- Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
For those who study women's magazines, a photograph in Bad Girls Go Everywhere is nearly iconic: at sixty-eight years old, a rail-thin Helen Gurley Brown dances what looks like an exuberant Charleston at a party celebrating her twenty-fifth year as editor of Cosmopolitan. The bouffant skirt of Gurley Brown's cocktail dress hits about four inches above her knees. Her face is wrinkle-free; her hair, immaculately coifed. In sharp contrast to her playful energy, her partner—a tuxedoed John Mack Carter, then president of Hearst Magazines—does little more than stand at stiff attention on the dance floor. A "lipstick feminist" whose philosophy celebrated female independence and sexuality long before Carrie Bradshaw clicked down Madison Avenue in her Manolo Blahniks in Sex and the City, Gurley Brown spent thirty-two years as Cosmo's diva-in-residence, advising young women, as a coverline for the February 1997 issue noted, how to get sexier, smarter, thinner, happier, and richer. When she left the magazine in 1997, at Hearst's request, to become editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan International, her celebrated magazine with its sexy cover lines, trademark cleavage, and controversial quizzes ranked sixth in newsstand sales and first in sales on college campuses (xiv).
In Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon offers readers the first full-length biography of the woman behind Cosmopolitan, arguing that Gurley Brown's version of feminism—with its emphasis on woman's sexual power and agency—earns her a place alongside Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan as a "feminist trailblazer" of the so-called second wave (xi). It is not an argument everyone will accept, but in making the case, Scanlon, a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College, draws extensively on Gurley Brown's papers in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, and, in doing so, provides a provocative look at the professional and private lives of one of the most famous editors in history of American magazine publishing.
Born in the tiny Ozarks town of Green Forest, Arkansas, in 1922, the young Helen Gurley moved with her family to a Little Rock suburb when her father won election to the Arkansas legislature. After a tragic elevator accident in which her father was killed, Helen's life with her [End Page 110] mother and sister became considerably more hardscrabble. Struggling financially, with limited opportunities for work during the Great Depression, the family moved to Los Angeles to be near family. There, Helen's sister contracted a case of polio that left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, and there, the family lived in near-poverty (12–13). Out of these early experiences, though, Scanlon argues, Gurley Brown developed her identity as a self-made woman—someone with average looks and some intelligence who used drive, hard work, and determination to become independent and successful. Years later, such an anthem of self-sufficiency would draw millions of women to the pages of Cosmopolitan. Drawing largely from Gurley Brown's own letters and diaries, and on newspaper and magazine clippings in her archives, Scanlon chronicles the celebrated editor's rise from typist at a Los Angeles radio station to secretary at the William Morris Agency and at Foote, Cone & Belding, a Los Angeles advertising firm. The wife of one of the partners at Foote became Gurley's champion and prodded her husband to allow the talented secretary to try copywriting. As a result, Gurley had the opportunity to work on advertising accounts for Catalina swimsuits, Stauffer Home Reducing Plan, Breast o' Chicken, Max Factor makeup, and other products used primarily by women. Devoted to remaining single, Gurley dated widely and had several affairs, though only with successful men of considerable financial means. She married one of those men—David Brown, a recently divorced film studio executive and former magazine editor—in 1959.
For those who study publishing, two sections of the biography will be of most...