If you'd asked me before I read her biography, who is Helen Gurley Brown?, about the only thing I would have been able to tell you was that I thought she was connected to the magazine Cosmopolitan in some way.
And that is correct. Now that I have read her biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown (by Gerri Hirshey), I know that she was editor-in-chief of that magazine for more than thirty years, from 1965 to 1997. I further know that she published her bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, when she was forty years old.
And now I know a good deal many other things about her, both tangible and intangible. I only got this book from the library because it got a lot of press attention this summer; I've never been interested in Brown at all.* I learned she had a really tough childhood, in which her father died when she was only ten years old, and in which she had a close but difficult relationship with her mother. I learned she worked a lot of crappy jobs as she tried to earn enough of a living to lift herself and her family (including a sister who suffered from polio and required medical care and help) out of poverty. I learned how she entered into a late(ish) marriage with David Brown, and how the two of them shared both a professional and working bond as well as a loving one. I learned she could be a difficult woman; an extremely driven woman; a painfully frugal woman (even when she had way more than enough money); a stubborn woman.
In short I learned that Helen Gurley Brown was a lot more interesting person than I ever would have thought, if I'd continued only to think of her in terms of her Cosmopolitan legacy. I found it rather hard to put this biography down (although I think I liked the subject matter better than the biographer's writing style), and you know? I kind of ended up liking old Helen.
One of my favorite stories from the book was one about how Nora Ephron interviewed and wrote about her for Esquire:
"Nora Ephron's Esquire article was titled 'If You're a Little Mouseburger, Come with Me. I was a Mouseburger and I Will Help You,' and it stands as the smartest comic/simpatico distillation of HGB's maddening complexities to date...Ephron was a seasoned journalist by then, but she was not prepared for HGB's insistent candor. Helen gave Ephron the name and phone number of a married ad executive she had an affair with during her single years. Ephron interviewed the man, who was still married and was perplexed that Helene would identify him. She judged it too awkward to use in the article.
'I can't believe you gave me his name,'" Ephron told Helen later.
'Oh. Well. Yes.'
Unbidden, Helene also announced to a startled Ephron that she was very good in bed and she liked sex, very much. Ephron served it all up with both glee and deadpan reserve; she had the canny and humane instinct to merely quote Helen at length, and meticulously..." (p. 322.)
I kind of got a kick that she named the married man, and that he was "perplexed" by that. I'll bet!
This is a big and a comprehensive biography, and for the most part it's very readable. But sometimes I found Hirshey's voice a bit overwhelming, as when she told this story about Beverly Johnson's cover shoot:
"And for the models? Beverly Johnson would like to explain how her first Cosmopolitan cover made her a woman. No lie. Listen." (p. 340.) So then the story goes on that the head of Johnson's modeling agency didn't think Cosmo was a good career move, and then you have this: "Johnson, a skinny, brainy African American girl from Buffalo, New York, politely but resolutely got up in Mrs. Ford's business. 'Why not?'" (p. 341.)
"No lie. Listen."? A bit familiar, that. Also: "got up in Mrs. Ford's business"? I don't know. That's all just a bit more casual than I really want my biography writing to be.
But overall? A good story and a singular woman. It's worth a read, if you've got the time (it's nearly 500 pages long, although it's got quite a few pages of notes and index.)
(Oh, and regarding the title of this post? Evidently the title of the book is how Brown thought of herself. Really? She seemed quite attractive; she had a good head for business and advertising; by her own account she loved sex. If this woman isn't "pretty enough" none of the rest of us stand a chance.)
*In fact, the few times I ever read a Cosmo magazine, mainly in high school, I found it boring and actually not as titillating as its cover headlines always seemed to promise.