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Bad, Bad Gurley Brown 

America’s Cosmo girl returns to her L.A. roots

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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Photo by Marty Lederhandler/APA YOUNG LATINA WOMAN AND HER THREE SONS stare at the stranger standing on their cracked cement doorstep through the black mesh screen of their security door. Helen Gurley Brown has come home.

"I used to live here," Brown tells the bewildered family in an almost musical whisper. "I'm not dangerous. I'm somewhat well-known."

Brown was raised in Los Angeles, here in this small stucco house near the corner of 59th Street and Western Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles. Today, in town for a big Hollywood event, she has agreed to spend the morning touring the city in which she was raised and lived out her single-girl years before jetting to New York to become a best-selling author and magazine legend. Her driving outfit? A short black dress, fishnet stockings, bright-red lipstick, and pink sponge curlers concealed by a black-and-white polka-dot scarf.

"Will you let me in?" she cajoles. "Just for a minute?"

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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov A quick exchange in Spanish follows, something about how la extranjera isn't going to budge until she gets what she wants. The mother unlocks the door, and Brown heads straight toward a backroom the size of a walk-in closet. It's the bedroom Brown, now 79, shared in the early '40s with her older sister Mary, who was wheelchair-bound by polio. Brown's mother and stepfather, an ice cream vendor, slept in the front. They'd come to Los Angeles from Arkansas seeking a better life.

"Gophers used to tunnel up through the floor," she says, shades of Holly Golightly in her voice. "You could hear the little bastards scratching away. Scratch, scratch, scratch." Brown peers into the kitchen, where a tired-looking, middle-aged man sits drinking a Coca-Cola, then she walks out to the back yard. Standing in calf-high weeds on the hard-packed dirt, she surveys the nearby train tracks. It occurs to me that this might be the ground zero of man-trap feminism.

"As a dating girl, I'd be sitting in the car, necking," she says, "and the railroad would come crashing by. You could practically feel the earth move!"

EARLY ON IN HER EIGHTH BOOK AND FIRST MEMOIR, I'm Wild Again: Snippets From My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts (St. Martin's Press) -- on Page 9, in fact -- Brown describes this humble two-room home as a launching pad of sorts. Here, just out of high school, young Helen Gurley decided to forgo higher education and become the family breadwinner. By day, she worked as a DJ's assistant at KHJ radio; by night, she studied shorthand and typing at Woodbury Business College. Next came 17 lateral moves through the secretarial job market, a renter's tour of Los Angeles, and sex with a lot of men who never popped the question.

Then, at age 37, Brown's life was transformed by her marriage to David Brown, a struggling, already twice-divorced movie producer who would ultimately make his name with The Sting and Jaws. (His most recent success was Chocolat.)

Brown's Los Angeles years were the basis of Sex and the Single Girl, an urban adventure of desperation and gradual self-improvement that became a best-seller, and led to her stewardship as the editor and public face of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1963.

"I've lived all over Los Angeles, and I'm crazy about it," says Brown, who has a way of making even innocuous topics seem ripe with sexual urgency. "You can love two cities! I don't think you have to feel like you're being unfaithful! I've never gotten Los Angeles out of my blood. After all, 1936 to 1963! All those experiences! All those jobs! All those love affairs!"

Note how Brown puts employment before romance. She says that's always how she prioritized the two. "Although I got credit for starting the sexual revolution in magazines," Brown says, "I was never pushing wanton sex. I like to work more than I like to play." Brown, of course, transformed Cosmopolitan from a dying general-interest journal into the most successful women's magazine of its time by speaking to an ignored demographic -- the sexually active, maritally ambitious female work force -- and giving it a name of its own: the Cosmo Girl.

What was Brown's exclamation-point-filled message to her gals? "'Do the best you can! Find something you can do! Have a man in your life!' but also 'Your work is important! Don't get your identity just from being a mother or a wife or a girlfriend!' That was the credo for Cosmo magazine."

In between, though, there was (and still is) a lot of hot-copy mumbo jumbo in Cosmo about snaring a man and determining self-worth through an endless stream of multiple-choice quizzes. On the covers, she put models and celebrities airbrushed to a mannequin finish. No wonder feminists at the time resented her. One radical group, led by Kate Millett, even staged a sit-in in Cosmo's reception area back in 1969, insisting that Brown print a few of their tracts to offset the beauty tips and first-person bad-boyfriend accounts. The way the story goes, Brown refused without a second thought.

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