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Remembering Helen Gurley Brown

By Emily Cronin

Holding the editorship of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997 made Gurley Brown the most prominent woman on the New York media scene for more than three decades. Through Cosmo and books like Sex and the Single Girl and Having it All, she handed women playbooks for fulfilment on their own terms—professionally, personally, and especially sexually.

'The message was: So you're single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don't just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother,’ she said of Sex and the Single Girl. ‘Don't use men to get what you want in life—get it for yourself.'

The eminently quotable Gurley Brown inspired generations of magazine editors with her blend of candour, grit and humour. 'Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlep,' she said.

Whether Gurley Brown started out as some kind of schlep is open to interpretation. Born in rural Arkansas and raised through the Great Depression, she entered professional life as a secretary. When one of her typing jobs brought her to an advertising agency and she gained the chance to try her hand at copy, her talent was recognised and she quickly rose to the status of the highest-paid woman in advertising on the West Coast.

She married David Brown at age 37 and published Sex when she was 40. Then Hearst came calling, and the rest is history.

ELLE Editor Lorraine Candy, who worked with HGB, as she was known, for three years as editor of British Cosmo, paid tribute the legendary journalist today.

‘HGB was the bravest of all women's magazine editors, tackling subjects like equal pay, maternity rights and a woman's right to a fulfilling sex life long before women's magazines were allowed to mention such subjects. And she tackled them at the highest level of US government personally.

‘She launched Cosmo across the globe—it now has 65 international editions, more than any other title. She was working right up until her illness, going to her leopard-print-filled office in New York to oversee the global brand.

‘I have never met a woman with such spirit, originality and playfulness in the whole of my 30 year career. She was an incredible mentor, friend and inspiration.’

Gurley Brown’s legacy persists in the forthrightness with which women can talk about sex, relationships and what women want. Her point? Give up on being perfect and try the hardest you can, but have fun doing it. That, and this immortal quip: 'Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.'

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