Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan died this week at the age of 90. While she may be best known for her sex tips in Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown launched her career with the 1962 smash-hit book, "Sex and the Single Girl." Feminist, writer, and co-founder of Ms. magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin did publicity and advertising for the book and knew Gurley Brown for decades. Brooke speaks with Poegrebin about the cultural mark left by Gurley Brown.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A grande dame of the New York magazine world died this week. Helen Gurley Brown made Cosmopolitan the global brand it is today. Her career took off after publishing her first book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” in 1962, which dispelled any doubt about a simple fact, unmarried women like to have sex! It sold millions of copies.
Joining me now is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a writer, journalist and founding editor of Ms. Magazine. She did publicity and advertising for “Sex and the Single Girl” at the time it was published. Letty, welcome to On the Media.
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Thank you, fun to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the public reaction?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: There was a lot of hoopla. I booked her on virtually all the talk shows. I sent her around to about 25 or 30 cities. It was transgressive, but she packaged it in a way where, you know, no four-letter word was spoken, and it was charming and it was breathy and palatable, somehow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did she write the book?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: As I remember, she was 37 when she got married, and she had had a host of experiences as a single woman in a world in which you had to be coupled, and most people from Arkansas, where she came from, were married out of high school. And so, she obviously had a lot of sex.
I remember when she was writing the book she said to me, you know, the one thing I never had was a matinee. I said, what’s a matinee? She said, that’s a middle-of-the-day affair, a working man and a working woman going off to a hotel in the middle of the day. I said, oh, I have a friend who’s done that. [LAUGHS]
And so, I got my friend to contribute to her book. But that was the only thing she felt she couldn’t speak authoritatively about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is so “Mad Men.”
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: That’s true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: I mean, it’s exactly what our life was like, Helen’s and mine. So if you think about “Mad Men,” you know why we had to plot and plan and strategize, because, I mean, I recall being trapped in an elevator with a man who had a lot of power to really hurt my career, and he put his hand up my skirt. And I had to, from the 35th floor in Rockefeller Center down to the lobby, laugh him off, joke about it, be witty, be charming because if I had made a fuss, he could have said anything.
So Helen came from that. That was her context. That was mine. And we adapted. It was, you know, way before sexual harassment [LAUGHS] was illegal. There was no Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. So I guess that’s why I kind of understood where she was coming from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you were in the vanguard of the feminist movement. In the seventies, a group of feminists organized a sit-in in Helen Gurley Brown’s office because of what they thought of her retrograde vision of what a woman ought to be. How did you feel about events like that, and how did she feel about it?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Well, I was part of a sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal when we were demanding that John Mack Carter step down and give the spot to a woman and a sit-in at the New York Times, demanding that more women be given book reviews and all that sort of thing.
But I suppose for me it’s a question of choosing your battles, and it didn’t seem one that was worthy of a lot of attention. At the same time, I recognize that all those cover lines, which, you know, we found laughable, some people took seriously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Oh, “The Sex Secret No Man Can Resist” or-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wait, they just had that in their last issue, didn’t they? [LAUGSH]
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Oh, was it that issue? [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In every issue. [LAUGHS]
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: It’s in every issue. She was – the cutting edge on this one issue, and that is women are entitled to sexual pleasure. Now, part of that message was, and in order to get it, you have to please men. But it was reciprocal, in her view. So for that era, when we were all supposed to be virgins – and I mean it! I mean, when I, I went back to my college reunion, all of us who had pretended to each other we were virgins admitted we weren’t -
- at the time, and Helen just outed everybody.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s weird, you know, since her day we’ve had feminism, post-feminism, third way feminism lipstick feminism. Has it circled somewhere back to where she started?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Well, you know, it’s a curious kind of arc. The way Helen used the female body and the way lipstick feminists or sex confident feminists used their body is similar. But in Cosmo terms, you show your body to get men. In today’s feminist body pride terms, it’s you show your body ‘cause you own it, it’s yours and nobody can go near it, unless you say so. So the purpose is entirely different. Maybe the impact or the appearance [LAUGHS] -
- ends up looking the same, which is why I think your question is so apt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years in Cosmo, she gave advice to millions of women about sex and fashion and careers. What piece of advice do you remember her most for?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: Well, I always remember, and I – I mean, I didn’t use this advice but I will never forget it – she always said that women should shout out when a man is having an organism what they want. And I said, well like what sort of thing? And she said, what you should really always shout is, “Money.”
Because then he will always associate the ultimate in pleasure with you wanting money.
She had a very, I have to say, simplistic view of life. She really did believe that women had wiles and, and had needs, and you just had to put the two together and everything would work out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: My pleasure, really fun talking to you about Helen, I must say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a writer, journalist and founding editor of Ms. Magazine.
[“60 MINUTES” CLIP]:
HELEN GURLEY BROWN: I feel being a sex object is so divine and so wonderful that there is nothing better, that you can be a sex object and you can also be the president of General Motors. I think men are sex objects, and it certainly doesn’t slow you down that women desire you sexually. You’re still able to get on with your work every day.
MORLEY SAFER: You know, I wouldn’t get – be able to get my work done every day if I did what Cosmo expected of me.