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Still, in a famous 1970 Esquire profile, then-journalist Nora Ephron depicted Brown as less than a tough customer. Throughout the piece, whenever Brown is vilified on a talk show, she sobs and sobs afterward. Wrote Ephron, "She cries all the time because people don't understand her . . . They don't understand what she is trying to do. They don't understand that she knows something they don't know. She knows about the secretaries, the nurses, the telephone-company clerks who live out there somewhere, miles from psychiatrists, plastic surgeons and birth-control clinics."
And, for better or worse, much of what you see on the newsstand today reflects Brown's canny sense of the women who sought guidance from her magazine. Hers was a formula destined to be copied by Glamour, Self, Mademoiselle et cetera. And an issue of Cosmo from 10 years ago doesn't look all that different from the one at the checkout counter today ("The Hottest Thing You Can Do With a Man When You Only Have 10 Minutes"). It was Brown, after all, who pioneered this practice of enticing readers with racy blurbs such as "Can You REALLY Fake an Orgasm?" and "How To Increase the Size of Your Bust."
Beyond the cover lines, however, Brown's own life showed women that you can come from nothing, just like her, and find your true calling, even at age 43. "We were such a pitiful little trio, my sister, my mother and me," Brown says. "I just feel, from that little house on 59th Street, I did pretty good. And I feel anybody else can do the same thing. I've come a long way, baby!"
Ephron thinks Brown's success is inextricably tied to her upbringing. "Her Dickensian image of her childhood has sustained her in some really deep way," she said by phone recently. "There she is, in one of the greatest apartments in New York" -- four stories on Central Park West -- "worth enough money that she never has to take public transportation ever again, and Liz Smith always talks about the fact that you practically have to bang her over the head to get her into a taxi rather than take a bus."
TODAY, SHE IS BEING CHAUFFEURED AROUND LOS Angeles in a borrowed Jeep Cherokee, but she isn't having much luck locating her old single-girl pads. Gone is the raspberry-colored apartment building at Bonnie Brae and Third streets, where she kept the telephone in the refrigerator on Friday and Saturday nights (so she wouldn't be compelled to answer it and reveal to her beaux that she was home alone). Nothing looks familiar to her on Elm Street near Wilshire Boulevard, where Brown shared a two-bedroom place with a pair of girlfriends and occasionally camped out in the living room. And who knows what happened to the furnished flat with the Murphy bed and no kitchen on South Curson Avenue, between Sixth Street and Wilshire? "I think I gave you a bum steer," Brown apologizes, deciding that this particular love nest may actually have been on an adjacent block. Or maybe she has purposely erased the memory. In a key section of I'm Wild Again, Brown shares her depressing reason for moving to this part of the WilshireÂLa Brea district: It was a failed and, ultimately, seamy experiment in being a kept girl -- with a keeper who was married, an anti-Semite and an incompetent lover, and who never forked over the big bucks anyway. "I thought I'd get it all over with, get a lot of money together, and I'd never have to worry again. But it didn't work out," Brown says, shrugging her shoulders. "He got what he came for, which was my little body. But I didn't get the money, and I didn't get him." For the next couple of miles, Brown looks out the car window as she talks, watching Wilshire Boulevard whiz by, maybe wondering if there is anything left of the Los Angeles of her youth. Suddenly, she spots two landmarks that elicit a sustained squeal of delight. "Saks Fifth Avenue! I. Magnin!" she says, girlishly clapping her hands over the department stores where she made a regular habit of trying on fabulous clothes she thought she could never afford. "My playpens!"
Experiments with being kept? Designer-clothes obsessions? Keeping your telephone in the refrigerator? Half the time, Brown comes off like a '40s version of a Sex and the City character. One could even theorize that the series has a direct link to Brown's iconic existence. What does she think of the show? For a few minutes, Brown is silent. Then, she says, "They're Cosmo girls -- their work is just as important as love." The HBO series, she continues, is "beautifully done." Except for one thing: She isn't sure the bawdy dialogue has the ring of authenticity. "They're so explicit about penis sizes! I just don't know that when women get together they're that detailed about what they did the evening before!"
Sometimes, in conversation, Brown uses a throwback word ("happening" is her favorite euphemism for sex, which conjures visions less of boot-knocking than of strobe lights, body paint and freeform dancing). But her social observations and freely offered relationship advice sound at least on par with the distilled pronouncements you read in Cosmo and other women's magazines today. Still, in 1997, the Hearst Corp., publisher of Cosmopolitan, asked Brown to step aside so it could replace her with a new, younger editor. For the most part, she's been a good sport publicly about her forced retirement, which must have really stung. The only disappointment she admits to now was being unable to persuade Antonio Banderas to be the pinup boy (Ă la Burt Reynolds' much-talked-about 1972 nude Cosmo centerfold) of a special goodbye-to-Helen issue in February 1997. In his place, she got Patrick Muldoon, the guy who played evil hunk Richard Hart on Melrose Place. "He isn't even naked -- he's wearing a shirt," Brown says ruefully. "He was supposed to become a big star, but he never did. So I feel that in my last issue of Cosmo, I failed in terms of male pulchritude. But it's not that I didn't try."