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Cosmo icon Helen Gurley Brown dies at 90

11:17 AM, Aug 14, 2012   |    comments
Helen Gurley Brown attends the opening reception for the Israeli Film Festival at the headquarters for the Directors Guild of America February 23, 2006 in New York City. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK -- Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine who invited millions of women to join the sexual revolution, has died. She was 90.

Brown died Monday in New York after a brief hospitalization, Hearst CEO Frank A. Bennack, Jr. said in a statement.

Sex and the Single Girl, her grab-bag book of advice, opinion, and anecdote on why being single shouldn't mean being sexless, made a celebrity of the 40-year-old advertising copywriter in 1962.

Three years later, she was hired by Hearst Magazines to turn around the languishing Cosmopolitan and it became her bully pulpit for the next 32 years.

She said at the outset that her aim was to tell a reader "how to get everything out of life -- the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity -- whatever she is looking at through th glass her nose is pressed against."

"It was a terrific magazine," she said, looking back when she surrendered the editorship of the U.S. edition in 1997. "My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own."

Along the way she added to the language such terms as "Cosmo girl" -- hip, sexy, vivacious and smart -- and "mouseburger," which she coined first in describing herself as a plain and ordinary woman who must work relentlessly to make herself desirable and successful.

She put big-haired, deep-cleavaged beauties photographed by Francesco Scavullo on the magazine's cover, behind teaser titles like "Nothing Fails Like Sex-cess."

Male centerfolds arrived during the 1970s -- actor Bert Reynolds' (modestly) nude pose in 1972 created a sensation -- but departed by the '90s.

Brown and Cosmo were anathema to militant feminists, who staged a sit-in at her office. One of them, Kate Millet, said, "The magazine's reactionary politics were too much to take, especially the man-hunting part. The entire message seemed to be 'seduce your boss, then marry him.'"

Another early critic was Betty Friedan, who dismissed the magazine as "immature teenage-level sexual fantasy" but later came around and said Brown, "in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women."

Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the 2009 biography of Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, a women's studies professor, argued that her message of empowerment made Brown a feminist even if the movement didn't recognize her as such.

There was no disputing that Brown quickly turned a financial turkey into a peacock.

Within four issues, circulation, which had fallen below the 800,000 readers guaranteed to advertisers, was on the rise, even with the newsstand price increasing from 35 cents to 50 and then 60.

Sales grew every year until peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, then slowly leveled off to 2.5 million at $2.95 a copy, where it was when Brown left in 1997. (She stayed on as editor in chief of the magazine's foreign editions.)

An ugly duckling by her own account, Helen Gurley was a child of the Ozarks, born Feb. 18, 1922 in Green Forest, Ark. Growing up in the Depression, she earned pocket money by giving other kids dance lessons.

Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles, where young Helen, acne-ridden and otherwise physically unendowed, graduated as valedictorian of John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939.

All the immediate future held was secretarial work. With typing and shorthand learned at a business college, she went through 18 jobs in seven years at places like the William Morris Agency, the Daily News in Los Angeles and, in 1948, the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. There, when finally given a shot at writing ad copy, she began winning prizes and was hired by Kenyon & Eckhardt, which made her the highest-paid advertising woman on the West Coast.

"I've never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office," she said in 1982. Asked whether that included the boss, she said, "Why discriminate against him?"

Marriage came when she was 37 to twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor turned movie producer, whose credits would include The Sting and Jaws.

They moved to New York after Sex and the Single Girl became one of the top sellers of 1962. Moviemakers bought it for a then-very heft $200,000. Natalie Wood played a character named Helen Gurley Brown who had no resemblance to the original.

(Jocelyn Noveck/USA TODAY)

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