. We’re not ever going to stop until they drag us out.
Heffner: Okay. I know David … I know him very well … I know you … I don’t say that I know you very well … because I’m a chauvinist, and you’re a woman. Okay.
Heffner: Okay … you … you’ve accused me, you’ve identified me, etc. Helen, expectations. I’ve always thought that you have in a sense, had it all. And you wrote a book about having it all. I also felt then, and I almost feel that way now about this book, and it is wonderful, and I sit and marvel at it as I read it, and I read every word of it, that there’s almost a bit of cruelty about it. You know, there’s another part of this, this passage in “The Republic” where he goes on and says, “it has been said that you enjoy this position, in old age, because of your resources, because of your wealth, because of your knowledge, because of your position in society”. Mightn’t one say that to you?
Brown: I’ve thought about this being an elitist book because I’ve been a very poor girl, and was for a long, long, long time … didn’t really start to be comfortable, financially … by comfortable I mean being able to pay the rent, until I was in my late thirties, so I understand what you’re saying … not everybody can afford a face lift, or silicon injections, perhaps, or going to a spa … I’ve never been to a spa … but, Richard, there are things that anybody can have … they are totally free. One of them is sex, one of them is eating … correctly, if boringly …correctly… one of them is exercise, one of them, surely is friendship and pleasure and listening to opera and things that don’t cost a great deal of money, but basically everybody can have the attitude of ‘they’re not going to take it” when people act as though they are old and out of it, and unattractive, and nobody wants to be with them. I say you don’t have to take it, and you don’t have to be rich not to take it. You just have to have a few guts.
Heffner: Why do I feel so relieved and my wife then says whenever I indicate that, “oh, it’s the old man in Plato” again, why do I feel so relieved that so much of it is in the past?
Brown: I don’t know whey you feel so relived that so much of it is in the past …(laughter) … I can’t answer for you. I think everybody has a past, and some of it was good and some of it was terrible. I think we tend to forget how much of it was terrible … we think that at 30, or 40 everything was just ideal and bucolic, and it wasn’t. We had lots of troubles, horrible troubles … I can’t imagine being more miserable than I was when I was about 27, and hopelessly in love with a Don Juan … I mean it doesn’t get any worse than that. So, what is my point? There was good stuff and bad stuff in our past, and there is good stuff and bad stuff in our present. And whatever it is that you’re talking about that is over for you, I’m not sure, maybe you’re not running a 40 yard dash in 30 seconds … I don’t know what you’re not doing any more that you used to do, that you’re glad it’s over … but I’m still trying to do everything I did before, and I’m glad it’s not over.
Heffner: A let me ask you … why are you still trying … why are you trying to do what you did … why? What’s the … what’s the given there?
Brown: There are some pleasures … you and I are skirting this issue, I think, there are some pleasures in life … one is eating, one is drinking, one is being cozy and warm, one is certainly reading, one is having friends and people you love to be with, one is being around children, one is being around animals, but one definite big pleasure, in my life, and some people’s lives is the pleasure of sex … the pleasure of having a sexual experience. And you tend to let that go bye-bye when you’re older, because there may not be anybody to have a sexual experience with, but unlike you and Plato saying “thank God I don’t have to worry about that any more”, (think the thing to do is to somehow to make sure that it’s still in your life because it’s one of the three most pleasurable things I can think of, and I don’t even know what are the other two.
Heffner: Well, we could try and figure them out. But maybe there’s nothing to compare, which is what you’re saying essentially.
Brown: People, indeed, are themselves, and not everybody feels the way I do about sex, but if you can remember back … (laughter)
Heffner: I can’t … (laughter)
Brown: …it is absolutely wonderful, it’s wonderful even when it’s not with the right person … it’s wonderful even when it’s not accompanied by love. I don’t know why we’re picking on Chapter 4 of this book, as though there were nothing else in the entire book, I know it’s controversial because I say, “Kiddo, don’t give that up. Don’t let them brainwash you that a) you don’t need it anymore, and b) you can’t get it anymore”. Two things are true …if you’re normal, and if you haven’t let your sex drive get hammered away, you do still need it and b) you can get it.
Heffner: It’s the b) of course that is the be-all and the end-all and the directions you give here
Brown: There’s no reason for sex to have evaporated from your life just because you’re sixty or seventy or even eighty.
Heffner: What’s the reaction to the book and the … shall I say “instructions”, that’s not quite fair … the … to the advice.
Brown: The people that I’ve heard from are people who went to the Madison Avenue book-shop or to Doubleday and bought the book because they know me, or because they’re in it, or because they’ve read books of mine before, so obviously they like it and think ifs, it’s fine. And what its going to be like with people who don’t know me, I’m not sure. Richard, it’s just a book that says being older is the pits, who would want to be such a thing? But it is dropped on you, you have no choice whatever, therefore, this is how I feel about it, and this is what I’m trying to do about. And I was in the dungeon in the beginning when I began to contemplate being older, and now I don’t feel that way anymore.
