Her eyes are so demurely downcast she can scarcely raise them to acknowledge a compliment. “My outfit?” she whispers at a noontime visitor to her Manhattan office, nervously fingering the Adolfo black knit that swathes her body. “Well, I suppose it’s all right. I mean it should be because these patterned stockings are from Geoffrey Beene. But then”—fingers clutch at her throat—”I don’t know. I mean Estée Lauder says these gold chains are out of style.” The face grows distraught. “Oh, here I go again, criticizing myself when I get praise. Now why do I do that?”
The editor of Cosmopolitan does that because at 60—after a poor childhood in Arkansas, 23 years of obscurity as a secretary and ad agency copywriter in Los Angeles, as well as bouts with dermabrasion, massive dieting, massive exercising and massive success as a writer and movie biggie’s wife—there is still a sizable part of Helen Gurley Brown that believes she is plain and slightly inadequate. That her taut, 5’4″, 105-pound body still isn’t quite right. That the nose she once had (“She keeps a photo of it in her files,” says an ex-Cosmo staffer) might just be the real her. That her no-college education is deficient. That she is not merely tiny but, to use a favorite term, a “mouseburger.”
No matter. Helen’s 66-year-old husband and chief booster, David Brown, who co-produced The Sting, The Su-garland Express and Jaws I and II, says, “I think she’s a classical beauty.” The editor’s friend, gossip columnist Liz Smith, observes, “Helen is a fanatic. The perfection of her body is a form of religious fanaticism. She saw herself as very unattractive and felt she could rise above it.” Pause. “And she did.”
Smith notes that Helen will dine out with pals but have only “a Perrier and a horrifying little fish.” She’ll not only pinch pennies, but has been known to take the untouched wine from a festive lunch table—and the balloons too. Why? Because like Cosmo’s two million readers and the fans of her first smash book, Sex and the Single Girl, and her current autobiographical/inspirational hit, Having it All, Brown knows she didn’t go from poverty to high priestess of passion simply through mouseburgering. She did it, she admits, through shrewd use of self-deprecation and lowered lids, through affairs both good and rotten that have involved married office colleagues (never rule out anyone, she writes, even the boss: “Why discriminate against him?”). But above all, she succeeded through devoted toil.
“One of the things that binds Helen and David is their discipline for work,” says Dick Zanuck, David’s partner in Zanuck/Brown Co. “They don’t have a lot outside their careers. She does not play canasta or lunch with the girls. He does not go fishing.”
Their sports are taking care of each other. Helen has been known to snatch the bread out of David’s mouth in restaurants to keep him at his trim 160 pounds. “I have been a terrific wife,” she likes to say. Each morning, at their triplex on Manhattan’s Central Park West, she weighs David, then fixes his breakfast (bran muffins, juice, scrambled eggs or fish cakes or cereal). When he dares to make his own, she grouches, “You don’t like me today.” She never lets him fret about her. Once, when she was scheduled in advance for a series of operations, she didn’t tell David until “the night before I went into the hospital.” Why should he worry about her for three weeks?
But David manages all their finances (“I have to force Helen to take an interest”) and advises her on running Cosmo—which, after all, he edited from 1949 to 1952. It was he who persuaded her to write Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, and who three years later persuaded the Hearst Corp. that she was just the person to turn the then-failing Cosmo into the manual for anxious, ambitious, man-hunting single women that has made it a success. He guided her in her early days as editor, when, he says, “she was absolutely catatonic” at the idea of running a magazine. He still writes Cosmo’s cover lines.
“My theory is that their marriage is all a fantasy,” says one close friend. “But they believe this fantasy, so it’s the perfect love affair. Some time ago Helen figured out she was supposed to be playacting this perfect marriage—that she was supposed to make David’s breakfast, even though they have help. But it works for them.” They thrive on interdependence. While pulling together Having It All, editor Joni Evans at Simon and Schuster/Linden Press remembers, she’d get calls from both Browns about each other’s ideas. “David’s reading the book now and he says…” or “Helen probably wouldn’t tell you this herself, but she’s a little upset about a certain chapter…”
One chapter that is guaranteed to startle deals bluntly with sex. Brown not only uses four-letter words (with dashes, however), but also bares such intimacies as the fact that her “first attempted assignation was with my own uncle (he was 13, I was 9) in my grandmother’s attic in Osage, Arkansas (only we couldn’t manage anything…).” Her openness doesn’t surprise Cosmo staffers. A former editor recalls that “We have this big book at the magazine for story ideas. Helen used to regularly pencil in her comments, which read like her autobiography—her dream life, her sex life.” Helen sighs that “in Sex and the Single Girl there was not one racy word. I regretted it. In this book I felt I wanted to establish my expertise.”
Feminists may howl, but they’ve howled about Helen Gurley Brown for years. After she turned Cosmo into a loins-and-lingerie hit, Betty Friedan described it as “quite obscene and quite horrible,” monthly embracing “the idea that woman is nothing but a sex object.” Brown replies, “One thing I do quite well is deal with reality.” There are more women than men, she notes, which means that a true mouseburger (who must have a man in her life) has to use tactics that would put a geisha to shame. “If you are a mouseburger you do have to try harder with men,” Brown says. “You can’t not flatter, you can’t not please. Maybe Ursula Andress can be terrible to men, but it is not possible to be a mouseburger and sit back and do nothing.”
