Saturday, 10 August 2013

HELEN GURLEY-BROWN, MORE PEGGY THAN JOAN




Yesterday, the iconic magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown died. She was 90. She'd had a good innings. In fact, if you read her amazing biography, she'd pretty much had two innings. 40 at the start of the sixties she'd already lived a whole life, meeting and marrying her partner for the next fifty years film producer David Brown when she was 37. She then proceeded to live another one. 

She was 43 when she went to Hearst with a proposal for a new radical sort of women's magazine and was made EIC of Cosmopolitan instead, with a brief to remake the ailing literary magazine in her own image. Like it or not, and I know many of you won't, seeing how everyone loves to hate on women's magazines, a phenomenon was born.

Aside from her phenomenal influence on the global magazine industry and women's lives (she coined the now controversial phrase having it all, by which, I would argue, she really meant, having more, aiming higher) I owe Helen a personal debt on two fronts.
Firstly, Cosmo changed my life. Or, more accurately, an article I read in UK Cosmopolitan as a dungareed-and-doc'd student in 1985 did. Back then Cosmo was THE magazine. I and my four flatmates took it in turns to buy it for our flat, then fought over who got to read it first, often resorting to reading bits out loud. But there was an article. I read it. It made me see I was not alone, I was not going mad, that girls like me could and did. 

And secondly, nearly twenty years later, when I could and had, and was Editor of British Cosmo, I met her. I will never forget the first time I saw her. Waiting for me at the end of the corridor as the lift doors opened, Helen Gurley Brown cut the most incredible figure. Daunting, despite her diminutive size – as a comparatively chunky Brit Editor I was constantly worried I might snap her – she was endlessly generous with her time and her experience. (And her money – in January she donated $30million dollars to Stanford and Columbia Universities to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.) Well into her eighties by then, she was still sharp as a tack. I still have her letters, right down to the one she sent me after I wrote to tell her I'd resigned to go to Red. True to style, she was kind and generous to a fault: 'I can't say I'm happy,' she wrote. 'But we all have to make tough decisions about our careers…  we will stay friends.' And we did. That takes some skill. To remain friends with those who leave you.

But Gurley Brown's influence reached far further than me.

Here are just some of the undeniably smart things she said that remain as true today as they were then.

On looks: 'Beauty can't amuse you, but brainwork—reading, writing, thinking—can.'

On hard graft: 'Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp.'

On success: 'My success was not based so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.'

On listening: 'Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody.'

On feminism: 'How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.'

On men: 'Don't use men to get what you want in life – get it for yourself.'

On twitter last night, American writer Emily Nussbaum referenced Mad Men when she said Helen Gurley Brown spoke to and for the Joans of this world. It's true, she did. But her own story is pure Peggy.

(This piece first appeared on my blog on www.redonline.co.uk/blogs, 14th August 2012.)

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