The writer and editor broke taboo by encouraging women in the 1960s to take pleasure in sex – on the eve of her 96th birthday, we recall her best advice
“Perhaps you will reconsider the idea that sex without marriage is dirty…” Helen Gurley Brown, the writer and long-standing Cosmopolitan editor wrote in her seminal 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. Gurley Brown urged the modern American woman to have high career ambitions, gain financial independence and enjoy sex for pleasure above all else.
On the surface Gurley Brown looked like any other Upper-East-Sider. She wore strings of pearls, sported an impeccable blow dry, and was always on an ill-advised diet. But she was also known for her non-squeamish sexual openness, which would go on to shape Cosmopolitan magazine’s distinct peppy tone. Along with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, her contribution to helping to relax the 1960s cultural mindset towards sex outside of marriage was significant – both were vocal advocates of access to contraception and legal abortion. She and was later known for coining that contentious term: “having it all”.
She was a complex figure, and in later years failed to catch up with progressive, or just plain decent views around holding men accountable to sexual harassment – something that cost her her editorship after 32 years at the helm. However, as the New York Times points out, with Cosmopolitan she had also “disseminated feminist messages to a working-class audience whom the canonical front of the women’s movement didn’t reach.”
Today, we like to take her aphorisms with a pinch of salt – but there’s no denying that she was a wit, whose advice varied from heavy on shade to genuinely iconic. And after all, she reinvented female “singledom” as something to be celebrated rather than feared. “One way to spend a Saturday night alone,” she suggested in her book Helen Gurley Brown’s Outrageous Opinions, “is to put on some records – jazz, classical or cha cha cha – pull down the shades and dance naked for a couple of hours.” If that isn’t wisdom to live by, we don’t know what is.
- “Whatever you feel you look nice in is what you probably ought to be wearing, provided it isn’t slashed to the navel or dripping with lace.”
- “Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody.”
- “All love isn’t romantic; you can love many people.”
- “Being snotty with people under you is idiocy.”
- “Don’t worry about vulnerability. You can and will hurt many times, but the hurt can’t really hurt you. Getting behind the hurt, using it to ‘power’ you to your next project can even make you more successful.”
- “Money, if it does not bring you happiness, will at least help you be miserable in comfort.”
- “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
- “It doesn’t matter where you start or with what company; what matters is starting – and hanging in.”
- “Some people’s love affairs consist of movies, pizza and one more rerun of great moments in basketball. That’s okay, love is love, but sometime in your beautiful young life I hope you have it with all the trimmings.”
- “So much for princesses being happy just begetting little princelings and playing palace.”