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July 17, 2016

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An ode to Helen Gurely Brown

HELEN Gurley Brown’s book about lesbians might be the most entertaining nonfiction that never actually got written.

Brown’s proposal for such a book as a follow-up to her 1962 debut advice guide, “Sex and the Single Girl,” is almost a throwaway detail about halfway through “Not Pretty Enough,” Gerri Hirshey’s new biography of the legendary Cosmopolitan magazine editor. It’s just one of many illuminating details uncovered by Hirshey that link Brown to modern conversations about relationships, the workplace, branding, body imagery and the media.

Yes, pussycats, Brown’s lesbian project might have contained egregious factual errors, a questionable focus on pleasing men and cringe-worthy seduction tips. What would a woman notorious for being man-hungry have had to say to or about women who, well, aren’t?

Brown’s sequel ultimately explored more familiar terrain — “Sex and the Office” — that she rehashed again and again in subsequent books and magazine columns. A study of lesbians for a mass-market, mid-1960s readership, though, might have secured more serious consideration for Brown among feminists.

As one of two biographers sifting through Brown’s many contradictions this year, Hirshey argues for Brown’s inclusion in the feminist pantheon alongside such luminaries as Betty Friedan (after all, “Sex and the Single Girl” was published before “The Feminine Mystique”).

With exhaustive research in spite of limitations imposed by Cosmopolitan’s publisher, Hirshey peels back decades of parodies and kitsch to reveal how Brown turned a dying magazine into a cultural juggernaut.

Hirshey dwells on Brown’s fraught relationship with her calamity-prone mother, a woman whose hips were unbalanced from carrying around younger siblings. Yet it’s pride in a self-made woman, not pity for childhood trauma, that Hirshey evokes as she considers the astonishing distance Brown traveled from her Depression-era roots in Arkansas.

For anyone who thinks Brown flirted her way to the top desk at Cosmopolitan, Hirshey has the details of the sexism and double standards that dogged her success.

“Not Pretty Enough” makes clear how Brown worked hard for everything she got (including men).

Think Cosmo and “women’s magazines” are just newsstand candy? Wait until Hirshey lists the now-revered authors hired by Brown to write for her.

Brown’s voice carried discussions about equal pay, women’s health rights and sexual freedoms farther — and more lucratively — into middle America than “serious intellectuals.” She made mistakes and seemed out of touch with the feminists of her era, but she was talking about slut shaming and mantras like “I am enough” long before anyone started communicating with hashtags.

Let’s not be snobs, pussycats. HGB may be feminists’ somewhat tone-deaf, sex-crazed aunt, but Hirshey’s right — she was in the fight, and her legacy deserves serious review.


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