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Brown, Helen Gurley - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Helen Gurley Brown

single women advertising cosmopolitan



Author and editor Helen Gurley Brown rose through the ranks of business from secretary to executive, with many of her achievements coming while she was unmarried and at a time when women were not common as business executives. Through her position as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and her several books on single life, Brown defined the lifestyles of single people for an entire generation.

Personal Life

On February 18, 1922 Helen Gurley was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, to Ira and Cleo Gurley. Both schoolteachers, they raised Brown in modest surroundings in Little Rock. Ira Gurley died accidentally when Brown was only ten years old. A few years later, Helen’s sister contracted polio, and the family was forced into an even more austere lifestyle. During this time, she also grew to dislike her home life, which she later described as “ordinary, hillbilly, and poor,” and she sought to escape what she perceived as the crudeness of her neighbors and relatives.

Brown attended Texas State College for Women from 1939 to 1941 then moved to Los Angeles to begin a career as a secretary. In 1959, she married David Brown who was a motion picture producer with 20th Century-Fox.

Career Details

In 1941 Brown took the first of what was to be a string of 17 secretarial jobs in Los Angeles. This first job was for an announcer at radio station KHJ. While working at the station, she attended Woodbury Business College and studied secretarial skills. Later, Brown characterized both the job and her performance as “dreadful,” but she not only supported herself, she also provided support to her family on her salary of $6 a week. Among the following secretarial jobs were stints with Music Corporation of America (MCA) and the William Morris Agency.

Brown learned that working for a glamorous company did not mean there was glamour for the employees or that the work was more rewarding. She later recalled how at one company, the secretaries were not allowed to use the lavish front entry and were required to use a back stairway to gain access to the office. Brown was working for the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding in 1948 when she got her first break in the advertising business. Letters that she sent to her boss while he was out of town on business led to an opportunity to write ad copy for the agency.

Brown won two of her three Francis Holmes Advertising Copywriting Awards while with Foote, Cone & Belding as she discovered and developed a talent for writing advertising copy. She remained with this agency until 1958 and continued in advertising until 1962. Happily married at age 37 and involved in her career, she had worked, supported herself and struggled with the problems of single life and the issues of women in the work place. At that time, few women had the opportunity to excel in the corporate world, and Brown’s success in advertising was remarkable. Yet, she looked to accomplish what she termed “the one big important thing.” In 1962 Helen Gurley Brown took what she had learned as a single working woman and wrote a book that was to change her career.

Sex and the Single Girl caused an immediate sensation when published in 1962. It was simultaneously praised and condemned for its honesty and its portrayals of the realities of single life and the sexual activities of young unmarried women. Termed by some critics as “tasteless,” it nevertheless remained on the best-seller lists into 1963, and it obviously provided information and guidance to an audience of young single women who craved it. With this book, Brown’s career both changed and blossomed.

Brown began receiving fan letters from women asking her advice and addressing topics from her book. Writing a syndicated newspaper column called “Woman Alone” was not enough, and both Brown and her husband thought a market existed where a larger audience could be reached. The Browns worked together developing a plan for a magazine they tentatively named Femme . The couple wrote a prospectus and drew up a format including suggested articles and submitted the package to publishers. After a succession of failures with these submittals, they approached the Hearst Corporation. Hearst saw in the proposal an opportunity to rescue an existing property, and the Browns were given the chance to take over Cosmopolitan . Helen Gurley Brown began what would become the career she is most recognized for in 1965, when she became the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan.

Under Brown, Cosmopolitan proved to be popular with increasing numbers of women. A rather different type of magazine sales strategy was pursued—almost all sales were via newsstands, and the publisher was spared the problems and expense of subscriptions. Advertising revenues were high, and the magazine was profitable with sales to career-oriented single women. The magazine provided advice and insight to augment their growing tastes and to reinforce their independent lifestyles. Fashion and workplace advice along with articles on relationships struck a chord with readers, and under Brown’s direction circulation increased from 700,000 to 2,800,000.

Brown has stated that her husband, David, wrote cover blurbs and approved articles even while maintaining his career as a motion picture producer. However, Brown herself wrote a featured column in each issue entitled “Step into My Parlor,” and her comfortable, sympathetic, and personal style is still a trademark.

Additional books by Brown have continued her presence in the marketplace and added to her success as a spokesperson for single and working women: Sex and the Office (1965); The Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown (1967); Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969); Sex and the New Single Girl (1970); and Having It All (1982). Two of the books, Sex and the New Single Girl and Having It All were updates to her original success, Sex and the Single Girl. In 1993 she published a book targeted at women over the age of 50, The Late Show. In 1996 Bonnie Fuller was named Brown’s successor as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, while Brown retained the responsibilities of editor-in-chief of the magazine’s international publishing operations. She oversaw her final domestic issue in February 1997.

Social and Economic Impact

Helen Gurley Brown has had a prolonged and profound influence on the changing sexual mores in modern American society. She not only wrote about an area of great interest and importance, single and working women, she had lived the life she wrote about. Social attitudes were changing in America during the post-World War II era and through the sexually liberating times of the 1960s. Brown’s writings, from Sex and the Single Girl through her columns and leadership at Cosmopolitan, exercised great influence over the thinking of women.

Brown also contributed greatly to the growing understanding that work outside the home can be a source of pride and accomplishment, both personally and financially, for women. Although she continued to insist men were an important part of women’s lives, which put her at odds with more radical feminists, Brown did much to contribute to the liberation of women from the traditional role as homemaker. Brown remained childless and advocated the once-radical view that a woman could achieve satisfaction through her own efforts and not only through the joys of child-rearing. Her life is an example of the success a hard-working woman can achieve.

An avowed workaholic, Brown achieved much through hard work and dedication. She advanced through several secretarial positions to make opportunities for herself in advertising and parlayed success in writing into an opportunity to be editor-in-chief of a popular national magazine. She espoused the virtues of the working woman but did not turn her back on men, as she showed in her partnership with her husband.

Chronology: Helen Gurley Brown

1922: Born.

1941: Moved to Los Angeles to begin a career as a secretary.

1948: Became first woman copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding.

1959: Married David Brown.

1962: Wrote Sex and the Single Girl.

1965: Became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan.

1988: Inducted into Publisher’s Hall of Fame.

1993: Published The Late Show.

1997: Oversaw her final issue of Cosmopolitan.

Brown has won numerous awards during her career, including three consecutive Francis Holmes Achievement awards for her work in advertising during the 1950s. Among her journalism honors is a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Southern California in 1971, an editorial leadership award from the American newspaper Women’s Club of Washington, D.C., in 1972, and a Distinguished Achievement Award from Stanford University in 1977. She was inducted into the Publisher’s Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 1997 was the recipient of a Financial World Career Achievement Award.

Brown, Henry “Box”(1815–?) - Abolitionist, house servant, factory worker, Chronology, Ships Himself to Philadelphia, Becomes an Abolitionist Lecturer [next] [back] Brown, Earle (Appleton Jr.)

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