Heffner: You know, that, that reminds me … I wanted to ask you about something you said here … let’s see … look and you said, “Though I was angry when I began this book six years ago, I’m not now”. Why not? First, why were you angry … you’re angry at the phenomenon of age? And why not now?
Brown: I never expected to … this is a very subjective show, I seem to be talking about myself, as usual instead of about principles, which other guests on your show talk about … I hate to be so subjective, but here we are. I never thought I would be “old”, or even “older” … because I had done everything “right”. I exercise an hour a day, I eat properly, I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs, I have a wonderful job, I’m as good at it as I ever was, I think … I have a terrific husband who doesn’t cheat, as far as I know … we have a super life. And I’m agile, and I’m just not going to be old. And a lot of things began to happen just about in one week. Somebody tried to give me a seat on the bus (laughter) … I mean … me? they’re going to get up and let sit down because I look old and tired and decrepit? I mean that almost did me in. And then I was talking to some people at a party, and the man wouldn’t talk to me, he would only talk to the woman next to me because she was 35 and gorgeous. Then along about that time a couple of old beaus came to the office to introduce me to their new girlfriends, like I’m some kind of icon. In addition to that some people who I sort of helped out at “Cosmo” have become rich and famous and successful … it was really rather irritating … just everything coagulated at once and I went to a shrink and she said “you’re trouble is that you want to be young”. And I said, “Of course, you idiot, … I, I would like to continue to be young”, and she said, “but you’re not, you know, my darling, you’re 65 years old, you’re not young at all. And you’re not going to get any younger, and you’d better face it”. Well, I lust couldn’t stand it. She said, “Why don’t you write a book and tell other women how you feel’. And I said, “Nobody will read it, it will be so depressing”. She said, “Why don’t you just try it”. So I didn’t have anything better to do on Saturdays and Sundays and holidays and I began to write, and as I got all the way through it, the study of work and money, and love and men and sex and diet and exercise, and doctors, I felt better at the end because everything’s possible for us. You know, I haven’t been sick … I can’t remember when I’ve been sick … and that’s encouraging, isn’t it. I know a lot of 40 year old people who are sick. I’m going to stop now. Would you like to say something?
Heffner: I want to listen and listen and listen. I want to know why you’re not angry anymore … precisely because you’ve figured out how to lick it, I gather. You licked it the way you’ve said people can do in this book.
Brown: People like me never get it solved. You still have problems when you’re older, as you had when you were younger. You never get it fixed, and I never will. There will never been enough success or joy to keep me from waking up scared every morning. But there’s so much you can do, and as long as you’re doing it, you never can really be down and out. So, there are people who are a little bit melancholy like, like me, who have to get up and get going every day despite of the melancholy, and I think I’ve done that. I tried to share that. We haven’t talked about something very banal … which is feeling good
Heffner: Everyday, in every way
Brown: Every … every
Heffner: …I feel better and better?
Brown: No. Every day in every way and I don’t feel any worse than I did (laughter) two months ago
Brown:… or two years ago. I think a great deal of what happens to us is because we are foolish about what we eat and what we drink, and how we sleep and … it doesn’t have to be that way.
Heffner: Helen, you say it doesn’t have to be that way, and I … look, I don’t want to…rag you about this, or kid you about it, I’m, I’m much taken by what you write and I agree with, with … I guess I agree with all of it. It makes no sense to give up. And I haven’t given up, let me assure you and let me assure the 47 people who are watching the program that I haven’t. But I am stuck on this notion of the … I call it “cruelty” I don’t quite mean that
Brown: You mean that everybody doesn’t have all my advantages and
Brown: …and they can’t
Heffner: I mean…
Brown: …do it the same way.
Heffner: …you’ve always been the bounciest person I’ve known. You’ve always been a “can-do” person … that’s the story of your life. Most of us, aren’t gifted that way.
Brown: Oh, Richard, the only reason I can do it is that I would have gone down the drain if I hadn’t at least given it a shot. We’ve talked about this before. Again, I apologize for being so personal, we’re not propagating many new ideas here that would make people think very carefully … so I apologize, but I’m off and running. I just want to tell you when I was very young … wall to wall acne … a sister with polio, we had no money, I had no family help, I didn’t have a college education, I was only medium good looking, this was when I was about 17, you can either go down the drain from worry and hurt and helplessness, or you can make a tiny effort. And I began working when I was 17 at a radio station in Los Angeles and it took me a hundred years to get to a really good job. I had 17 secretarial jobs and finally I got to write advertising copy, finally I wrote a book. What is my point here? The point is that anybody can do what I do, it’s not very special. I don’t have a very high IQ. All you have to do is get up in the morning and be scared and say, “What am I going to do today to try to get through the day and do the best I can”.
