She Called Me "Kitten": Remembering Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown
It seemed like Helen Gurley Brown, the famed magazine editor who turned Cosmopolitan into the raciest!, the daringest!, the most fabulously pro-woman/pro-men, pro-men-chasing-women-and-women-chasing-men magazine ever! had figured out how to be ageless, kittenish and fabulous forever. But, alas, time finally won out against the impossibly dynamic Helen, and she passed away today at the ripe young age of 90.
Helen Gurley Brown was one of my childhood and teenage heroes. Much will be argued and debated about whether her brand of fishnet feminism set women free or set them back, but she never represented either pole for me. She Ran A Magazine!, taking over the failing Cosmopolitan a few years after she had penned the 1962 best-seller, "Sex And The Single Girl." (Ironically, she was already married at that point, to David Brown, who would go on to be the hugely successful Hollywood producer of Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, A Few Good Men and more.) She turned the magazine into a powerhouse, putting her very specific stamp on the new generation of young women who were creating the sexual revolution Helen was helping to lead -- albeit in a very different way than other feminist sisters. She had fantastically pithy expressions about how women could have everything they wanted ("love, sex and money" being her favorites), made makeup seem like a transformative tool that would unleash the real me I wanted people to recognize, and made me really know that I had a sexy in me, at the tender age of 14. ("Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere," is one of her famous quotes; there is plenty of fodder if you want to take umbrage at her hyper-feminine feminism.) But way more important than all those delights: She was in charge. I wanted to be the smart girl who wore cool clothes and made people reach for their best selves, in captions and italics and exclamation points and bright colors and all kinds of energy! zipping! off! the! page! And she told me I could be that -- or whatever else it was I wanted to be. And so I went for it.
And lucky me, my dreams came true, and I found my way in the world of magazines, moving up the ladder quickly with determination in my eyes and italics in my blood. Eventually, after editor in chief turns at smaller magazines, I became the editor in chief of Redbook magazine in 2004, a magazine owned by Hearst, the same company that publishes Cosmpolitan.
I was stunned to discover that Helen was still coming to work every single day, even though she was in her 80s. She came through the revolving doors of the Hearst Tower like a queen, assisted by her driver, often wearing fur or fishnets or both. She was a vixen to the end, flirtatious and charming. Once at a companywide executive retreat, a presenter stormed the stage, reeling off statistics about the American population like a color guard. When he finished and asked for questions, Helen stood up from her perch in the front row and shouted, "Could you be a little more dynamic, please?" Classic Helen. You never knew quite what you would get from her in those later years, but you always knew it would be very On Brand. And Helen was indeed a brand before that concept even existed.
She was adamant about not retiring and took her role as the International Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan very seriously, as well as her role as a legend in publishing, and dashed off notes of admiration or support to editors and writers and photographers on a typewriter, which she would then re-read and annotate with !! and underlines and her bold signature, a little shakier, but still as strong and sure as ever.
When the first issue of Redbook that I had overseen was published, I got one of those letters. An envelope came in the interoffice mail, I opened it and pulled out the rich, thick stationery, Cosmopolitan stamped on the envelope's fold. I opened it up and pulled out the letter, typed on a piece of Cosmo notepad paper, the typewriter's letters marching in tight lines across the page, and punctuated with handwritten !!, underlines, and a greeting: "Kitten!" I knew right away who had sent it, and I sat back in my chair, amazed. Helen went on to very kindly and in great detail compliment the changes I'd made to the magazine's look. "Such energy! I love [[underlined twice]] the full-page black and white picture for 'The Moment I Knew I Was Married!' So clever! And the color in the story!! So divine! You must have some kind of a great catch of an art director there!!"
I immediately called in my team so we could all read the letter aloud, to cheers from everyone, and I pinned it up on my bulletin board. The compliments meant a lot to me, but it is the "kitten" that will stay with me forever. When Helen passed me in the hallways of the Hearst Tower she didn't know who I was, but it didn't matter. She had taken the time to do what she had always done best: Encourage women to be bold, to be passionate, to build a career and stand up for themselves, to be strong and solo before tracking down that perfect mate and dragging him into your lady den for conquering. In her mind, there was no better way to be a perfect catch.
Helen, you were an inspiration, an original, a woman of your own making. Thank you for being there and rooting for us all to find the fun, fearless female within.