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So What Do You Do, Helen Gurley Brown?

The legendary editrix on her storied career, the state of women's magazines, and the reissue of her best-selling book, Sex and the Office.

By Jill Singer - June 15, 2004

Helen Gurley Brown just keeps going. In a recent interview, the 82-year-old self-made American icon—who famously shed her Ozark hillbilly roots, worked her way through more than a dozen offices, and ended up neatly bypassing the editorial masthead to land as Cosmopolitan's editor-in-chief in 1965—all but vows that the Hearst corporation will have to kick her off the scaffolding of its shiny new Eighth Avenue headquarters before she gives up affiliation with the saucy, best-selling women's mag that was her baby for more than 30 years. This is clearly a woman who loves her job.

And why shouldn't she? In her best-selling book, Sex and the Office—which is being reissued by Barricade as a cult classic this month—Brown offers the following assessment of the workplace: "Based on my own observations and experiences in 19 different offices, I'm convinced that offices are sexier than Turkish harems, fraternity house weekends, Hollywood swimming parties, Cary Grant's smile, or the Playboy centerfold."

Sex and the Office was originally published in 1964—just a year after, poet Philip Larkin famously claimed, sex was invented. At the time, it was shocking and, some accused, anti-feminist. It doled out advice on how to dress sexy at the office but still be taken seriously, how to discreetly conduct lunchtime affairs with an officemate, and how to make romantic connections when traveling on business—in a section memorably titled "Plane Talk (Only to Men, Of Course)." Is some of Brown's advice outdated? Well, sure. Pan-Cake makeup and wigs would be considered outré these days, and there's probably not a soul reading who is going to brown-bag it tomorrow with "Nettie's Heavenly Shrimp and Crabmeat Casserole" and "Gladys Lindberg's Soy-Date Muffins." But there is a lot of be-good-at-your-job advice that holds true in any era—after all, she cautions, "few men are attracted to the office birdbrain."

Brown recently spoke to mediabistro.com about her storied career, the state of women's magazines, and, of course, sex and the office.

Don't miss our first-ever mediabistro.com Magazine Editor Hot-or-Not, inspired by Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Office.

Birthdate: February 18, 1922
Hometown: Green Forest, Arkansas
First section of the Sunday Times: "Front page, then maybe the Book Review."

Your ascent to the top has been pretty well documented—it's almost a part of American mythology at this point—but I think people are less aware of what you've been doing since you left Cosmo in the mid-'90s.
I didn't leave. I was only 67 years old, only been doing it for 30 years, but management decided it would be better to have a younger editor—OK, that's reasonable. And at that time, I worked for a wonderful company, the Hearst corporation, and they knew that if I didn't have some kind of job I'd go off a roof or into the river, so they made me editor-in-chief of the international editions of Cosmo. At that time—that was 1996—there were 17 of them; now there are 52 editions of Cosmo all over the world.

I go for the launch, when they start the new editions, and we make a big whoop-dee-doo. I just got back from Sofia, Bulgaria, where we opened the 51st, and then I went to Belgrade, Serbia, where we opened the 52nd. Somebody else does the business arrangements when it's decided that there should be a Cosmo in that country, then I get it started. After the magazine begins, the finished copy comes to my desk every month, and I look at it and tell them where they're going right and where they're going wrong. So I'm kind of a nanny, but it's a fulltime job.

Is there anything you miss about running the American Cosmo?
One misses, perhaps, having a product that you put out yourself every month. It's creating. You decide what will go in it, what you want them to see, what you want them to hear, what you want to tell them, and there it is out on the newsstand selling up a storm. Cosmo was always the number one-selling mag at campus bookstores, and one of the top five-selling mags at the newsstand, a real success. But I'm 82 now, and I doubt I could go on being that good. And Kate White is just fabulous.

Are you still writing?
Yes, I have a book that just went into the bookstores a few weeks ago. It's called Dear Pussycat, and it's a collection of letters that I've written to people through the years. It wasn't my idea to publish it, but St. Martin's thought it would be a good idea so we collected a lot of the letters that I've written to people. It started when I was 15 years old, and I wrote to the president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. I wrote him and I said, "Dear Mr. President, my sister Mary has polio just like you, and I would like it very much if you would write a letter to her. This is her address." And he did. I have that letter framed in the hallway. So, yes, I'll go on writing. I'd do anything to write fiction, only I have no talent.

There have been a few major regime changes at Cosmo since you left. How do you think the magazine today compares with what you created in the '60s?
The magazine under my aegis was not as sexy as it is now. It was the sexiest woman's magazines there was—there wasn't any sex in women's magazines at that time. And everybody copied us and did what we were doing, but even so, I was reasonably conservative. Whereas now, virtually every article in Cosmo has something to do with men and women, and the cover blurbs are highly provocative. There's a lot of "Five Places to Touch Him," or "Twelve Places You Didn't Know You Had." It's a much more sexual creation than under my aegis. They don't do very many general articles about various subjects, but listen, one can not possibly fuss at what they are doing, because they are selling frequently 1.2 million copies at the newsstand. And you just can't fuss about that. The writing is still good, and that's important.

