Journalist Hirshey (We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock, 2001, etc.) presents a deeply researched biography of daring author and hugely influential magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012).
Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and her decadeslong editorship of a seemingly moribund Cosmopolitan magazine starting in 1965 seem easy to dismiss in an era of pervasive feminism beginning around 1970. However, Hirshey convincingly shows how Brown demonstrated some feminist tendencies and was certainly no shallow airhead (a term that fits with some of the informal prose peppered throughout the book). Before the author narrates Brown's unlikely ascension to influence and fame in New York City, she relates remarkable, telling details about her subject's childhood and young adulthood in rural Arkansas and then Los Angeles. After Brown's father died when Helen was 10 years old, her mother, Cleo, became unmoored geographically and unhinged emotionally. As a result, Helen and her older sister had to survive an unstable and sometimes poverty-stricken stretch. “Much of what Helen understood about her people was colored by her mother’s melancholy worldview,” writes Hirshey. In Helen's case, the agony was magnified by an inherent shyness and a terrible extended period of acne, which she believed rendered her physically unattractive. Although she outgrew the acne, she never felt that she was "pretty enough." Nonetheless, through sheer will, Brown succeeded in the advertising world, charted an ambitious social life that included open pursuit of premarital sex, and married late and well. Hirshey vividly relates how her husband, David Brown, parlayed his experience in both publishing and cinema into helping Helen conceive her bestselling books and turn around Cosmopolitan.
Unlike numerous other biographers, Hirshey never falls into the trap of reductionism. Although Brown sometimes presents contradictions that cannot be easily resolved, the author portrays the complexities with skill.