Sex in the ’60s: Remembering Helen Gurley Brown

Joan Didion reports from Helen Gurley Brown's 'Sex and the Office' book tour in the 1960s.

Helen Gurley Brown

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Helen Gurley Brown

Long before the fictional Carrie Bradshaw began dispensing advice to single young women, there was the real thing: Helen Gurley Brown. Her book Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, earned her a national reputation as a woman who spoke candidly about work and romance. She talked frankly about careers, financial security, style, and sex — particularly sex. Having worked in advertising agencies for years, she knew sex would sell books (or anything else). But she also wrote about sex because she believed it played a part in every other facet of a woman’s life. It could determine her style, her job, and her future — which is why someone needed to start talking openly about sex. Helen Gurley Brown was that woman.

She drew a lot of criticism for writing about sex without shame or subtlety. But she was also attacked for urging women to form a stronger sense of independence in relationships and to embrace their own ambitions.

Writer Joan Didion met Gurley Brown, who was on her 1965 book tour promoting her new title, Sex and the Office. In the Post article, Didion captures the atmosphere of nervous inquiry, speculation, and judgment that accompanied the earliest days of the sexual revolution.

Bosses Make Lousy Lovers

by Joan Didion

“Here’s why I’m on the beeper, Ron,” said the telephone voice on the all-night radio show. It was a woman’s voice, and in it were hints of both the Midwest and hysteria. “I just want to say that this Sex for the Secretary creature—whatever her name is—certainly isn’t contributing anything to the morals in this country. It’s pathetic. Statistics show.”

“It’s Sex and the Office, honey,” said the disc jockey. “That’s the title. By Helen Gurley Brown. Statistics show what?”

“I haven’t got them right here at my fingertips, naturally. But they show.”

“I’d be interested in hearing them. Be constructive, you Night Owls.”

“All right, let’s take one statistic,” the voice said, truculent now. “Maybe I haven’t read the book, but what’s this business she recommends about going out with married men for lunch?”

So it went, from midnight until 5 a.m., interrupted by records and by occasional calls debating whether or not a rattlesnake can swim. For this was Los Angeles, where misinformation about rattlesnakes is a leitmotiv of the insomniac imagination.

Toward 2 p.m. a man from “out Tarzana way” called to protest. “The Night Owls who called earlier must have been thinking about, uh, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or some other book,” he said, “because Helen is one of the few authors trying to tell us what’s really going on. Hefner’s another, and he’s also controversial, working in, uh, another area.”

An old man, after testifying that he “personally” had seen a swimming rattlesnake, in the Delta-Mendota Canal, urged “moderation” on the Helen Gurley Brown question. “We shouldn’t get on the beeper to call things pornographic before we’ve read them,” he complained, pronouncing it porn-ee-o-graphic. “I say, get the book. Give it a chance.”

The original provocateur called back to agree that she would get the book. “And then I’ll burn it,” she added.

“Book burner, eh?” laughed the disc jockey good-naturally.

“I wish they still burned witches,” she hissed.

Helen Gurley Brown

It is Helen Gurley Brown’s peculiar destiny to call forth such voices in the night, every night, somewhere in these United States. There is a sense in which she has found, in the late-night and daytime talk shows, her predestined medium: Girl Talk, Count Marco, Long John Nebel. Through such shows the author of Sex and the Single Girl and Sex and the Office reaches a twilight world of the lonely, the subliterate, the culturally deprived, gets in touch with people whose last contact with the printed and bound word was “Calories Don’t Count.” It is not as remarkable as it might seem that Mrs. Brown should think to pass on to what she calls her “market” the decorating tip that “books say nice things about you and men adore them … fifteen dollars should buy ten to fifteen in a secondhand store.” Her market seems to be composed of people who ordinarily set eyes on a book only when Johnny Carson holds one up.

Through such talk shows she has sold almost two and a half million copies of two books which were largely reviewed only to provide a fixed target for reviewers eager to point up (amid considerable merriment) the superiority of their own perceptions over those of Mrs. Brown. In these phantom encounters with her reviewers, Mrs. Brown always ends up the most attractive figure, if only because her self-appraisal is so engagingly realistic.

