Though Helen Gurley Brown is best known for standing -- all 100 pounds of her -- atop the Cosmopolitan masthead for three decades, let's try to remember her as more than that.
I spent years obsessing over all things Helen Gurley Brown when I was researching and writing Falling For Me, my book about trying everything she recommends in Sex and the Single Girl in 2010 in attempt to make sense of my life as a single woman. I was excited to get started and when I first discussed the idea with my publisher, we talked about how the book would end with me taking Helen Gurley Brown out for a meal. I pictured us having tea at the Plaza, me scarfing down a freshly baked scone with double Devonshire cream and lemon curd while she passed along wise words, sipped her tea and refrained from carbs and sugar.
But Brown was far more than someone who watched her calories or gave us those so-easy-to-mock Cosmo cover lines. She was a pioneer the way they don't even make pioneers anymore. Born dirt poor, Brown was determined to care for her ailing, beloved sister and mother after her father died. So she got scrappy, doing what she had to until she ultimately rose to a position as the highest paid copywriter on the West Coast. Between that and taking the helm at Cosmo, she penned the insta-classic -- and instantly scandalous -- Sex and the Single Girl in 1962.
It's hard to imagine, in a day when fake scandals emerge on a daily basis (Miley Was Photographed Semi Naked! Or She's Anorexic! Or Maybe Both!) what an honest-to-goodness scandal was like and the bravery required to opine publicly that a woman could be both a feminist and sexy, that married men could be kept "as pets" and that a career could be "your happy pill, your means of finding out who you are and what you do, your play pen, your family, your entrée to a good social life, men and money, the most reliable escape from loneliness... and your means of participating, not having your nose pressed to the glass." The same bravery was required, of course, of women who considered her version of feminism to be retrograde and staged a sit-in at her office in 1970.
The message Brown preached was about empowerment -- showing women they could rise above their circumstances with hard work and determination -- as much as it was about self-acceptance. She also didn't attack other women in order to make herself heard, which is just about the most female empowering (and, sadly, rare) move that a person can make. I know that I have felt inherent shame about everything from my father to my occupation to my sexuality to... you name it, if it's in my life, rest assured that I've felt shame about it at one time or another, and I've felt that thrust upon me far more often by other women than by men. While shame isn't limited to women, of course, we're surely far more skilled than the other gender at inflicting it on one another.
And alas, whether it's their intention or not, many of the models we've been given have been shame-perpetuators, people who told us we have to be like them or that the way we feel is wrong. Far more important than Brown's message -- to me, anyway -- is that she told her truth, no matter how unappealing, which not only gave us permission to tell ours but also showed us by example that those admissions only empower us further.
I'm not saying I agree with everything she preached. I do not think that a tiny touch of anorexia is necessary in order to maintain an ideal weight. But I strongly feel that whatever we do -- whether it's looking for a rich husband, rising to the top of an industry or to writing a widely-reviled post saying that women had it better in the sixties -- we should do the Helen way; without shame and with a confidence that the naysayers may be loud but that doesn't necessarily make them right.
Alas, the Plaza date never happened. When I contacted her office to ask for an email address so I could email her the suggestion, I was told that "Mrs. Gurley Brown" didn't email. Rather I could write her a letter care of the Hearst office where, at 88, she still worked every day overseeing Cosmo's foreign editions. In much the same way that Brown didn't allow the public consciousness in 1962 to prevent her from stating her mind, she clearly wasn't concerned with joining the rest of the world in the digital revolution. A letter was sent. A follow up call was made. This time, I was informed by the person who answered her phone that he didn't know if my letter had been received -- only Mrs. Gurley Brown knew -- and that she would be contacting me if she wanted to take me up on my meal offer. That's when I got a little creative or desperate -- choose your adjective -- by sewing together a mouse stuffed animal with a stuffed burger in order to create an actual mouseburger, in honor of the word she coined for so-called ordinary women with few prospects.
Alas, she didn't respond to that gift and I felt relieved that I hadn't pursued my initial idea of sewing the stuffed burger to a taxidermied bird, for surely that would have looked more like a hate crime than a present. But I didn't need to meet her in order to show how much I appreciate what she did for me. Because in many ways, the way I live already affirms that.