NEW YORK — Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazines’ 64 international editions and one of the world’s most popular and influential editors, died Monday at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. She was 90.
Widely heralded as a legend, Brown’s impact on popular culture and society reached around the globe, first with her 1962 bestseller, “Sex and the Single Girl,” and then for the more than three decades she put her personal stamp on Cosmopolitan in a way rarely replicated by editors. Under her reign, Cosmopolitan became the bible of “single girls” worldwide and remains the magazine of “fun, fearless, females” to this day.
Frank A. Bennack Jr., CEO of Hearst Corporation, said Brown “was an icon. Her formula for honest and straightforward advice about relationships, career and beauty revolutionized the magazine industry.
”She lived every day of her life to the fullest and will always be remembered as the quintessential ‘Cosmo girl.’ She will be greatly missed.”
David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, said, “Helen was an inspiration, a true success story. Her energy, enthusiasm and true passion for women’s issues unleashed a platform for women worldwide. She brought the subject that every woman wanted to know about but nobody talked about, to life, literally, in Cosmo’s pages.”
In January, Brown gave $30 million to Columbia and Stanford universities to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, housed at both Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the School of Engineering at Stanford. The center represents the “increasingly important connection between journalism and technology, bringing the best from the East and West Coasts,” both schools announced. The Columbia journalism school said its $18 million share was the largest donation in its 100-year history.
Brown’s husband, David, who died in 2010, attended both universities and was a movie producer whose films included “Jaws,” “The Sting” and “The Verdict.”
She also gave the papers, notes, and correspondence that document her career — and publishing in the late 20th century — to Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Brown was born in Green Forest, Ark., on Feb. 18, 1922, to Ira and Cleo Gurley, both school teachers. The family moved to Little Rock when Ira was elected to the state Legislature. He died in an elevator accident when Helen was 10 years old.
After trying to support Helen and her older sister Mary in Depression-era Arkansas, Cleo Gurley moved them to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. There, young Helen excelled socially and academically, graduating from high school as class valedictorian.
She spent a year at the Texas State College for Women and returned home to put herself through Woodbury Business College. Her mother and sister, who had contracted polio, depended on her financial support for the rest of their lives. In 1941, with her business degree, Brown took on a series of secretarial jobs.
She was later to urge her readers to plan their financial lives wisely, writing “Being smart about money is sexy.” A careful spender her whole life, she was said to bring her lunch to work almost every day for the more than 30 years she spent at Hearst.
It was her 17th job, at the advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, that launched her future success. As executive secretary to Don Belding, Brown’s work ethic and witty notes impressed both her boss and his wife, who suggested she try her hand at writing advertising copy. She proved her talent, winning prizes for her work. By the late 1950s, she had become the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast and one of the few to be listed in “Who’s Who of American Women.” (She is also recognized in “Who’s Who in America,” “Who’s Who in The World,” and the “World Book of Facts.”)
In 1959, at the age of 37, Helen Gurley married David Brown, 43, then a film executive at 20th Century Fox Studios and later an independent producer. During their marriage, David Brown was a partner behind many of Helen Gurley Brown’s projects, even writing Cosmo cover lines. It was he who persuaded her to write a book about her life as a single woman. The result, “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962), took the nation — and then the globe — by storm.
On the bestseller lists for more than a year, “Sex and the Single Girl” has been published in 28 countries and translated into 16 languages. The book encouraged young women to enjoy being single, find fulfillment in work and non-marital relationships with men, and take pleasure in sex. When Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” ushered in the modern women’s movement a year later, the two works and their authors helped lead the growing national dialogue about the place of women in society and popular culture. Quick on the stiletto heels of her first success, Brown wrote the 1964 bestseller, “Sex and the Office.”
Warner Bros. bought the film rights to “Sex and the Single Girl” for what was then the highest price ever paid for a nonfiction title. The 1964 film starred Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda.
The Browns then worked together to keep Helen in the public eye. She wrote a syndicated newspaper advice column and made record albums and radio spots. The pair pitched plays, television shows, more books, and new magazines for single women. One, a magazine called Femme, attracted the interest of Hearst Magazines. But instead of a new title, they agreed to let her try to revive Cosmopolitan magazine.
In July 1965, Brown, the woman who famously said, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere,” officially became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and launched it into publishing history. She grew the magazine in the 1980s to 300 pages, a third of which were highly lucrative advertisements.
Since then, its sales and advertising have risen spectacularly and, today, Cosmopolitan is the top-selling young-women’s magazines in the world, with 64 international editions published in 35 languages and distributed in more than 100 countries. In 1997, Brown left the flagship magazine to be editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan’s growing international editions.
Brown’s vision was to remodel the then-conservative Cosmopolitan. She once said she accomplished this because “my success was not based so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.”
She featured sexy cover models, provocative content, and a fresh point of view that appealed to young women. She was a highly visible magazine editor and personality, authoring “The Single Girl’s Cookbook” (1969) and “Sex and the New Single Girl” (1971), an updated version of her first book, and making TV show guest appearances. At one point, she was said to be so popular that she was the 10th-most-frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.” In the 1980s, she had a weekly spot on “Good Morning America” and briefly hosted her own show, “A View From Cosmo,” on Lifetime.
She and her husband, who were married for 51 years, were anchors in the New York publishing and Hollywood film communities, as he and partner Richard Zanuck produced some of the era’s most memorable movies, among them “Cocoon” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” When asked by an interviewer in 2006 to what she attributed her long, happy marriage, Helen Gurley Brown answered, “I married the right man. He is kind, compassionate and generous, not just to me, but to a lot of other people. You need to marry a decent, caring person.”
Named one of the 25 Most Influential Women in the U.S. five times by “The World Almanac,” Brown continued to write books, some 11 in all. They include “The Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown” (1967); the 1982 bestseller, “Having It All”; “The Late Show: A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women over 50” (1993); and a writing guide, “The Writer’s Rules: The Power of Positive Prose — How to Create It and Get It Published” (1988). Her definitive memoir, “I’m Wild Again: Snippets From My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts,” was published in 2000.
A biography of Brown, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown,” by Jennifer Scanlon, was published in 2009.
Just recently, Advertising Age named her among 100 women who have made an impact on advertising during the past century.
In 1986, the Hearst Corporation established a chair at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in her name, the Helen Gurley Brown Research Professorship.
She was inducted into the Publisher’s Hall of Fame in 1988, taking her place with such publishing originals as Henry Luce, DeWitt Wallace, Harold Ross, and Norman Cousins.
The Magazine Publishers of America honored Brown with the 1995 Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the magazine publishing industry’s highest honor. Brown was the first female recipient. She received the 1996 American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame Award.
When asked in 2006 about the social firestorm caused by “Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown explained, “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true — that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the Pussycat Foundation, c/o Karen Sanborn, Hearst Corp., 300 W. 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019, to fund media innovation at Columbia and Stanford Universities. A fall memorial will be announced at a later date.