Sex and the Married Man

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

She’s 87, still kicking, and almost certainly still dieting, and the old bird has earned herself a scholarly biography the hard way; if Helen Gurley Brown’s journey from the outhouses and tent revivals of the Ozarks into the cocktail parties and four-color closings of the Hearst Corporation can’t make a corker of a story, nothing can. Bad Girls Go Everywhere, by Jennifer Scanlon, a gender and women’s-studies professor at Bowdoin, is a comprehensive report on HGB theory, which is in a revisionist phase. It rejects the earlier view, long held by giants of the women’s movement such as Gloria Steinem, who believed (per Scanlon) that Brown was a scourge who “enhanced men’s rather than women’s lives by turning women into sexually available playmates.” Instead, we are asked to consider Brown “a pioneer, a founder of the second wave.” Brown “has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism’s emergence and ascendance,” and this book purports to correct the record, telling the true story behind her “very particular and still-relevant brand of feminism.”

The central argument, in précis: second-wave feminism—with its endless reading lists and casually divorced breadwinners, its stridently unshaven armpits and Crock-Pots of greasy coq au vin—was fine for the educated set, the B.A.-in-anthropology, little-bit-of-money-put-aside women who could get themselves master’s degrees in library science, peel off the Playtex 18-Hour Living Girdle one last time, and divest themselves of the whole maddening, saddening, 24-Hour Living Death of mid-century housewifery. But the movement wasn’t much of a starter for the young women of the American steno pool—call them the Seven Thousand Sisters—who barely made it all the way through Doctor Zhivago, let alone The Second Sex, and who, moreover, had no desire to go through life looking like Sasquatch and feeling angry all the time.

For these women, according to Scanlon, it took Helen Gurley Brown and her mass-market publication, Cosmopolitan (a month-by-month expansion of the ideas espoused in her 1962 blockbuster, Sex and the Single Girl), to advance some of the most important tenets of the new feminism: that a woman was entitled to a sexual life of whatever dimensions she chose; that work could be as fulfilling for women as for men; that the postwar American suburb and the role it offered to wives and mothers were spirit-deadening; and that a woman did not need to marry to lead a happy life.

But it is only through a willful misunderstanding of Brown’s life story, and of the premise of the book that made her famous, that anyone could promote the notion that Brown’s work has been dedicated to any cause other than how to win a husband.

Here are the first words of Sex and the Single Girl:

I married for the first time at thirty-seven. I got the man I wanted. It could be construed as something of a miracle considering how old I was and how eligible he was … He was sought after by many a Hollywood starlet as well as some less flamboyant but more deadly types. And I got him! We have two Mercedes-Benzes, one hundred acres of virgin forest near San Francisco, a Mediterranean house overlooking the Pacific, a full-time maid and a good life.

Brown has always embodied the idea that it’s not too late for any woman to find the comfort and protection of marriage. Indeed, the sexy-single-girl life (which she was always seeing in her rearview mirror, as she did not become a national guru until well after she married) was, for her, not an end in itself, but merely the process through which she was able to land her man:

For seventeen years I worked hard to become the kind of woman who might interest him. And when he finally walked into my life I was just worldly enough, relaxed enough, financially secure enough … and adorned with enough glitter to attract him.

Along the way to catching this colossus of manhood, she learned certain of life’s hard lessons for women, and if she dressed them up in the desperate, Blanche DuBois tinsel of her new creation—the single girl—she also told those home truths in the plainest and most haunting way. She didn’t just hint darkly at the possible pitfalls and sorrows of life as a sexually liberated, “all the time in the world” unmarried woman, she told it as it was; that millions of women chose to ignore that part of the message speaks to how deeply they wanted the David Brown at the end of the rainbow.

Brown also reshaped—enduringly, single-handedly—the way magazines and television shows for a female audience conceive of their mission and their scope, which encompasses the frankly titillating and the shockingly clinical, and presents them cheek by jowl. When you watch Oprah—or Dr. Phil or the Today show, or almost any successful work of daytime television for women—when you read any mass-market women’s magazine or listen to a call-in radio show for a female audience, you are experiencing the fruits of her innovations. These involved three distinct but related ideas: that American faith in the power of self-improvement as an animating force in individual lives is so complete that—provided the messenger has enough conviction—almost any bond of propriety can be broken in its name; that instruments of mass culture and entertainment are the most expedient means of conveying public-health information, and that they therefore have a moral imperative to do so; and that, where issues of women’s reproductive health and well-being are concerned, the line between a medical explanation and an essentially obscene exploitation can be reduced to nothing at all.

Born in an Arkansas hollow in 1922, fatherless by 10, Brown was poor—dirt poor—from the get-go, and she was raised by women who tended to step off the road and pee when the urge hit them. Clearly, there is something Appalachian about the easy truck with bodily functions that became so important to Brown’s mission and message. While the Mount Holyoke grads were meeting in embarrassed little encounter groups to discuss possibly putting a mirror down there, Brown was telling her readers to embrace all aspects of their body, including the various functions and products of the alimentary tract.

In another woman, one whose life journey began elsewhere, this might be described as a hard-won, anti-bourgeois earthiness, but Brown never was bourgeois. The central tension of her work, and what has made it such a success, is that her ideas, launched at women who desire to gain or maintain position in the middle-middle class, emanate from the sort of person who gives that group the deepest and most reflexive shudder of all: pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.