How do you think Cosmo influenced other women's magazines?
I think it influenced them a great deal. At one point, Cosmo was the only women's magazine that had sex, and now every women's magazine has climbed on board so now we don't have sex exclusively any more. Honey, when I wrote Sex and the Single Girl, nobody was talking about female sexuality. It wasn't supposed to exist. You were just supposed to go through with it, rearrange the spice rack in your head and think about what you were going to do tomorrow while you're having sex. I didn't do a big survey; I just wrote about my girlfriends and me, and I knew that we were having a good time. And I suggested that that's something that everybody might think about. If you were having sex you shouldn't feel guilty—you don't have to tell anybody about it, just enjoy it. Therefore, to answer your question very simply, women's magazines were not dealing with sexuality. Women might be having sex when they were married but they weren't supposed to enjoy it. I came along and said it's enjoyable, and a lot of women's magazines have now decided to say the same thing. And it's true.

Do you ever think that the sexual frankness goes too far? Some people worry that it's somewhat shocking for girls to jump right from CosmoGIRL!, which is relatively tame, to Cosmo, which is just so much sexier.
I don't think that it's probably dangerous for the CosmoGIRL! reader to go on and read Cosmo per se. It alarmed me a few years ago that so many women were having sex without real knowledge of how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy. Just piling into bed and getting pregnant. Well that situation has improved considerably in the last years. There are far fewer teenage pregnancies among unmarried women than there were, so that situation is getting better.

When you wrote Sex and the Office, it was unimaginable that a woman could be a man's boss, and now it happens all the time. And you have so much advice on flirting and charming the boss's socks off to get ahead. Do you think the same advice holds true for a man who's trying to get ahead with his female boss?
I never have been able to advise men. I don't think like them, I don't connect with what they need or what they're doing. I'll just say that in the first chapter of the new edition, I mention that women now are working so hard to become what they have become—heads of companies, executive vice presidents—so when you're working that hard to become successful, do you have time to flirt with people who are working with you and for you? I think you can still fit in both situations. As I point out, you spend at least eight hours a day in the office—some of us spend more like 12 hours—and we're doing it on the weekends as well, so it's a shame not to use that arena. If a man is working for a woman, he can use the time to make connections at the office, make connections with the boss if he wants to. But as I said, I'm not advising them, I'm only talking about women

The workplace you describe in your book is so different, though—you talk about having long lunch breaks, hiding bottles of scotch in your drawer, taking naps in the afternoon. Do you think your advice still holds true in today's more strict workplaces? Or are people working too hard?
I certainly can't speak for America, but my personal opinion is that people are not working too hard at their jobs. To be successful in your work is more interesting than just to be a drone. And if you're successful at your job, you will get more money, you will get more recognition, and you will get more respect. Therefore, I would just say categorically that I doubt that people are working too hard at their job, because you're talking here to a woman who works—what's 10 o'clock in the morning to 6:30 at night? That's eight-and-a-half hours at the office every day.

I bring work home without any guilt or anguish, and I work on weekends, but still I have a beloved husband, we go out to see plays, movies, we go out to dinner. Friday night he took me to see Bobby Short at the Carlyle, we had a regular old-fashioned date. I think you can fit it all in if you are well-organized. What has to go is all that shopping and a few girlfriend lunches. But you can still fit in your girlfriends. Sometimes you can ask a girlfriend to come at your office and have a picnic lunch so it only takes an hour, or you can go to her office. You don't really give up anything, as I said, except all that shopping, but catalogs are more efficient these days, I buy almost everything from a catalog. So I think the harder you work, the more you get rewarded, and you can still fit in a loved one, or more than one loved one. A lot of women of course have children, and they're working hard, so they have it all.

Do you think that your books and Cosmo were pushing an idea that a woman's priority in life should be to please the man in her life?
The reason to please the man was to be able to keep the man or possibly to get the man in the first place. So it was rather self-serving, it wasn't just because you're a big altruist. There was motivation there: to please the man might mean that the man could become yours. Another reason for pleasing a man is that you'll have a happier time, you'll have a better marriage. I do a lot of man-pleasing and I've been married for 45 years. My husband frequently likes to read out loud to me, but last time I was so busy I thought I was going to go off the roof. But I thought, well, that pleases him, I need him, I'm the luckiest woman in the world. At my age, there are not any men, and I've got a wonderful man so I'll just shut up and let him read to me. Man-pleasing has to do with keeping your relationship desirable and happy, it also has to do with getting a man to commit to you if he hasn't yet done so.

Can you imagine a time when you don't want to be involved with Cosmo anymore?
Somebody else might make the decision one of these days. I'm trying to be desirable and useful, and the international editions of Cosmo are virtually their biggest moneymaker. So I'm not sure when I might not be working any longer. My husband, David, says that he and I should have retired years ago, but we didn't, and he says that now we missed the boat—we're too old.

Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com. You can buy Sex and the Office at Amazon.com.



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