Heffner: You see and I say, most people are not blessed the way you are and the way you have been despite what you … the long sad tale … that you tell.
Brown: But being “blessed” is simply taking what miserable little you have and doing whatever you can with it. I hated secretarial work, but did it for about 20 years until I could get to the next plateau. I don’t seem very gifted to me or very blessed or very special.
Heffner: Yes, but Helen, isn’t part of that too, knowing that there is a time, that there is a season for everything. Every message of every book you’ve ever written seems to me to be focused on “there is no time beyond the time you want. Don’t get bogged down in this is the season for so and so. It is the season, you say, again and again, for whatever you want it to be”. Is that a fair description of Helen Gurley Brown?
Brown: That’s a fair assessment. And it’s a fair assessment on my part to say that aging is not a who lot of fun. You look different, people treat you differently
Heffner: So what?
Brown: … you feel a little differently. But it can still continue to be quite wonderful, if you don’t let these things fade away which have brought you pleasure before.
Heffner: But, Helen, you seem to be saying they can still be quite wonderful on the same old grounds … what’s the matter with the fact that someone stands in the … on a bus and offers you a seat? I remember two cops in Times Square saying to me when my car was kind of stuck, and this is a decade ago, or more, “Move along, Pops”.
Heffner: Well, okay … it is “Pops” time, it was ‘Pops’ time then, and aren’t you better off as
Brown: Accepting that you’re…
Heffner: …our friend here…
Brown: …or that you’re somebody that needs a seat on the bus? Not to me. I will repeat that think aging is execrable, and nobody wants to do it, but you’re forced to. Why is it such a bad thing to be older? You’re closer to dying for one thing … that’s not a piece of good news that you’re going to die sooner than when you were younger. So my feeling is you shouldn’t let go of anything unless you’re absolutely forced to. It’s a lot of propaganda that … and you’re being very philosophical … there’s a time to reap, and a time to sow, and
Heffner: Yes, indeed.
Brown: But I think it’s still a time to sow your entire put-together life.
Heffner: What about the reaping? When? When, Helen?
Brown: You should be reaping as you go along. I think work should continue all of your life. If not paid work then some kind of work where they need you to get up and do it, and they reward you for doing it. If not with money, then with appreciation.
Heffner: What is “The Late Show” with its semi-wild, but practical survival plan for women over 50 going to do to all the actuarial tables? I mean ‘you’re going to knock them all into a cocked hat.
Brown: I imagine it’s going to do absolutely nothing, and if I may say once again, it’s a very personal little book, it tells how I’m fighting age and not everybody still wants to have a sex life at 75. Not everybody is going to go along with the philosophy at all.
Heffner: Now, wait a minute … Helen Gurley Brown, it’s alright for you to disclaim that. But you’re saying “here’s a practical survival plan for women over 50”, you didn’t say this is the way Helen Gurley Brown did it, next case, please”.
Heffner: You’re offering a plan, right?
Brown: Inside the book is simply a description of what I do and what a lot of my foxy friends do, who are well over the age of 50, and we seem to have managed pretty well. I think about Elaine DeRamones who is a … married to a noblewoman … excuse me, a nobleman, and sort of fancy … but she is so terrific … she’s 70 … I mean she is drop-dead good looking … I mean what’s the matter with, with that?
Heffner: I’ll bet … Helen, I’ll make a bet … that blank percent of the women who read this book, and there are going to be a number of them, are going to want to do the face lift, are going to want to eat the way you suggest, are going to want to do a lot of things, including, I trust, the sex … right … it’s a guide … it’s a plan.
Brown: They can do … they can do all of them, except the face lift which costs money … you can even do that if you keep saving and getting around to it. There isn’t anything you mention that can’t be done. I get so irritated with people who don’t exercise, they just give me a royal pain and that includes some people who are very dear and near to me, one of whom I live with (laughter). I mean exercise belongs to everybody … and there is stuff going on in your life that you cant do anything about … you’ve got a miserable boss, maybe a miserable mate, maybe your looks are not what they once were … maybe there are people who are driving you nuts, you’re mother-in-law, your children, whoever is giving you a bad time, but by God your body is yours, and you can get it to do things, and if you can get it to do things, it will feel better and be malleable, and sexy and okay, no matter how old you are. I don’t see why people don’t do that.
Heffner: Helen, that’s going to be what an awful lot of people are going to do now, and I’m glad, and I hope the other thing they do to learn how to do that, is read “The Late Show”, and thank you very much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. Time’s up, as they say
Brown: I don’t believe it.
Heffner: You don’t believe that the whole notion of time’s up
Brown: …I’m going on with talking thank you … thank you.
Heffner: You don’t believe that notion. Helen, thanks for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, and about Helen Gurley Brown’s book, read it, and then write THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.