Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Our lady helen of perpeTual self-help
By Roxanne Fequiere
Helen Gurley Brown was wildly, fiercely, boldly ahead of her time—until she wasn’t. It’s a fairly simple through-line that guides you through Brooke Hauser’s rollicking biography of the author and longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, but it’s quite possible that each and every reader of this book will come away with a different interpretation of when exactly that tipping point occurred.
If you’ve laid eyes on a Cosmo cover between July 1965 (“World’s Greatest Lover—What it was like to be wooed by him!) and January 2018 (“Take Cosmo’s Hottest Positions for a Spin. They’ll Hit All Your Pleasure Zones”), you’re already familiar with one of Helen Gurley Brown’s hallmarks. Self-sufficiency and thrift was another. “Being smart about money is sexy,” Brown wrote in 1962, and before she took the reins at Cosmo, she was a rarity as an advertising copywriter and account executive—female, well-respected, and highly-paid. She also subscribed to the notion of relentless physical upkeep: beauty tricks and exercise if they could get the job done; surgery if they could not.
It’s a formula that resonated with enough young, unmarried women to make Brown’s first book, 1962’s Sex and the Single Girl, a smashing success. In addition to tips on managing finances and succeeding at work, there were chapters on how to meet men, achieve sexiness, and have an affair. When she became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965 based on the sheer strength of her personal brand, the formula maintained its potency, pushing circulation into the millions and spawning dozens of international editions.
Brown was a successful woman that made it to the top playing by her own rules, and she made a career of selling the hope of a similar fate to her readers. Naturally, she had an endless array of detractors hounding her every step of the way. Critics panned her book. Colleagues and acquaintances called her stupid and shallow. Hipsters—that is, of the Greenwich Village folk scene variety—considered her to be out of touch. And the burgeoning second wave feminist movement regarded her with a blend of horror, disdain, and grim resignation when they needed her clout for the cause, e.g. promoting the Equal Rights Amendment in the pages of Cosmo.
According to a 2016 New York Times review of Enter Helen, “The feature film rights for [the book] were optioned before the book was even finished,” and I’m looking forward to seeing the final result. Each chapter is brimming with brief and bubbly vignettes that could translate beautifully to the big screen: the meeting of Helen Gurley Brown and Jacqueline Susann by chance on Park Avenue and their subsequent friendship; a young book publicist named Letty Cottin, pre-Pogrebin and pre-Ms. Magazine, arriving in Los Angeles to figure out how to package Brown and her forthcoming title for primetime; Gloria Steinem, after having accused Brown of possessing a “mashed potato mind” in print years earlier, accepting an assignment to write and pose for a Cosmo puff piece on brunette beauties because, well, she needed rent money.
Enter Helen and other modern meditations on Brown paint her as a fun and fancy-free foil to the stern, no-nonsense attitude of the women’s movement, but, at least to this modern-day feminist, the contrast seems overblown. Brown called herself a “devout feminist,” attended consciousness-raising sessions with women half her age in an attempt to understand their concerns, championed the work of women writers and editors, and even sat in on editorial meetings at Ms. to help them with the nuts and bolts of magazine publishing. She just decided to do all of this while staying true to her own vision, no matter how problematic it seemed to others.
Still, as steadfastly as she clung to her ideals, Brown seems to have been haunted by profound self-doubt that refused to budge. Despite her best efforts, she never thought herself beautiful, often volunteering details on her nips and tucks to complete strangers. She lamented her lack of a college degree. She hoarded money, ever fearful that the rug might be pulled out from under her at any moment. “We’re on the bread line of success,” she once told her husband. “If somebody gets rid of you or me, we are pitiful people.” In a passage I furiously underlined and scribbled over, Brown also said, “I’m forever shoring up and trying to protect the trenches,” likening herself to the mole-like creature in Franz Kafka’s “The Burrow.” “I’m never safe. I’ll never be safe.”
This, week as I crammed in fifty pages of reading in the morning, fifty pages before bed, I flitted from obligation to obligation, expecting disaster at every turn. When a project manager on a freelance gig asked me to stop by the office, I envisioned a polite dismissal awaiting me. (It wasn’t.) As I raced to a coffee date, I imagined my five-minute lateness souring my new pal on me before we’d even met. (It didn’t—I don’t think.) Even as I furiously scheduled my days in color-coded ink, made daily to-do lists, and saw positive outcomes from my latest spate of self-improvement, I found myself unable to revel in any of it. When the various stages of personal growth seem like rungs on a ladder, each step up increases the potential for injury should you come tumbling down. If necessity is the mother of invention, then desire may be the mother of reinvention—but when desire begets desire, the cycle becomes a vicious one. I imagine there must be an antidote out there for this nasty side effect of ambition, but I don’t believe Brown ever found it.
One bitterly cold morning, I found myself with time to spare and pages to read, so I headed for an aggressively cute café, bought myself a matcha latte and a croissant, and got down to it. The whole scene felt picturesque and comforting, like I’d stumbled upon a small (pre-reboot) Rory Gilmore moment in the middle of Manhattan, and I briefly forgot to be convinced that the rest of the day was destined to be rough. I treasure these small moments of identification with female role models both frivolous and wise, fictional and real. I’ve relied on the music of Beyoncé to muster confidence and the music of Solange to pause and re-center. I turn on The Mary Tyler Moore Show when I want to take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. If Helen Gurley Brown had any female role models, they must have been few and far between—the drawbacks of being a trailblazer—but she somehow managed to become one. Didn’t she almost have it all?
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.