It’s been three decades since former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who passed away this week at age 90, first published her treatise suggesting that women could have it all—love, sex and money—and offered possibilities of how to make that happen, and we’re still forever entrenched in a debate over what “it all” means and whether or not it is attainable. Although some of the discourse surrounding the “having it all” debate is problematic, that discourse may not have been possible at all without Brown laying the groundwork. At a time when even uttering the word “sex” on television was verboten, Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl, at the time provocative and polarizing and likely liberating for a number of readers.
Traces of Brown’s cultural impact can be found well outside the pages of Cosmo or the classic film adaptation of Sex and the Single Girl, where Natalie Wood played her. Sex and the City has been called an heir apparent to her landmark book; Matthew Weiner says it has inspired characters and plotlines on Mad Men. Her one-liners have been quoted, parodied and reproduced with ubiquity on t-shirts and Facebook profiles—think of how many tourist items you’ve seen with “Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go to London/Amsterdam/Benidorm/Atlantic City” emblazoned on the front. Her other maxims extolled the values of intellectual stimulation (“Beauty can't amuse you, but brainwork—reading, writing, thinking—can.” ) and hard work (“Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp.”).
Not everyone is or was a fan of her writing or her views, and many conflicting viewpoints exist over her role within the feminist movement, if her work is feminist and what legacy her work left for women, for everyone. But more than anything, she got people to talk. The best writers do.
At any rate, she worked right up until the end, with more than 50 international issues of Cosmopolitan to her name, doing something she loved doing, and we should all be so lucky. Here’s Wood as the iconic editor, alongside Tony Curtis in the film adaptation of Sex and the Single Girl.