Sex and the Married Man

How Helen Gurley Brown inspired a generation of home-wreckers, and brought down John Edwards

The road out of Arkansas was hard. As a teenager, Helen moved with her mother, Cleo, and older sister, Mary, to Los Angeles, the land of dreams. But no sooner had they arrived than Mary contracted polio, and these three nearly desperate females in the worst economic disaster in national history lived in the shadow of the Orthopaedic Hospital of Los Angeles. For her part, Helen was cursed (and would forever be physically and emotionally marred) by acne, and that affliction seemed to add to the little family’s sense of terror as much as the polio. “We were just scared,” she remembered.

Twice each week after my mother would take me to the doctor to get all the pustules opened from my terminal acne … she and I would just drive around and cry in our old Pontiac. That was all she and I could think of to do.

They sent Helen to college, but they could afford only one semester, and soon she was back in Los Angeles, taking a “business course” (the typical typing and shorthand classes girls of her station were sent to) and then working “like a wharf-rat” at secretarial jobs, supporting everyone. At her age, working in an office could have been the prelude to a diamond solitaire and a farewell bridal shower, but the acne and the wagonful of baggage (the widowed mother and the crippled sister) were liabilities she could not overcome. She became, instead, a round-heels, a bawdy creature who was available to be kept, if the price was right—even if the sex was dreary, or worse—and who had no problem asking her lovers for cash gifts instead of trinkets.

There is no better place on Earth to live (or die) by your wits than Los Angeles, and Helen’s secretarial jobs led her to Foote, Cone & Belding’s downtown offices (cf. Peggy Olson in Mad Men). One night, when all the other office girls headed off to yet another bridal shower (one to which Helen had pointedly not been invited), she stayed late in a fit of “I’ll show them” and pounded out an essay for a Glamour magazine contest; she won a fabulous all-expenses-paid trip to Honolulu. When she came back to the office, she had a new sense of her powers. She eventually landed a job as a copywriter and inched her way up the ladder, until she was paid more than many men at the firm. Copywriting, essentially, would become her life’s work.

And then, just as the clock was striking midnight, the hand of God. At 35, she met David Brown, a Hollywood producer nursing himself through a second divorce on a diet of starlets. Helen moved into an apartment near his house and waited him out. After two years, they married and fell into the kind of companionable, happy domestic partnership that a worldly man of 43—one whose pleasures have begun to center more on the Sunday walk through Will Rogers Park and the early dinner followed by a confection of No-Cal orange soda and ice milk for dessert than on the relentless pursuit of sexual innovation—can find in a woman a few years his junior and no longer hoping to have children.

One weekend when she was out of town visiting family in Arkansas, something happened that fell along almost mythic lines. Poking around in her papers, he came across a cache of love letters between Helen and a married man she had once met on an airplane. The letters excited David, who must have read them the way spouses always read such things: with guilt for prying into something private, a sense of betrayal at not really being the first—as one is always assured—to have tendered such deep emotions, and a new titillating regard for a person who can seem, at times, like a roommate.

When Helen came home, he had a plan: she would write a book, based on her days entertaining so many men, some married, some not. It was a project through which the aging lovers would excite one another. David came up with the title, the outline, and the publisher (the redoubtable Bernard Geis, who would later make a cultural icon of Jacqueline Susann), and he envisioned her, from the beginning, not as a writer, per se, but as a “spokesperson.”

For all the unclaimed treasures of the workaday world (Bertha in Accounting, with the hair on her chin; Dolores in Typing, with the illegitimate son; Wanda the clerk, with the lift in one shoe), Helen Gurley Brown invented a new identity, created a category into which millions of them happily shuffled themselves. Spinsters no more! They were—as one—“the single girl,” and they were emerging as “the newest glamour girl of our times.”

But first Bertha was going to have to pluck that hair and pare off the extra pounds. And she would have to redecorate her apartment so that it was a little mantrap, stocked with her man’s favorite booze and a big thirsty bath sheet for him. The bathroom should also offer two fresh cigarettes, an ashtray, and a book of matches. Indeed, Bertha was going to have to open herself up to a nonstop, multicategory, fire-hose stream of advice from the queen of the single girls. Want to give your man a nice hors d’oeuvre with his after-work drink? “Rosa Rita frozen cocktail tacos are delicious.” Thinking of buying a wig? Contact “Gilbert’s House of Charm, 1105 Glendon Avenue, West Los Angeles, California.”