“They can’t put me off by hinting I write to make money,” she says. “I love money. And I’m promotable. Some people aren’t. Irving Shulman’s not. People criticize ‘Harlow,’ he gets mad. I’ve never turned down a show, never lost my temper. I do them all, and I’m always Charming’s Mother.”

Charming’s Mother is an appealingly competitive, compulsive, perpetually junior-sized, 42-year-old Cinderella who looks perhaps 10 years younger on television, where, as she discloses in Sex and the Office, she relies upon “padded bra, capped teeth, straightened nose, Pan-Cake, false eyelashes and wig.”

When she was 37 and a copywriter on the Max Factor account at Kenyon and Eckhardt in Los Angeles, she married David Brown, then a story editor at 20th Century-Fox in Los Angeles, now story editor for Paramount in New York, and known to his wife’s invisible friends in radio-TV land as “a dreamboat,” a man who “thinks brainy women are madly sexy,” and a husband who “got the play out of his system in his first two marriages.” Five months after their marriage, Mrs. Brown asked dreamboat to suggest something she might write a book about. Although it sounds apocryphal, what he said was, “Write about what you know about.”

As magnets find true north, Sex and the Single Girl eventually reached Bernard Geis, a publisher who seems to like his authors to fit their typewriter time around The Tonight Show‘s schedule. The rest—the best-seller lists, the foreign editions, the $200,000 sale to Warner Brothers, the spin-off that is Sex and the Office, the contract for three more books—is popular history.

“I was still working then, and it was kind of marvelous at the office,” Mrs. Brown recalls, “because a couple of men who didn’t like me were also writing books, but theirs never got anywhere the way my silly little girlish book did.” To read, after listening to the Night Owls and their soulmates, what the author alternately calls her “silly little girlish books,” her “little pippypoo books,” and her “very sincere little books,” is a curious experience. It is then that you realize that the voices in the night respond not to the books but to some idea of the books, not to Mrs. Brown’s written word but to the calculating provocative voice she has transmitted on more than 300 radio and television shows this past year. She baits, and they bite.
Helen Gurley Brown

They bite at an illusionary lure, for Sex and the Single Girl and Sex and the Office are precisely what Mrs. Brown says they are: very sincere, very girlish and potentially very useful to the young women for whom they were written. As Mrs. Brown herself suggests, the books were meant for neither Radcliffe girls nor editors of Harper’s Bazaar. “I write for the girl who doesn’t have anything going for her,” she repeats as if by rote. “The girl who’s not pretty, who maybe didn’t go to college, who may not even have a decent family background.” In fact the most controversial advice in Sex and the Single Girl is probably a tip to invest only in companies (there is a great deal of financial advice in both books, because “a small portfolio of stocks is sexy”) which “are impervious to bombing.”

Throughout, “sexy” appears in its colloquial, or nonspecific sense; “dressing sexily,” for example, translates sensibly enough as “dressing in the most chic, pleasing, exquisite taste possible.”

Even when she gets down to specifics, Mrs. Brown is forever nudging the reader out of bed and into the kitchenette, where, while her “not-quite-sudden breakfast guest” showers, she can turn her attention to “half-clam, half-tomato juice with a wedge of lemon squeezed in, Omelet Surprise, toast and coffee.”

While this kind of thing may be dismal in the extreme, and reminiscent of the “perennial spinster” Mary McCarthy once described, “whose bed the morning after a sexual adventure will always be made up … while coffee for two drips in the Silex and toast pops out of the electric toaster,” it is scarcely the stuff of controversy. For the rest, the books are a réchauffé of something-for-nothing recipes, unexceptionable grooming tips (“Wear clean lingerie every day”), decorating hints from the same mold (“Mix periods”) and, most importantly, incessant and curiously refreshing exhortations to the reader to stop “being a slug” and get out there and work for what she wants. This monomania for self-improvement is central to both the books and their author. If Mrs. Brown’s success seems sudden, it was still not exactly unanticipated. Although Helen Gurley’s history was, in fact, as unpromising in outline as that of her average reader, a kinship she likes to embroider, there runs through it a thread of old-fashioned ambition so increasingly uncommon that her younger readers will recognize it only from early Joan Crawford movies on the Late Late Show. (Miss Crawford and Mrs. Brown, not incidentally, admire each other extravagantly.) She is the small-town girl who wanted to be the toast of Big Town, a role disappearing with the small towns which bred it.

