When Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl first appeared in 1962, it whistled into buttoned-down America like a bombshell: Brown declared that it was okay— even imperative—for unmarried women to have and enjoy a sex life, and that equal rights for women should extend to the bedroom and the workplace. “How dare you?” thundered newspapers, radio hosts, and (mostly male) citizens. But more than two million women bought the book and hailed her as a heroine. Brown was also pilloried as a scarlet woman and a traitor to the women’s movement when she took over the failing Hearst magazine Cosmopolitan and turned it into a fizzy pink guidebook for “do-me” feminism. As the first magazine geared to the rising wave of single working women, it sold wildly. Today, more than 68 million young women worldwide are still reading some form of Helen Gurley Brown’s audacious yet comforting brand of self-help.
“HGB” wasn’t the ideal poster girl for secondwave feminism, but she certainly started the conversation. Brown campaigned for women’s reproductive freedom and advocated skill and “brazenry” both on the job and in the boudoir—along with serial plastic surgery. When she died in 2012, her front-page obituary in The New York Times noted that though she succumbed at ninety, “parts of her were considerably younger.”
Her life story is astonishing, from her roots in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, to her single-girl decade as a Mad Men–era copywriter in Los Angeles, which informed her first bestseller, to her years at the helm of Cosmopolitan. Helen Gurley Brown told her own story many times, but coyly, with plenty of camouflage. Here, for the first time, is the unvarnished and decoded truth about “how she did it”—from her comet-like career to “bagging” her husband of half a century, the movie producer David Brown.
Full of firsthand accounts of HGB from many of her closest friends and rediscovered, little-known interviews with the woman herself, Gerri Hirshey’s Not Pretty Enough is a vital biography that shines new light on the life of one of the most vibrant, vexing, and indelible women of the twentieth century.