A Woman Among Mad Men

l jacobsnoel chanyungco A Woman Among Mad MenBad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
By Jennifer Scanlon
Oxford, 270 pages, $27.95

That the first biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of gushing, glossy Cosmopolitan magazine, should be written by one Jennifer Scanlon, professor of gender and women’s studies at Bowdoin College, presents an irresistible, perhaps too-easy contraposition. There is Ms. Brown on the cover, well into her Geritol years: trussed in gold chains and wearing a miniskirt and leopard-printed blouse, back-combed hair and generous daubs of what they used to call rouge. And on the inside back flap: young Ms. Scanlon with a severe brunet bob, square collar and tight little choker necklace that matches her smile. Scholar meets Seductress—it’s a smack-down worthy of The Wrestler.

Alas, Ms. Brown declined to welcome Ms. Scanlon personally into her parlor, to paraphrase the title of her monthly Letter from the Editor (an old-fashioned word for a chamber we inevitably imagine with white shag rug, pink walls and two martinis chilling on a sideboard). And so there is a great authorial rifling through boxfuls of correspondence, and many surely blissful hours reading old periodicals. In these days of a pastel sex toy on every bedside table, Cosmopolitan has become a tired punch line in the sex wars. (A noted rake of my acquaintance speaks with disdain of the appreciative grunts made by his conquests as “so Cosmo.” They’re onto us! That’s what she said!) But Ms. Scanlon convincingly argues that under Ms. Brown’s 32-year reign, the magazine offered truly revolutionary advice for single women who feared they were freaks amid the postwar madness for matrimony. There was also the occasional bam-pow byline (her maiden issue, in 1965, had a short story by the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and a priceless-sounding piece by Oscar Levant: “You Think You’re Neurotic”).

Denied Ms. Brown’s innermost circle, Ms. Scanlon dutifully reconstructs her subject’s miserable childhood (father died in elevator accident, sister contracted polio) and early career, from secretarial school to showbiz to writing advertising copy in Mad Men–esque work environments where men appear bent on chasing pencil-skirt-clad younger women around the filing cabinets 24-7. The attractive but not bombshell Ms. Brown dates “by the dozen” till she meets Hollywood big shot David Brown, with whom, at a wizened 37, she would form one of the glamour industries’ most enduring and enviable-seeming marriages; a business and creative partnership as well as a romantic one.

 

IT WAS HE who encouraged her to write the best-selling Sex and the Single Girl—a frank primer on living well alone that Ms. Scanlon clearly regards as one of the germinal feminist “texts” of the century. She doesn’t quite equate it to A Room of One’s Own, but nonetheless her heroine is firmly “situated,” as the academics like to say, in an feminist trajectory that includes Atomic Age contemporaries Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Julia Child. Only Ms. Brown was richer, skinnier and had a lot more fun.

Or so the reader is forced to surmise. For the lack of a crackling live connection between the two ladies, even on Princess phone, and perhaps compensatory addition of exhaustive cultural analysis, makes for a book about scandal perversely laden with virtue—a book drier than those martinis on the sideboard.

Alexandra Jacobs is editor-at-large of The Observer. She can be reached at ajacobs@observer.com.