Helen’s Frank Again
THE SETUP: Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo diva and author of seven books, including the groundbreaking Sex and the Single Girl, lays her eighth on unsuspecting readers: I’m Wild Again: Snippets from My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts. In it, the unsinkable Mrs. Brown seeks to shock anyone who thinks a woman pushing eighty doesn’t have a few thoughts about balding (both sexes), bisexuality, cell-phone users and semen facials.
BAUMGARDNER: Three years ago, I interviewed Helen at her Hearst office. She has shiny pink, quilted walls that make you feel like you are within a healthy vagina albeit one with leopard carpets. She wore a short, baby blue lurex dress and had the perkiest, roundest breasts I had ever seen. Her nipples pointed out at me during the interview (which was about feminism and how insecure she was about her looks) and I remember thinking: “This woman is in her seventies and I don’t think she’s wearing a bra.”
The first thing anyone should point out after reading Helen’s book is that the much ballyhooed “confessions” about being a call girl or a kept woman are pumped up on the cover. The hooking consisted of answering an ad for an escort service when she was nineteen and going out on one $5 date it’s true, he smooched her, but I’m not sure that’s quite COYOTE-level sex work. Being a kept woman (not very well-kept, as she writes) was born out of desperation more than anything else. She had to support her mother and her wheelchair-bound sister, Mary. It comes off more as savvy and frugal (and sad) than a capitulation.
No, Helen just knows what will make her sound wild and controversial, when she’s actually a very common-sense gal who hit it big by blabbing the stories most people keep shamefacedly secret. Her tactics in I’m Wild Again are much like they were for Cosmo the heaving bosoms and “there is an imaginary cherry at my lips” pouts of the models on the Scavullo Cosmo covers belied a pretty practical magazine about work and hetero-love and diet.
Which bring us to why I care about Helen and read all of her books and suggested that we write about her in our forthcoming book about feminism. Even though most women don’t consider her a feminist (and we all go through our moments of hating her for encouraging us to use cellulite cream), Helen practices feminism the way many (most?) women do. She believes you should have sex and work hard, and she understands that “coming out” about our fears, embarrassments, shame, failures and taboos strips them of their power. So she talks about getting implants at age seventy-three or so (!) and having a lumpectomy and a hysterectomy and how your hair thins treacherously when you age. (That was the disturbing revelation to me is there a ten step plan to avoid this? Cosmo: Help!)
(To really convey Helen, you have to write in italics like wild and use lots of exclamation points which she does with glee in this book!)
RICHARDS: Helen has always been ahead of the times, and not only in her fashion sense. I agree that she is a feminist, just not in the political sense. You’ll never catch her marching down Fifth Avenue calling for equal pay though if her senator did cross her, he’d surely get a typed letter on her famous pink stationery, or an invitation to dinner. Helen expresses her feminism through unbridled sexuality.
BAUMGARDNER: The thing that is frustrating about Helen, though, is that she never makes moral decisions. Though she’s pro-choice, pro-sex, unflappable about gayness (and has been since her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl), her unflappability doesn’t mean she “gets it,” nor does she want to. Her feminism is all about having more fun and success, never about changing the status quo. You can see why more hardcore political feminists find her annoying.
RICHARDS: She’s doing what she loves to do: making herself pretty and offering advice. I’m discovering that Helen was a precursor to my online advice column, though my questions are more along the lines of “How can I be a feminist?” than “How can I please my lover?” I still stumble on “making nice” to my readers, couching my responses in long explanations. I think I like Helen’s style tell it like it is.
BAUMGARDNER: Her telling could use a little more editing, though. She’s always spiralling into all sorts of tangential information. She’s like Bridget Jones, full of minutiae (she even writes in that truncated, no-articles way).
RICHARDS: Actually, she reminds me of an older woman who is worried about losing her memory and, therefore, challenges herself by remembering every minute detail about a story. But of course that’s all part of her unique style.
BAUMGARDNER: When I read the last line of the book, which is “I love you,” I felt a flash of warmth a sense of awe, and aw, and “ah!” The line was from a letter to a hypothetical daughter, but we’re the daughters of what she has wrought the single girls who have sex and work and are ambitious but love girlie-shit.
I thought, “She’d be a good mom.” Then I looked back at the line before those three words: “Last thing I want you to know, pussycat,” she writes. “Calories count every baby one of the little bastards, in chicken salad and carrot juice as in creme brulée and dark chocolate mints.”
RICHARDS: If she had a real daughter who weighed more than ninety-nine pounds or was a lesbian, it might be a little troublesome. If she were really a mother, we might want to pass on the advice to her that we do in our book: Don’t do as I say, just do as I do.
BAUMGARDNER: It’s true. Helen can be a bad, bad girl. But she’s hard to stay mad at, which I guess she knows when she writes that no one “has been too bad to me. I’m too adorable and basically I know what I’m talking about, at least what’s true for me.”
RICHARDS: Any woman who dedicates a section in her book to telling you that she thinks See’s Candy is the best gift you can send to her isn’t too much of a tigress. If we need anything from her, we’ll have to keep that in mind.
BAUMGARDNER: Oooh, is that being manipulative?
RICHARDS: As Helen would say: Pippy-poo.