Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and the woman most often credited with building it into an international empire, has died at age 90, according to the magazine's publisher, Hearst Corporation. Brown passed away this morning at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Colombia after a brief hospitalization, but no cause of death has been released yet. “Helen Gurley Brown was an icon. Her formula for honest and straightforward advice about relationships, career and beauty revolutionized the magazine industry,” said Frank A. Bennack, Jr., CEO of Hearst Corporation, in a statement. “She lived every day of her life to the fullest and will always be remembered as the quintessential ‘Cosmo girl.’ She will be greatly missed.”
News of her death follows a lengthy article about the global growth of Cosmo in The New York Times Magazine, which called her the "patron saint" of Cosmopolitan magazine's editorial mission. As recently as January, she donated $30 million to Columbia's J-School and Stanford's engineering school to establish a joint "institute for media innovation." Here's the press release from Hearst:
HELEN GURLEY BROWN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, INTERNATIONAL EDITIONS, COSMOPOLITAN & AUTHOR OF SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, DEAD AT 90
Gurley Brown Redefined Womanhood for Many Women and Built Cosmopolitan Into Global Media Juggernaut
NEW YORK, August 13, 2012 – Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazines’ 64 international editions and one of the world’s most popular and influential editors, died today at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. She was 90.
Widely heralded as a legend, Gurley Brown’s impact on popular culture and society reached around the globe, first with her 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, and then for the more than three decades she put her personal stamp on Cosmopolitan in a way rarely replicated by editors. Under her reign, Cosmopolitan became the bible of “single girls” worldwide and remains the magazine of “fun, fearless, females” to this day.
“Helen Gurley Brown was an icon. Her formula for honest and straightforward advice about relationships, career and beauty revolutionized the magazine industry,” said Frank A. Bennack, Jr., CEO of Hearst Corporation. “She lived every day of her life to the fullest and will always be remembered as the quintessential ‘Cosmo girl.’ She will be greatly missed.”
“Helen was an inspiration, a true success story. Her energy, enthusiasm and true passion for women’s issues unleashed a platform for women worldwide,” said David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines. “She brought the subject that every woman wanted to know about but nobody talked about, to life, literally, in Cosmo’s pages.”
Her and her husband David Brown’s philanthropy also left an indelible mark on journalism: In January, Gurley Brown gave $30 million to Columbia and Stanford Universities. The gift created the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, housed at both Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the School of Engineering at Stanford. The center represents the “increasingly important connection between journalism and technology, bringing the best from the East and West Coasts,” both schools announced. The journalism school said its $18 million share was the largest donation in its 100-year history.
Gurley Brown’s husband, David, who died in 2010, attended both universities and was a movie producer whose films included Jaws, The Sting and The Verdict.
She also gave the papers, notes, and correspondence that document her career—and publishing in the late 20th century—to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The woman who redefined womanhood for many coming of age at that time, was born in Green Forest, Ark., on February 18, 1922, to Ira and Cleo Gurley, both school teachers. The family moved to Little Rock when Ira was elected to the state legislature. He died in an elevator accident when Helen was 10 years old. After trying to support Helen and her older sister Mary in Depression-era Arkansas, Cleo Gurley moved them to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. There, Gurley Brown excelled socially and academically, graduating from high school as class valedictorian.
She spent a year at the Texas State College for Women and returned home to put herself through Woodbury Business College. Her mother and sister, who had contracted polio, depended on her financial support for the rest of their lives. In 1941, with her business degree, Gurley Brown took on a series of secretarial jobs.
She was later to urge her readers to plan their financial lives wisely, writing “Being smart about money is sexy.” A careful spender her whole life, she was said to bring her lunch to work almost every day for the more than 30 years she spent at Hearst.
It was her 17th job, at the advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, that launched her future success. As executive secretary to Don Belding, Gurley Brown’s work ethic and witty notes impressed both her boss and his wife, who suggested she try her hand at writing advertising copy. She proved her talent, winning prizes for her copy. By the late 1950s, she had become the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast and one of the few to be listed in Who’s Who of American Women. (She is also recognized in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in The World, and the World Book of Facts.)
