The ultimate “single girl,” Helen Gurley Brown, died August 13 in New York City. She was 90. A native of Green Forest, Arkansas, Brown worked for the William Morris Agency and Music Corporation of America, before shocking America in 1962 with her book Sex and the Single Girl, which revealed a then-little known secret: unmarried women had sex and actually enjoyed it. Although it upset the staid American morality mavens of the time, it proved wildly successful; remaining on best-seller lists for over a year and essentially ushering in the contemporary women’s rights movement. Brown is also known for her lengthy tenure at Cosmopolitan magazine where she served as editor from 1965 to 1997. Her other books include Sex and the Office (1964), Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969), Sex and the New Single Girl (1970) and The Late Show: A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50 (1993).
Tiny and fragile-looking, Brown admitted that she’d used older, often-married men for sex as a means of survival in her young adulthood. It’s perhaps these experiences that prompted her frankness with Cosmopolitan, which – under her guidance – became a completely women’s periodical; one not concerned with creating the perfect meal or raising perfect children. Brown, who called herself a feminist, made women realize they could enjoy life as much as men and didn’t have to settle down with the first man they met. She made women’s singlehood fashionable. The so-called “Cosmo Girl” was independent and sensual in her own right.
“My own philosophy is, if you’re not having sex,” she once told an interviewer, “you’re finished. It separates the girls from the old people.”
Shortly before Sex and the Single Girl was published, Brown received a telegram from her mother about the book: “dear helen, if you move very quickly, i think we can stop publication of the book.”
Sometimes, it’s okay to ignore your mother’s advice.