Brown’s audacious—and winning—decision was not to hide her past, nor to embrace it, but to feature it as something she had transcended through hard work and almost pathological optimism. She also took an attitude toward men that was 180 degrees from that at the heart of second-wave feminism: she viewed them, not as oppressors to be vanquished, but as resources (economic, sexual, professional) to be tapped.

Brown’s principal obsession was not sex but money, or more precisely the saving of money: thrift at its meanest. Scanlon sees in this relentless focus the classic lines of a Depression childhood. But this Arkansas girlhood was not one marked by the specific privations of a singular event: this was a life in entrenched poverty, the kind that no one sentimentalizes, because to be poor and white in the Jim Crow South was to be so far on the wrong side of anything we hold as ennobling that we look away and leave it unaccounted for in an examination of someone who grew up to be a person of substance. When you advise a woman to dally with men because they might, in exchange, arrange for that woman “to buy everything from electric blankets to hi-fi records wholesale,” then you have violated the signal code of people who were jolted from the middle class in the 1930s: their ardent desire to behave decently because, for a time in their lives, that behavior was all that separated them from the Helen Gurleys of the world.

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.

A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized—in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness—that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn’t right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy’s brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that’s when things fell apart. I’d known the boy well—he had been a student at the school where I taught English—but I hadn’t loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you’ve done that you’re just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it’s the right name for a feeling you’ve had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced—physically forced—to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness.

“You are so hot,” Rielle Hunter said to John Edwards 10 years after he and his wife buried their first boy, and after they had started a new family, and after they had given their all to a presidential campaign—with the personal losses and long separations that come with it—and after Elizabeth had been diagnosed with cancer and undergone a disfiguring surgery and chemotherapy and lost her hair and been handed a recalculated set of odds about her life expectancy with two very small children who needed their mother. “You are so hot,” Rielle Hunter said, because she turned out to be another woman with a cavalier attitude toward wives.

John Edwards—whose intelligence we are supposed to accept as an article of faith—has managed not only to wedge himself between two exceedingly powerful and angry women, but also to have scorned both of them. Nice one, John! On the one hand is his wife, whose suffering might have seemed impossible to multiply, but he found the perfect way; and on the other hand is his (former) mistress, a known hellcat who has been flummoxing boy-men since the ’80s and whose rage over Elizabeth’s book is held in check only (and here I’m admittedly basing my speculation largely on what I’ve come to learn about women’s dreams and desires) by her hankering to live in Tara. Hers is not an intelligence or an ambition difficult to plumb, and her dream is almost certainly to have Elizabeth shuffle off the mortal coil so that she can instate herself in the North Carolina pleasure dome and become the fun, hip, “Being Is Free,” bleached-blond, super open-minded, videographing, Power of Now stepmom, a prospect so hideous that it makes Elizabeth Edwards’s last-chance book tour look like what it is: a desperate attempt to protect her sweet, sad children from the influence of this erstwhile cokehead and present-day weasel after she has died.

But Rielle is cottoning on to the fact that John sees her, not necessarily as the woman who opened him up sexually, but rather as the bad idea that destroyed his career and tarnished everything he loves. If we can trust the National Enquirer—and I sure think we can—Rielle’s so hopping mad she wants to go all paternity-test on John, maybe because she realizes that the golden circle has closed back around the North Carolina mansion, and that she is on the outside.

Now, who—in all the world—could have protected Rielle from this fate, this ignominy? Who could have kept her from becoming a pariah? Why, Helen Gurley Brown, of course! Because she has said over and over again that the one thing you can never do with a married man is fall in love with him.

“A wife, if she is loving and smart, will get her husband back every time,” she wrote more than 40 years ago. “He doesn’t really want her not to. He’s only playing.” And, just as soundly:

It isn’t his wife who doesn’t understand him, it’s his girlfriend. And what she doesn’t understand is how come he doesn’t get a divorce.

It’s simple. Because of the children, because of the community property, and because in many cases he doesn’t really dislike his wife. He may be tired of her and tired of her understanding him perfectly, but basically they are pretty good friends.

Deep within Rielle—this little minx of pleasure and profit—guess what there is? A heart that aches like a woman’s but breaks just like a little girl’s. As Helen knew, and as every woman comes to know, the female heart is a stubborn organ that insists on asserting itself in all sorts of situations, chief among them the sexual. It is very hard to be a single woman of a certain age, to be in a sexual relationship with a man who enchants her, and not to dream a little dream of his turning away from everything else and making a home with her. I don’t imagine that Rielle’s decision to have her baby (whoever the father) came from a strongly pro-life position, or from a plan to jack some cash out of the ambulance chaser. It came, surely, from the powerful emotions that accompany all pregnancies, but especially those that occur in women who probably thought they would never get to have a baby, and who find out, at the 11th hour, that the dream might come true after all, and they might have a home and a child, and (please, God) a husband and father to go with that child. It was a decision that came, at least in part, from the eternal female bad idea, emanating from the eternal female fantasy about men: “A baby will fix this.” Babies never fix things between a man and a woman; they always and only complicate them.

Rielle may have gotten a payout and she may have gotten a late-life baby, but what she has really gotten out of the arrangement—the thing that will stand as her life’s remembered work—is that she brought another woman to her knees: polluted the home in which Elizabeth is raising her children, made her steady approach toward death a time of exquisite anguish and fear, made a mockery of the marriage and home that she tended as a tribute to her late son, Wade. That’s what Rielle has gotten for herself, at the end of the day. And really—didn’t she have a perfect right to it? It’s a free country, after all.

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.
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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  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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