No one told me Helen Gurley Brown had died a couple of weeks ago. I am not sure how I missed that. Oddly, she is one of those infamous women who I Google periodically and often checked her images to see how she was keeping up her looks as she aged. It wasn’t pretty and frankly, she was odd looking. sort of all pieced together. But, I think I knew where she was coming from. A desperate attempt to keep up an image of the “The Cosmo Girl” she had created was required, even when there was not a shred of “girl” left in her.
The 1970’s were my apex. I was in my twenties in the 70’s, and I was abloom in all ways. I had graduated from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in Buying and Merchandising. At the time, if you wanted to become “anything” in the fashion industry, this was THEE degree you coveted. That is precisely what I wanted to do in New York City and in the world. Check.
I held a job all through high school and college years beginning, in the children’s wear wholesale district. Although I worked for a depraved, bipolar woman named, Priscilla, I learned important techniques of designing, displaying, selling, and accommodating buyers from large department stores all over the country. Priscilla had us underlings making these tuna salad plates, for the buyers when they would come to “market”. I remember plucking out the white asparagus from a can with my fingers, along with cornichons next to pimento on the side, with a plopped can of white tuna in the middle. We served Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies for dessert with some pink petit fours. None of this was assembled in any sort of sterile way, but then, food in New York, even in some of the best restaurants, never really is. Sanitation Grade standards are different for New Yorkers, I suppose. Anyway, Priscilla would ooze and gush emotion with her customers to the point of making me nauseated. She was a big, boisterous Jewish New Yorker who would effuse this odd, Texas accent of a petite southern belle, when she felt it appropriate. It never was. The firm was Texas based and so this was the connection she made. Buffy and Jody of Family Affair television fame, were dressed in the company’s Betti Terrell clothing which made Priscilla feel like even more of a celebrity. She would have these mood outbursts where she would go from being your biggest fan to acting like she planned to tear you to shreds. It was very scary and very unpredictable. Being as I’d lived with a bipolar mother, working with a bipolar woman was not exactly foreign territory for me.
After my children’s wear foray, I found myself much happier in the accessories industry. All things ethnic were booming, along with bullet belts and Marakesh handbags. I worked in the showroom for Michael Murray Designs and was involved in some of the jewelry, scarf, handbag, and screen-printing creations. The head designer was Larry, a drugged out clone of Stephen Tyler, but he was kind and very talented. He and I put bullet belt samples together until our fingers bled and until we had enough samples for the accessory buyers in Macys, Altmans, Lord and Taylor, Saks, Henri Bendel, Bergodorf, Bloomingdales, and Gimbels. The whole accessory market was a more normal venue and one where I could really learn design and sales in a thriving industry.
Finding my way in the 60’s and 70’s included getting my own apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY. I lived alone in a two family house at the age of 16, before I finished high school and continued to live alone in other apartments in Queens for the next 10 years. I read every fashion magazine and I loved the changes that were happening for women in that turbulent time. Cosmopolitan was the magazine I waited for each month and devoured from cover to cover. The Francesco Scavullo photos on the cover were mesmerizing for me. These were hot models, not celebrities and they were about the same age as me. I too, loved wearing tight clothes, mini skirts, my favorite pair of “see-through pants,” platform shoes, and anything else that was sexy and fashion forward. The articles in Cosmo were racy, but not nearly as they became in later years. They were more typically about “how to hold onto your man” than vivid and detailed descriptions of how to please your man in bed.
So, Helen Gurley Brown became my guru. I hung onto her every word. I loved to listen to her, to emulate her, and to follow her escapades in successful journalism.
She espoused having it all, but not wanting it all—in that, she never wanted kids, just money, success and sex. Although she promoted multiple partners, it seemed she had one solid marriage, to David Brown. So, maybe she was just merchandising an idea or “do what I say, not what I do,” but it sounded so good to me, and it was just where I wanted to go. Although I was a big fan of Gloria Steinem’s and less so of Betty Friedan (just too hard to look at) and a card carrying member of NOW (National Organization of Women)I think I was somewhat torn. I learned to ask that car doors “not be opened for me,” and requested the saleswoman in Macys stop calling me “Dear” (not sure now why this was an issue.) I still adored the mantras of Helen Gurley Brown. I was sort of betwixt and between the glamour-girl-say-yes-to-anything-a-man-asks, and the “Hey, stop whistling at me when I walk by” type. I suspect I was not alone in my yin and yang.
I read “Sex and the Single Girl” from cover to cover. I bought, Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girls Cookbook” and produced nearly every recipe she suggested. There were some for enticing your man and some for getting him to leave as quickly as possible. I remember getting fixated on “Braised Adriatic Green Beans” – oddly nothing remarkable. It was a green bean in olive oil recipe and I actually produced this dish as a centerpiece for a party I threw for New York Hospital’s Gift Shop volunteers and staff. They must have wondered…
I aspired to be, or believe I was, that Cosmo girl and since I had no desire to have children, this fit in well. I followed HGB so closely that in fact, I believe this is the reason I have a hyphenated last name. This of course dates me, since most women do not do that any longer and I often think that I should at least drop the hyphen in the hopes that my age will be slightly less obvious. Even HGB no longer used a hyphen. Of course my wrinkles will continue to give me away.
So speaking of wrinkles, Helen had far less than typical for her age and perky breasts that were uplifted at the age of 72. She lamented “her tummy” in her 80’s and still wore high heels, nearly toppling as she walked. This was a woman who poo pooed Anita Hill’s complaints against Clarence Thomas, saying she should have been “flattered by the flirtations.” She also diminished the dangers of HIV-AIDS and its sexual transmission. She encouraged “having it all” yet really didn’t have it ALL since she avoided having children, saying she just didn’t have the time. She espoused trading sexual favors for material goods and believed that money and power were the goal in all cases. Are these the choices I look up to? Hardly.
I am far, far from my days of being the Cosmo Girl. I married the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful man in the world 34 years ago and have six sons who I adore. I have lost one of my children and feel that to have loved and to have lost in this capacity is the deepest of all possible emotions. I am a woman who works to help other women and cringes from the loss of feminism in many young women who instead embrace the likes of Rhianna, Whitney, or similar airhead celebrities who allow themselves to be used and abused.
But, nevertheless, I learned a lot from Ms. Gurley Brown and I grew when and where I needed to grow. I also gained some cooking skills, which are never a bad thing, though I haven’t tried those Adriatic Green Beans in awhile. Thanks Helen – and at 90 years old, I would say, you did a good job offering another perspective and helping us all sort out just who we wanted to be in an era of great change and curiosity. It was indeed, a learning experience.