Impeccable until the end

Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann remembers Helen Gurley Brown, who died on Monday

I didn’t encounter Helen Gurley Brown, who passed away Monday morning at the age of 90, until she was well into her 80s. I knew who she was, of course. Like all the truly great magazine makers, she had an uncanny ability to project her personality out into the world via a collection of printed and bound pages, and to build a large, enduring constituency around its powerful appeal. When I met her, she was still very much the Helen of legend, undimmed. She went around town in very short skirts and very high heels, called you “pussycat,” and sent out daily barrages of short notes, which even as anonymous emails would have been unmistakably hers, because her voice was so strong and unusual. In those days Helen and her husband, David, spent a good deal of their time traveling around the world to open one or another of the dozens of national editions of Cosmopolitan. There may be no editorial formula that has proved as successfully globalizable as Cosmo’s.

I saw Helen for what turned out to be the last time less than a week ago, when a group of us went to the Hearst tower in Midtown Manhattan—Hearst owns Cosmo, and Helen, as of last week, was still going to an office there every weekday—to show her the plans for the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, which she generously endowed back in February. She was beautifully dressed, alert, and engaged; it’s wonderful that she lived long enough to become a major philanthropist, along with everything else, and to see that an institution that will bear her name and David’s was up and running.

Helen was a classic American success story. A native of small-town Arkansas, with no money and very little formal education, she came to New York and became a successful ad agency copywriter—thanks to Mad Men, we can now appreciate how difficult that was. She met and married David, then published the sensational bestseller Sex and the Single Girl (which, not coincidentally, was published one year before the British poet Philip Larkin declared that sexual intercourse began), then took over the moribund Cosmo and guided it to mega success. For decades there was a hot debate about whether Helen was a feminist—but she never had any doubt that she was on the side of better lives for women, supporting career success, financial independence, and sexual freedom. The more political feminists who were her critics eventually just got worn out from the strain of confronting Helen, and, for the most part, the debate ended in Helen’s favor. In her last years Helen was deeply engaged in devising projects that might help young women to realize their dreams, just a little more easily and a little earlier in life than she had been able to realize hers. No doubt this last project will prove to be as successful as everything else Helen did, though it would take a miracle for it to produce someone whose impact on society is equivalent to hers.

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Nicholas Lemann is Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and a staff writer for The New Yorker Tags: , ,