Liz Smith: Remembering the One and Only — Helen Gurley Brown

Helen and Liz in June 1996 The first Cosmo Girl

I CARE a lot. I think of Cosmopolitan all day, and I run scared. So it’s a combination of fright, caring and anxiety. My success was not based so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.”

Thus, just one of the ‘intelligences’ from Helen Gurley Brown who died this week at 90.

You’ll be reading lots of quotes now from the long successful career of an ordinary girl from Arkansas who picked herself up and pushed sexual freedom for women, following right on the heels of Hugh Hefner’s sometimes irritating principles.

In detail both of these breakthrough “advice” promoters of high sexuality were demeaning to the role of women, but freeing to many of them at the same time. It became a conundrum and a puzzlement.

Helen and Liz , 1996

THE HEAD of the Hearst Corporation is a marvelous man named Frank Bennack. He called the day his star Helen Gurley Brown died peacefully in her sleep. Helen had a few days of trouble catching her breath. She had reported to the office almost every day of what others thought of as her “retirement.”

Before I ever became a newspaper columnist with a big byline, Helen had given me free rein as the “entertainment columnist” of the new Cosmopolitan — a magazine that became a scandal, a sensation and a benchmark for its times.

Liz, Helen, Lee Bailey, and Barbara Goldsmith

I had a ball for years working with Helen, a woman I very seldom agreed with, but who I admired and loved for her bravery, her chutzpah, her elaborate endeavor to “save” women from themselves by getting them to marry well, have sex as they pleased, and get to the top any damn way they could. She was her own kind of feminist and the Hearst Corporation is now directing the millions she left into an important legacy in her name at the Columbia Journalism School.

In a recent list of the 40 women who had changed journalism in their times, Helen was omitted. She parted company with the movement because she still urged women to play coy, to tempt and tease in an age where women were demanding equality. She also didn’t believe the scourge of AIDS applied to what she called “my girls” so these old-fashioned sensibilities kept her from being the great leader and door-opener she thought she was.

Helen and Liz. Photo: Ron Galella. Judging Meow Off, 1985

Helen and I were about as far from ever agreeing as is Mars from Venus. But we respected our differences. We argued, fought, kissed and made up. She was a pioneer; I was a follower — with many ideological bright ideas and what I laughingly thought were my “intellectual objections.”

She was a great friend, steadfast and loyal.

I’ll just tell this story, my favorite about HGB.

I usually objected to the Francesco Scavullo photos of racy women teasing and taunting on the covers of the magazine. I thought we looked “cheap.” I wanted Cosmo to go glamourous, high-style and classy. “Well, Lizzie,” Helen would sigh. “As soon as our sales for these, what you call ‘cheap’ photos of girls, start slipping on the newsstands, I’ll take your advice and change.”

Helen and Liz, 1985

Newsstands sales continued to soar. Cosmopolitan might have, these days, somewhat lost its singular position to shock and be sexy in the current freewheeling competitive “dumbed down” over-sensualized market. But it is still a success. It is the world-wide smash Helen made it all over the world and which she tended as her special “garden” even after she had to relinquish the helm.

Here’s a good example of Helen. When the Hearsts gave her a Mercedes and a driver after one anniversary, Helen hated to use the driver. If we went out in her car, she was always seeking a way to let the driver go home early. She worried about him. So then we’d be stranded at the theater with no way but to walk or subway it.

Liz and Helen in 2000. Photo: Robert A. Ripps

When I chided her for taking the bus all the time when she was rich (from her husband David Brown, the producer of “Jaws.”) and famous in her own right and doing plenty OK from Hearst, she’d shrug: “But I have to, Lizzie. I have to see what my girls are wearing, their makeup, their accessories … I have to see how they are doing.”

They’re still doing just fine. And lots of them are making it Helen’s way, on her advice. (Marrying well with lots of sex!) Helen was never a mother, except to her cat. But in some ways, she was the mother of us all. She sincerely hoped for the best for all of us.

Pushing us in ways we’d never dreamed of going. Of behaving. Believing in us — we could all be sexy, seducing, having it all. We couldn’t but that was about the only thing she didn’t know. Helen was one of the most fascinating creatures I ever met and not in any way or manner that she understood. She didn’t know her own strength when it came to influence.


This column originally appeared on on 8/15/12

2 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    I owe A LOT to Helen Gurley Brown for the woman I am today. I say that in all seriousness.

    I can still remember the very first time I read Cosmo and was shocked by the frankness of the articles contained within. If I were White you would have seen my cheeks blush red.   Unlike all the other magazines of the time, Cosmo was not about playing coy and being pretty to please men. No indeed, it was more about being pretty for yourself. Embracing the power that comes with being a woman and the “P Power” that all women actually have.

    That it was okay to lust and love men AND be a feminist. The mindset that if you are a feminist it must surely mean you hate men and are a lesbian. Nope, Helen embraced her sensuality and sexuality and flirted shamelessly. I loved that. She was a businesswoman and a powerful one. She showed she was as in control in the boardroom as she was in the bedroom. Again….I loved that.

    For many years Cosmo was my go to magazine for information about life, what to do and not to do. Just enough “girlie” information to make sure I was looking good,  balanced with enough intellectual information to make sure I could hold my own in any social situation and sound smart and well read.

    I will miss you Helen and all you did for my life.  You were my mentor without even knowing me.        

  2. avatar JCF4612 says:

    HGB was a heroine to so many of us mouseburgers from our teen years onward … am so relieved to learn from Liz that she died peacefully in her sleep. I hope she was surrounded by friends during her final hours.