She made her big move at 36 in 1958, when, still single, she met David Brown at an L.A. dinner party. Long departed from Cosmo, he was a studio exec at Twentieth Century-Fox, hired by production chief Darryl Zanuck to head the Fox story department. Brown was twice divorced (with one son) and “looking for unconditional love.” As it happened, one of his ladies had brought him to I. Magnin’s fur department, and he had figured out that nothing was unconditional. Helen Gurley’s demands were simpler. He explains, “I had been single two years, two wonderful years. But, after a couple of dates with Helen, she ordered me to drop all my other girlfriends.”
Her recollection differs: “Well, I spotted David one night with this devastating blonde crushed—I mean absolutely crushed—against him. He said it was his accountant. After we were married, I told him to get a new accountant.” Admits David: “I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this marriage.” Helen forced the issue (“I recommend this for anyone who wants to get married”) by telling him she’d never see him again unless they wed. “All right,” he sighed after she disappeared one weekend. “You win.” Their 1959 wedding was small. “I was terrified to tell anyone because I was sure he would call it off,” she says.
David Brown was born on New York’s Long Island, the son of a milk industry executive. His father split when he was 3. Both parents remarried comfortably, and David eventually went to Stanford and the Columbia journalism school. He was 35 when Darryl Zanuck brought him to Fox in 1952. David isn’t sure how his relationship with Helen would have been affected if his movie career had fizzled: “If I had failed, our marriage would have been tough. Helen says she would never have gotten a divorce. But I’m not sure. This is a marriage in which she would rather I be successful than she. It’s the damnedest thing. She’s really a very traditional woman.”
Helen grew up in the Depression in Little Rock. Her father, who worked for the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, died in an elevator accident when she was 10. At 19, her older sister, Mary, was stricken with polio. The meager Gurley finances were drained—along with much of Helen’s natural optimism. “I’m so in the habit of getting everything fixed,” she says. “It frustrates me that we could never get things fixed for Mary. I love her dearly, but there’s no comparison between my life and hers. She’s quite dependent on me. And so I have this built-in sadness and pain. Oceans and oceans of bottomless pain.” That is one reason she goes to a psychiatrist twice a month.
Helen experienced pain of a different sort on Dec. 29, 1970. Dick Zanuck and David were fired as president and executive vice president of Fox, in a corporate upheaval that was said to have been engineered by chairman Darryl Zanuck, Dick’s father, who was himself forced out four months later. Helen decided to call Darryl’s girlfriend and beg her to get him to take Brown back. “I thought David was going to 1) strangle me and 2) have a coronary,” she writes. “He got all blotchy and red and said I was not going to see this woman and I was going to stay out—OUT!—of this affair, did I understand?” She had understood two things. One was that as Cosmo’s savior she’d become famous (“notorious also,” adds David). The other was that David’s ouster, when she was flourishing, was very hard on him.
“David was hurting then,” recalls Dick Zanuck. Brown admits he wasn’t crazy about being known as “Helen Gurley Brown’s husband.” Yet he came perilously close to making that his occupation. After his fall, he says, “I thought of founding a company called Helen Gurley Brown Enterprises, with me at its head. Well, Helen was petrified. She said, ‘You mean the burden will be on me? I will be the star?’ You see, she had never thought of me as an appendage to her. She always saw me as the breadwinner.”
In fairly short order, following a stint at Warner Bros., David and Dick formed their independent production company—and became millionaires, thanks mainly to their Jaws income. But David’s previous distress only reinforced Helen’s deep-rooted passion for security. A former Cosmo managing editor may snipe that she “likes to think of herself as the Boswell of the sexual revolution,” but Brown is far more complicated. Her need for security is unending. No amount of personal success, money or sex has assuaged it. Thus her stinginess: She tries to get dresses wholesale or free, and gifts she can’t use are recycled. Grumbles one ex-employee: “She once got a box of Godiva chocolates with her initials on them, and gave it to a managing editor for Christmas.”
Much of what Helen writes is completely at variance with how she feels. She says, for instance, that affairs with married men are perfectly fine. “And yet,” observes Zanuck, “David is convinced that if Helen caught him having an affair, she’d kill him. I mean really kill him. I think there are two distinct Helens. One is her image of being open and free. The other is the inner Helen—shy, guarded.”
Liz Smith says something similar. “Helen’s whole life is this monument to artifice, yet her friendship is very real. For years I tried to tell her that those girls on Cosmo’s covers look like prostitutes. I recommended using other kinds of women, like Candy Bergen. She’d always say, ‘Oh, Lizzie, you’re probably right. If our circulation goes down I’ll change it.’ Well, she never changed it, and she was right. She has a vision, a simple vision of what the Cosmo Girl should look like.”
That Girl is, basically, the heavenly embodiment of the mouseburger. The Cosmo Girl diets like Helen, starves like Helen, saves like Helen. “And yet Helen has really liberated more women than the women’s movement did,” says Smith. “She told women to go out and work. She put all this rouge on her philosophy, but that obscures its seriousness. She is a real feminist and she should get credit for it.”
So should David. “Helen has me bamboozled,” he says affectionately of their relationship. But her view of marriage, like her view of everything else, has a harder-edged clarity than his. “Oh I’m very faithful to David,” she concedes, “although who knows what would happen if some person pursued you relentlessly and that person happened to be Aly Khan?” Then she shrugs. “The truth is, sex is not the same after the first year. Oh it’s pleasant, all right, but it is not the cliff-hanging variety. However, that’s not a bad price to pay for a good man.”