Born in an Arkansas hill town, raised with her crippled sister on the wrong side of the Los Angeles tracks by a widowed mother, Helen Gurley went to work at 18, “flat-chested, pale, acne-skinned and terrified.” Seventeen jobs and seven years later she was a secretary at Foote, Cone and Belding; another six years and she became a copywriter there; another four, and Kenyon and Eckhardt made her the highest paid advertising woman in Los Angeles.

“About everything I’ve ever done,” she says now, “there’s been somebody mean and envious to say I couldn’t have done it if something. That I never could have been a copywriter if I hadn’t been Don Belding’s secretary. That my books never would have sold if they hadn’t had sex in the title. You just know nothing’s that easy. I tried everything. I used to enter the Lux contests. I’d invest fifteen dollars in soap wrappers and write up all these twenty-five reasons why. Of course, I knew they’d never give it to a Los Angeles copywriter, so I’d mail them to my sister in Shawnee, Okla., and tell her to send them in with a snapshot of herself in her wheelchair.” Characteristically, her memories of an autumn trip to England to promote Sex and the Single Girl have the precise flavor, the almost heartbreaking innocence, of a teen-aged contest entrant’s daydreams: Some day I’ll be rich and famous and have champagne for breakfast and then good-bye Sauk Center, good-bye Little Rock, good-bye C. K. McClatchy High. She talks about “the biggest, best suites” in the “best hotels,” about being on the front pages of the London papers, about having “the best of everything” and about having “important people” waiting to see her; about always having at her chair at dinner a bucket with a bottle of Dom Perignon, “just for me.” Right down to the label, it is a vision which has shimmered through restless hearts straight across the Republic. The best vodka. (“Not just ordinary old vodka, Russian vodka.”) Beluga caviar. (“If you can’t say anything else about it, it’s expensive.”) The charmed attention of the multitudes. (“And people would stop and say aren’t you the lady who wrote that book?”) It is a fairy story, and is told as such. “And there was no competition anywhere, nobody younger or prettier than me, none of those Beverly Hills types, and David was there, and it was heaven, it was a movie.” She pauses, dreamily. “Every single day I was the absolute little princess.”

What is it like to be the little princess, the woman who has fulfilled the whispered promise of her own books and of all the advertisements, the girl to whom things happen? It is hard work.

To talk to Helen Brown in the waning days of the 13-week promotional tour of the United States and England was to talk to a very tired woman indeed, a woman weary of flirting with disc jockeys, tired of parrying insults and charming interviewers and fighting for a five-minute spot here and a guest appearance there, exhausted by writing her syndicated column in airports on typewriters borrowed from her press agents and by waking up in different time zones and by debating, just once more, Helen baby, the proposition “Resolved: Bosses Make Lousy Lovers!”

“I should rest,” she would say doubtfully. “I should get something done to my face.” She kept mentioning her age, and other people’s ages. She had reason to be tired. An average day in Los Angeles, just one city in the 28 she covered in this country, went this way:

9:30 a.m.: Breakfast interview with two editors of a Los Angeles Negro magazine. After boiled eggs, desultory byplay, Mrs. Brown, shedding her chic black jacket to reveal subtle decolletage, declared herself “rabid” on civil rights.

