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Hills Like White Elephants

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Jennifer-scanlon-bad-girls-go-everywhere Before Mary Richards and Ann Marie (of That Girl fame), before Gloria Steinem and Candace Bushnell, there was a different sort of champion for the single girl: Helen Gurley Brown.

You may know her as the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, but as Jennifer Scanlon recounts in her very entertaining biography of HGB, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, she's also a prolific writer, media maven, and feminist (of sorts) that was way ahead of her time.

I picked up Scanlon's book after reading about it in my college alumni newsletter (Scanlon is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College), thinking it would be a fun, "Summer" read. What surprised me was that it was much more academic in nature - providing fascinating insights into both gender roles, the media landscape, and pop culture in the 1960s - but still eminently readable, like one of Carrie Bradshaw's columns.

What I found so interesting:

  • The paperback wasn't introduced until 1939. Before that, few people owned books, as hard covers were too expensive. The paperback democratized reading in America! I'm now interested to read another book Scanlon cites in her notes, Two Bit Culture: the Paperbacking of America.
  • Helen Gurley came from humble beginnings in Arkansas, which taught her to live frugally and use her - ahem - feminine wiles to get what she wanted in life. She was (and is) a huge advocate for working, independent women.
  • She spent years as a secretary (one of the few professional roles available to women in the 1950s) before her employer at ad shop Foote Cone Belding noticed her writing skills an made her an advertising copywriter. 
  • She played the field for years, celebrating her singledom and advocating for other women to follow suit. It was not until she was 38 (a dinosaur back in the 60s!) that she decided to find a husband...and she did so, in a very matter-of-fact way, by meeting and marrying successful film producer (and twice-divorced) David Brown.
  • David is another fascinating character - he is the producer behind such hit films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, M.A.S.H., Jaws, Cocoon, A Few Good Men, and Driving Miss Daisy. The idea for Jaws actually came to him via HGB - a Cosmo reader submitted the story idea to her, she passed it on the David, he read Peter Benchley's book and then secured the movie rights.
  • David encouraged HGB's writing, and made all the right introductions for her in Hollywood. In 1962 she published the wildly successful (and controversial) Sex and the Single Girl, the precursor to our modern day Sex and the City. In fact, she wrote a monthly column called Step into my Parlor just as Candace Bushnell would years later.
  • Besides numerous books, HGB also penned several reality TV show ideas that were eerily similar to current-day programming. In one, celebrity chefs face off with a list of ingredients to see who can prepare the best meals; in another, celebrities weigh in on everyday-peoples' marital problems. Sound familiar?? While these sorts of shows are a dime a dozen today, they were considered uncomfortable material for television viewers in the 1960s. Basically, if a show didn't depict a Happy-Days-like nuclear family, it didn't air. There was even some controversy when real-life loves Lucy & Desi Arnaz filed for divorce and would no longer work together on the I Love Lucy show: rather than portray Lucy as a divorcee in later episodes (socially unacceptable!) they chose to make her a widow.

Although HGB no longer mans the helm at Cosmo, she was named the 13th most powerful American over the age of 80 by Slate magazine. Her beloved David died earlier this year at age 93, but Helen is still going strong at 88.


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