Helen Gurley Brown and I had what I’d describe as an epistolary relationship. It existed through letters and memos rather than in-person meetings. And the memos weren’t even to me. They were to her minions at Cosmopolitan magazine, where she served as editor for 32 years, instructing them to tell me how she wanted structured articles I’d been commissioned to write and, once I’d turned in a manuscript, how to change and improve it.
Cosmo helped pay my rent throughout the 1980s and well into the ’90s. I wrote dozens of pieces on subjects ranging from profiles of fashion designer Donna Karan and former Sen. Bill Bradley to celebrity travel pieces about Aspen and the Caesar’s Palace gambling empire to EST—the self-improvement cult known by its marathon workshops and lack of bathroom breaks. I took it undercover.
I was what was described at Cosmo as a “non-emo” as opposed to an “emo” writer. The editors and Ms. Brown herself generated most, if not all, story ideas. They typed them on blue paper—why blue, I have no idea—and placed them in loose-leaf “emo” and “non-emo” binders before writers were invited to visit the Hearst Building on West 57th Street to pick out stories to pursue. “Non-emo(tional)” meant that I was judged capable of producing straightforward, reported pieces about subjects such as the glamor of and the hard work that went into landing a job as a young woman in the Clinton White House (this was before the Monica Lewinsky scandal) or a behind-the-scenes look at the fascinating career of being a talent booker on a late-night talk show—the more fresh celebrity anecdotes the better, Ms. Brown would instruct in her marching orders. I was generally kept away from stories having to do with sex and relationships.
I’ve kept all Ms. Brown’s memos about my work for several reasons. For one, I have a hard time throwing anything out—and when I do, I invariably come to regret it. Second, Helen Gurley Brown, who died Aug. 13 at age 90, was famous. Third, though I didn’t fully grasp it at the time (when I started freelancing in my mid-20s, Cosmo was one of my first, and certainly my best-paying, customer), those memos (usually capitalization- and sometimes punctuation-free), pounded out on the typewriter in her pink silk-walled office, served as a model for the mettle and discipline it takes to succeed in life.
Ms. Brown at the typewriter in her Central Park West apartment in January 1979.
For starters, she was fully in command of her craft; her craft being putting out a magazine that, month after month, attracted millions of women. Like all great editors, she knew exactly what she wanted, knew when she got it—and most importantly knew when she didn’t, but precisely what it would take to make the piece publishable, instructions included.
The way the Cosmo system worked in my era was that you’d turn in a piece and the assigning editor, together with Guy Flatley, Ms. Brown’s second-in-command, would weigh in with opinions on whether the piece was worthy. But that was rarely sufficient, Ms. Brown probably sensing correctly that Barbara Creaturo, my editor, and the soft-spoken Mr. Flatley were on my side.
So she’d send the manuscript to a third editor for her opinion, and sometimes even to a fourth. Finally, she’d synthesize all their comments, the good and the bad, and explain what more needed to be done before the article could be bought. To say you were only as good at Cosmo as your last assignment would be an understatement.
Sometimes, Ms. Brown’s comments were almost as long as the articles themselves. She fretted that the Donna Karan profile, for which I followed the designer around for a season, was too adulatory. “You want to hit her with a ripe tomato because she is so ‘fabulous,'” she wrote. “That is always a problem with celebrity profiles and I don’t mean to throw in any HATE, but she can’t be this wonderful in every single line.”
Nonetheless, she adored the clothes and wanted a quote from a fashion insider about what made them great. “Isn’t there somebody who can say the things i think. i haven’t run into anybody like her except twice in my life—rudi gernreich the first time and calvin klein the second.”
The women’s movement may have criticized Helen Gurley Brown for Cosmo’s emphasis on sex and seduction, but three pages of notes from her that were forwarded to me under “points to cover” for an interview I’d been assigned with Kate Michelman, then the executive director of Naral, the National Abortion Rights Action League, shows her every inch a feminist.
“IMPORTANT: The crux of this whole thing is not that women are for abortion or ‘killing’ but ultimately the decision about what to do with her own body must be HERS—not her and her husband but HERS,” she wrote. “to abrogate this right [would] throw us right back into primitive, old-time thinking that a woman is a vessel—it is a WILD SERIOUS threat to everything we’ve achieved in feminist movement.”
I didn’t cross paths with Ms. Brown that often—her appearances at office Christmas parties were usually brief—though going through my files I discovered more personal letters from her than I thought I’d received: congratulating me on becoming a contributing editor; apologizing for mistaking me for another writer when we ran into each other in the hall; complimenting me on an opinion piece titled “Married Man’s Lament,” in which I floated the idea that one could be happily married and still envy singles on the dating scene.
“The subject has always interested me to the point of obsession—what people are supposed to do to stay faithful,” Ms. Brown wrote.
I even interviewed her once for Cosmo. And though the subject was about as fluffy and self-serving as you can get—what it took to be a Cosmo cover girl—I remember coming away awed by her intelligence and focus. There was no wasted motion. She knew exactly how to get where she was going in the fewest possible steps.
“I think everybody likes to look at a beautiful bosom,” she opined, regarding the magazine’s proclivity for cleavage. “It doesn’t mean that you have to be bosomy to be a wonderful person, but there isn’t any question that anybody likes to look at bosoms—especially women. You compare yours. You don’t necessarily feel envious, but you decide how you stack up against whatever you’re looking at. It’s just a perpetual, perennial, primordial pleasure to look at the bosom. That’s why we have them. We’re not appealing to men. But women like to look at other women.”
“You have to use your own judgment,” she concluded, perhaps in answer to a question about whether she considered deviating from the Cosmo cover formula, if only for a single issue. “Any magazine is usually edited by one person, and that person has to be confident of what he or she is doing. Further, I’ve had lots of years of being proved right. I’ve had the sales success to corroborate my feelings about Cosmo covers.”