11 a.m.: In Capitol Records Building, Hollywood landmark designed to simulate a stack of records, Mrs. Brown taped a syndicated interview. “Bosses make lousy lovers,” she announced provocatively. In the control room, Skip Ferderber, young press agent from the firm hired by Geis to promote “Sex” in Los Angeles, tried to sell the producer another client, whose gimmick was that he had been Caryl Chessman’s cellmate. “Pencil it in,” said the producer. “OK, OK, ink it.”

12 noon: Mrs. Brown taped a five-minute TV interview. “It’s fun to be a best-selling author!” she said, also that she had written Sex and the Office because offices are the sexiest places in the world.

1:15 p.m.: Another five-minute TV interview. In preliminary discussion, interviewer suggested that they talk about why Sex and the Office had been assigned the Dewey Decimal number reserved for books about prostitution “Great,” Skip Ferderber said approvingly. “Where’d you get that?”

“I think from you, Skip,” he was told. “I think you sent it out.”

1:30 p.m.: Schedule showed a free half hour, which Mrs. Brown improved by dropping into a Hollywood bookstore to thank the owner for keeping her book in the window. “You’re our girl, Helen,” he said fondly.

2 p.m.: Mrs. Brown arrived at KHJTV to make up for a live hour show. “You look tired, honey,” said the interviewer. Abruptly Mrs. Brown looked not only tired but depressed; cheered herself by soliciting advice on false eyelashes from the makeup man, while Skip Ferderber tried to sell Caryl Chessman’s cellmate. “Love him if he’s legit,” he was told. “He’s not legit, you and I are through.” The show began. Viewer called to observe that Mrs. Brown did not seem to have any formal education, and “how stuck on yourself can you be to write a book without any formal education in grammar and all that?” Mrs. Brown smiled wearily and crossed her legs.

5 p.m.: Dabbing on Arpège, Mrs. Brown arrived at KABC-Radio to tape a half hour. “I’d say that bosses make lousy lovers,” she murmured silkily.

8 p.m.: Autograph party at Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. High density of girls with beehive hair, middle-aged ladies in capri pants and, surprisingly, men, although definitely not the kind Mrs. Brown would characterize as “creamy.” Mrs. Brown smiled wanly as she was skewered with a carnation corsage. “You think that’s gonna make you smell any better, you’re wrong,” said a big, short-haired woman, leaning close. She said it several times. Mrs. Brown smiled and signed books. Meanwhile a KNX-radio interviewer talked to buyers. “I am recently widowed and have to go back to work,” explained a young beehive blonde, “which is why I bought Sex and the Office.”

“I’m a widow too,” announced the next interviewee, a Negro girl wearing a Beatle button, “a grass widow. Another gal ran off with my husband while I was studying Beethoven and Bach. For me these books worked miracles. Helped correct my failings as a female—the perfume bit and all.” As the crowd dwindled on that particular evening, Mrs. Brown fingered her wilted corsage and reminded Skip Ferderber that they still had not covered one Los Angeles radio station. He protested that the station would do only a three-minute interview, which would, for a variety of reasons, require several hours to tape. “I do three-minute interviews, Skip,” Mrs. Brown chided gently. “I do everything. Let’s just see if we can’t work it in.”

They did. And it went that way every day for 10 days in Los Angeles, went that way every day for 90 days somewhere on the tour. San Francisco, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Tulsa, Dallas, New York. And 20 more. But perhaps it is most suggestive to consider Helen Gurley Brown as she was in Los Angeles, where the hot Santa Ana winds were blowing off the desert, and where the stars hung low in the subtropical winter night, and where, on all the air waves, there was heard the voice of the contest winner, the girl who got rid of her blemishes, trying to merchandise herself to all the lonely spirits who live in that netherworld where the next voice they hear, and the voice after that, will be, even on the radio, their own. It is a curiously American wavelength.

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  1. Helen Gurley Brown is my cousin. On my mother’s side. I read all her books. She was witty, endearing, and endlessly fascinating. Charming…and just good old girl wisdom. Wish I could emulate her. But…she’s one of a kind. I was privelaged to know her.

  2. great walk down memory lane-learned a lot from the book and the movie was
    one of the first dates with the guy who became my husband!


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