Author of book on legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown to visit Dole Institute

Gerri Hirshey

Helen Gurley Brown, the larger-than-life editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, was famous for her self-deprecation. She was a “mouseburger,” as she liked to call herself, who clawed her way to the top of the publishing world with hard work, moxie and what little beauty she felt God had given her.

Her journey — including her meager Depression-era upbringing in Arkansas, her groundbreaking 1962 book “Sex and the Single Girl” and her illustrious career at Cosmopolitan — is the subject of “Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown,” published last year. On Wednesday, the book’s author — and fellow boys’ club infiltrator — Gerri Hirshey will stop by the Dole Institute of Politics to discuss Gurley Brown’s legacy.

In advance of her visit, Hirshey visited with the Journal-World about her new book, her own brushes with the Cosmo maven, and why Gurley Brown’s bawdy brand of feminism deserves more credit than it’s historically received. Here’s an edited and condensed version of that chat.

Gerri Hirshey

You can catch Hirshey in person from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Dole Institute, 2350 Petefish Drive. The program, which includes a book sale and signing, is free and open to the public.

As the first female contributing editor at Rolling Stone, you’re a trailblazer in your own right. How much did your experience as a woman in journalism inspire or inform your decision to write this book?

It really didn’t have to do so much with the “woman thing” as a good story. That’s my first journalistic criteria. And I’d had some brushes with Helen, and I thought I knew who she was, but I was completely mistaken. A novelist — actually, a friend of mine — knew I was looking for a book idea, so she said to me, “It’s a great story. You should look.” So I did, and I poked into it just a little bit and saw how rich it was and dove in.

Yes, it’s a great woman’s story, because we do go through 90 years of American women’s history in her tiny little shoes, you know? That was part of the surprise — just how much of a pioneer she was in so many respects, and also the tides of sexism that this poor woman had to go through.

How much of a fan or reader of Cosmopolitan were you when you started on this book?

Not at all. In fact I, like many people, made great sport of it. I actually did a piece years back about the Cosmo Girl, having the usual fun with the construct, because it was at a time when it was very front and center, and the Cosmo Girl herself had taken shape. You know, the big hair, the big everything. But I never really read it, because I didn’t find it was something that interested me.

I didn’t have an animus toward (the genre of women’s magazines), but I found it somewhat limiting, particularly early on. Things are a lot better than they used to be, but a lot of them in the beginning were run by men. Helen was sort of an outlier there.

For those who only know Cosmo as it is today, could you shed some light on just how much Helen Gurley Brown shook things up when she joined the magazine in the mid-1960s?

It wasn’t a women’s magazine, for one thing. It was a moribund general interest magazine that, in fact, her husband, David Brown, had worked at, at a time it was being driven into the ground. It was very much on life support, very much loathed by one of the main people at the Hearst corporation. They were looking for an excuse to kill it, and they thought, “Well, let’s give it to this woman who’s never set foot in a magazine office, who has no idea what she’s doing. Let her fail, and then we can kill it.”

And lo and behold, she understood that there was nothing out there for single women, and in particular, working women. She had the field wide open, and she just let ‘er rip.

Since it was a general interest magazine, she still did some basic articles, but it was just completely re-geared to all the things that interested, as she put it, “a woman on her own.” It just took off, because she edited the way a lot of us do internet searches in the middle of the night — questions you want to know but are afraid to ask or can’t find the answer to, you know? There were a lot of women’s questions like that, and she wasn’t afraid to go all those places.

Unlike a lot of her contemporaries in the New York publishing world, Helen Gurley Brown really did come from this hardscrabble background. How did she develop the scrappy underdog persona she presented to the world as Cosmo editor?

She was, like the song from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” goes, “a little girl from Little Rock.” They were poor, but her family was also so stunted that there was never any company in the home; it was very ungracious. And once her father was killed in this hideous elevator accident in the statehouse in Little Rock, their lives were utterly miserable — for her mother, her sister and her, and then her sister got polio. So, it was a background of utter deprivation and very little in the way of sophistication or even understanding of how to comport yourself in the most basic social circumstances.

Her word for it was, “Oh, I’m just so gauche,” and that was true. She would make fun of herself. That was one of her great virtues. I mean, she could kid herself out of anything, but she didn’t even know how to dress herself (at first). So, she worked like a little dog learning all those things. She was a poor working girl, so she had to economize in ways that would make your hair stand on end. And she did wash her hair with Woolite. Do you know what Woolite is?