And then, two tricky bits. First, Bertha was going to have to turn her “job” into a “career.” Just as Helen had taken her secretarial position by the horns and become the top female copywriter on the Coast, so would Bertha take that job in Accounts Payable and … well, blur that for now! Magazines sell dreams, and the one that Sex and the Single Girl and Cosmopolitan were selling in the ’60s was that pink-collar jobs in the pre-computer office world could be a rung on a ladder, when they were in fact a little stepladder all their own, leading nowhere. True, a few secretaries parlayed typing and dictation into a glamour job, and some even married their bosses. But undoubtedly more ended up as the Miss Moneypennys of the world, forever swooning over their dashing executives but going home to their studio apartments to feed the cat and tuck the $5 bill into the niece’s graduation card.

Now that Bertha had retooled herself and her apartment, she had to go about catching herself a man, but—here’s the sleight of hand—she shouldn’t think that any one man was the man. The place to start was with the married men at work, the ones Bertha had never taken notice of before, because she hadn’t thought of them as “eligible”—which, strictly speaking, they weren’t, but they were the shimmery lure on the water’s surface. Does a David Brown want to catch a steno-pad lonely heart or a happy-hour sex kitten who can hardly fit him onto her dance card?

Unlike those elusive bachelors, no one could be easier to land than a married man—it turned out that the loathsome job in Accounting wasn’t the problem, but the solution:

You’ve been properly introduced. He can’t suspect you’re chasing him because you both attend the same staff meetings. You’re free to lower the boom as unobtrusively as Lucrezia Borgia.

As Scanlon aptly notes, Brown “appointed not predatory or non-committal men but married women as the sorry counterpoint to her sexy girls.” For the reader with moral qualms? “I’m afraid I have a cavalier attitude about wives,” Brown announced from the outset of her public life. To Scanlon—whose besotted encomium may constitute Brown’s final caress in this vale of tears—the attitude amounts to “she who keeps the man happy keeps the man,” a point of view the biographer hails, several times, as being fundamentally “libertarian.” By this, she means that when two women bid for a man, no advantage shall be given to the one who might have children with him, or an economic dependency built upon their marriage. There is only the marketplace of feminine wiles, in which a concubine’s feigned interest in a man’s workday trumps a wife’s quiet plea for help around the house, in which young is better than old and new is more exciting than familiar.

But “keeping the man”—that’s the place where Helen’s logic faltered, and where (if you read her work for the home truths and not the swizzle-stick suggestions) she had to admit that a single girl was always putting herself in grave emotional jeopardy.

Like millions of other women, I have always liked Elizabeth Edwards; in fact, I’ve had kind of a girl crush on her for years. She carries herself in such a graceful way, and she is one of those rare people whose good qualities are amplified rather than diminished by television. She’s what you’re supposed to be when you grow up: so comfortable with her intelligence and her position that she wears both lightly, appealingly. “Pretty is as pretty does,” my father used to tell me endlessly, and sometimes when I’m watching her and thinking how pretty she is despite the years and the “chubbiness” she scolds herself for, I have to wonder if perhaps this is the truth of that old maxim: maybe she’s just such a lovely person that she is transfigured by it.

On the other hand—and again, this is a reflexive judgment, based on nothing more (or less) significant than television appearances—there is John Edwards. Obviously vain, stupendously wealthy from his career as a personal-injury lawyer, the kind of educated southerner who drops his gs when the crowd seems common and then whips out the Queen’s English when the company is elevated, spanked soundly by Dick Cheney (Dick Cheney!) during a vice-presidential debate that was supposed to show off the terrifying intelligence that resided just beneath the foppish do (he has spent his life looking like a kid just on the verge of getting his first big-boy haircut), wont to describe his childhood as a North Carolina mill worker’s son with such bathos that you would have thought he’d survived the Holocaust—he was the kind of guy who would have been a fantastic host of a local news show, or the headmaster of a regionally impressive prep school, or, well, a personal-injury lawyer. But there he was, shooting for president, and the reason you had to take him seriously, the reason you figured there was something more to him than met the eye, was that he had this phenomenal wife. And she loved him so much. Every time he took the microphone in his Brooks Brothers shirtsleeves and talked about poverty (a passion that really took off for him when he was overseeing the construction of his 28,000-square-foot mansion) you cooled on him, but every time she stepped up to bat cleanup, you decided to give him a second look. And then there was the fact of their son Wade, who died at 16, and the truth that somehow the two of them had survived that loss together, not overcoming it, but incorporating it into new life and new purpose. To do that, they had to be made of something strong, exceptional.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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