In 1959, at the age of 37, Gurley Brown married Brown, 43, then a film executive at 20th Century Fox Studios, and later an independent producer. During their marriage, Brown was a partner behind many of Gurley Brown’s projects, even writing Cosmo cover lines. It was he who persuaded her to write a book about her life as a single woman. The result, Sex and the Single Girl (1962), took the nation—and then globe—by storm.
On the bestseller lists for more than a year, Sex and the Single Girl has been published in 28 countries and translated into 16 languages. The book encouraged young women to enjoy being single, find fulfillment in work and non-marital relationships with men, and take pleasure in sex. When Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern women’s movement a year later, the two works and their authors helped lead the growing national dialogue about the place of women in society and popular culture. Quick on the stiletto heels of her first success, Gurley Brown wrote the 1964 bestseller, Sex and the Office.
Warner Bros. bought the film rights to Sex and the Single Girl for what was then the highest price ever paid for a non-fiction title. The 1964 film starred Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda.
The Browns then worked together to keep Helen in the public eye. She wrote a syndicated newspaper advice column and made record albums and radio spots. The pair pitched plays, television shows, more books, and new magazines for single women. One, a magazine called Femme, attracted the interest of Hearst Magazines. But instead of a new title, they agreed to let her try to revive Cosmopolitan magazine.
In July 1965, Gurley Brown, the woman who famously said, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere,” officially became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and launched it into publishing history. She was Cosmo’s tireless editor-in-chief, growing the magazine in the 1980s to 300 pages, a third of which were highly lucrative advertisements. Since then, its sales and advertising have risen spectacularly. Today Cosmopolitan is the top-selling young women’s magazines in the world, with 64 international editions and is published in 35 languages and distributed in more than 100 countries. In 1997, Gurley Brown left the flagship magazine to be editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan’s growing international editions.
Gurley Brown’s vision—and spectacular success—was to remodel the then-conservative Cosmopolitan. She once said she accomplished this because, “My success was not based so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.”
She featured sexy cover models, provocative content, and a fresh point of view that appealed to young women. She was a highly visible magazine editor and personality, authoring The Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969) and Sex and the New Single Girl (1971), an updated version of her first book, and making TV show guest appearances. At one point, she was said to be so popular that she was the 10th-most-frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.” In the 1980s, she had a weekly spot on Good Morning America and briefly hosted her own show, A View From Cosmo, on Lifetime.
She and Brown, who were married for 51 years, were anchors in the New York publishing and Hollywood film communities, as he and partner Richard Zanuck produced some of the era’s most memorable movies, among them, Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy. When asked by an interviewer in 2006 to what she attributed her long, happy marriage, Gurley Brown answered, “I married the right man. He is kind, compassionate and generous, not just to me, but to a lot of other people. You need to marry a decent, caring person.”
Named one of the 25 Most Influential Women in the U.S. five times by The World Almanac, Gurley Brown continued to write books, some 11 in all. They include The Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown (1967); the 1982 bestseller, Having It All; The Late Show: A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women over 50 (1993); and a writing guide, The Writer’s Rules: The Power of Positive Prose—How to Create It and Get It Published (1988). Her definitive memoir, I'm Wild Again: Snippets From My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts, was published in 2000. A biography of Gurley Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, by Jennifer Scanlon, was published in 2009.
Just recently, Advertising Age named her among 100 women who have made an impact on advertising during the past century.
For her exemplary contributions to magazine journalism, Gurley Brown was awarded a Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications in 1985. In 1986, the Hearst Corporation established a chair at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in her name, the Helen Gurley Brown Research Professorship.
She was inducted into the Publisher’s Hall of Fame in 1988, taking her place with such publishing originals as Henry Luce, DeWitt Wallace, Harold Ross, and Norman Cousins.
The Magazine Publishers of America honored Helen Gurley Brown with the 1995 Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the magazine publishing industry’s highest honor. Gurley Brown was the first woman recipient. She received the 1996 American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame Award.
When asked in 2006 about the social firestorm called Sex and the Single Girl that ignited her long, iconic editorial career, Gurley Brown explained, “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true—that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
Donations may be made to The Pussycat Foundation, c/o Karen Sanborn, Hearst Corp., 300 W. 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, to fund media innovation at Columbia and Stanford Universities. A fall memorial will be announced at a later date.
Update, 5:25 p.m. EDT: The New York Times' Margalit Fox has an obituary here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.