Yeah, and I’d guess it’s probably not very good for your hair…

Well, she claimed it made it really bouncy. And she had the incredible chutzpah to write to the Woolite company and tell them how wonderful it was, and they sent her a case of it. She was just the queen of the freebie.

But she was also just indefatigable as a worker. When she was first working at the ad agency, she never took a coffee break, ever. She wanted to be available to her boss at all times, and she meant it. She never said no. And the weird sexism was so intense that when she finally got made a copywriter — which is a really big deal for a woman — her fellow copywriters, all men, complained to the boss that they had to go home to their families at 6 o’clock every night, but Gurley got to stay because she didn’t have anyone to come home to and kept pecking away. Well, yeah, she did. Women did, and still do, have to work harder.

When she got to the pinnacle of the West Coast advertising community there and they doubled her salary to steal her away at this agency, out of nowhere, she had gotten married and they cut her salary by a third. Why? Well, she’s married now, she doesn’t need it, and, “you make too much anyway.”

I mean, whoever heard of that? But this was just par for the course. I was continually shocked, I will say, at the brutish kinds of sexism that she faced and most women did. She would play girly games that no one would now — flirting in the office and having affairs in the office, that kind of stuff — but when it came to the real nitty gritty, including reproductive rights, she was a tiger.

Given the criticism lobbed at her magazine today for its sexualized covers and outrageous “how to please your man” articles, which aren’t unique to Cosmo, do you think today’s feminists are perhaps a little too harsh on Helen Gurley Brown and what she created?

It goes back and forth so much. I find a lot of the arguments sort of solipsistic because how, then, is Madonna a modern woman? Is Miley Cyrus? What the current Cosmo has tried to do, I think — and there’s no question they’ve gone over the top — is, instead of being about man-pleasing, being more about, “How can my man please me?”

She knew how to give value to a pretty widespread audience, and I think she was a very good marketer. The marketing now is much more predictable. I think that she would be appalled as well at some of the cover lines and the “all sex, all the time” (shtick). I mean, the interesting thing is that in the beginning, even though she was known for putting sex into Cosmo, the ratio to other articles was something like 7 percent and never pushed up to anything like what it’s approaching now. That really began after her tenure, I think. But that’s not the perception.

I read that you actually wrote a story for Cosmo once, but it ended up getting spiked after Helen herself said it was “not sexy enough.” This was a “how to” article on buying a cat, right?

Because Helen’s vision was so singular, you didn’t go to them with queries, with story (ideas). I knew that, and I cannot remember how I did it, but I got an appointment with one of the managing editors or something, and they really did have this book of article ideas. It was kind of this big loose-leaf binder, and the guy plopped it down between us, and I started flicking around and said, “Well, how about ‘How to Buy the Right Cat’?” Now, fatally, I did not know that Helen was a cat freak. I’m not sure that would’ve helped me, but I took it and researched the heck out of it.

I was working at a woman’s magazine then and I was freelancing elsewhere — I knew how to write, you know — but it came back right away, and in that handwriting I came to know so well: “Not sexy enough.” In the end she did me a favor, and I worked out fine elsewhere, but I don’t think I would’ve found much joy there as a writer.

One of the things I learned early on was not to be a snob, you know? I think probably when I missed the mark with Cosmo, I was here in New York and finishing graduate school and reading The New Yorker and was probably a bit out of touch in a way. I found that as journalists, you always have to pull yourself back and say, “Wait a minute: Where are you?” I go into every story still assuming I’m an idiot on whatever subject it is, and I work really hard to educate myself before I even show up. And I still do that. I still over-research, and I never regret it.

Knowing what you know now, do you think you’d be able to successfully write a “how to buy a cat” article sexy enough for Helen Gurley Brown? And what would that story even look like?

I could sling it and go over the top with it, but I wouldn’t do that. I don’t believe that we would ever particularly have a meeting of the minds on that score. With her style of writing and editing, I think it would be a mismatch, although I’m sure we’d have fun scrapping.

I parodied it. I did that for the New York Daily News when I did that Cosmo Girl piece. To be sincere about it, no thank you.