Helen Gurley Brown: Hugh Hefner and Erica Jong Remember Her Life and Work

Erica Jong Hugh Hefner Split - H 2012
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The Playboy founder and the "Fear of Flying" author recall the work of the legendary Cosmo editor, who died Aug. 13 at age 90.

Helen Gurley Brown, the pioneering author of Sex and the Single Girl, the 1962 book which scandalized America with its stories of women having sex before marriage, and the founder of Cosmo magazine, died Monday at age 90. 

Two of her friends, who also helped change America’s view of sex, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the influence of her life and work. 

Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine in 1953, spurring on the sexual revolution. Erica Jong coined the term “zipless f---” in Fear of Flying, her controversial 1973 novel about sex and relationships, and went on to become one of America’s most noted writers about sex.

Hugh Hefner

What is not well known is that, after she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, Helen approached me about coming to work for me. She wanted to do a female version of Playboy.

It was the early 1960s and I had just started the first Playboy Club and a magazine, Show Business Illustrated, which was not doing well, and I was not at the point where I felt I could take on another magazine title. So she approached Hearst and they hired her to turn Cosmopolitan into a version of Playboy. In the early days, they even had a little symbol like our bunny, a pussycat that appeared at the end of every article. In a parody tribute to Playboy, she even did a nude [April 1972] centerfold with Burt Reynolds.

I helped her find writers and agents so that she knew who the players were and how much a writer could expect to be paid. We became good, professional friends, but mainly through mail and the Internet. But we didn’t run in the same circles, so I don’t know the intimate details of her life.

When she founded Cosmo, her views on sexuality and the sexual behavior of unmarried women were radical and the same as mine. In terms of male and female relationships, our philosophy was very similar.

[As to her notion that older women should have affairs with their friends’ husbands:] I don’t think that a very good idea — unless it’s something they have all agreed to. The immorality in infidelity is in the cheating. People can live lives in a variety of ways; it is the lying that is immoral, not the sex.

I last heard from her less than year ago; she responded in a very positive way to a documentary done on me by Brigitte Berman, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. She sent me a letter to say how pleased she was because it reflected the other side of what I am all about.

She was on the side of the more enlightened women. She became a voice for the other side of the women’s movement and I thought that very, very important.

- As told to Stephen Galloway

Erica Jong

I had a very interesting experience today when I heard she died. I started tweeting quotes from her. The first I tweeted was, “’Don’t use men to get what you want in life, get it yourself.’ My favorite quote from Helen Gurley Brown,” and it released this deluge of retweets.

Then I tweeted, “Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy started out as a schlep” and then another deluge started. I was just honoring her by putting my favorite quotes of her on Twitter. I got such a big kick out of the fact that a lot of women who were too young to know who she really was just piled on and kept retweeting. I then tweeted, “I guess if you’re retweeted you’re not dead.”

When we she published Sex and the Single Girl (1962) people were shocked that a single girl could have sex. The title itself was a shocker. Even if we single girls had sex, we weren’t supposed to admit it.

She was always very kind to me and nurturing. She really understood that mentoring younger writers was feminism. She read Fear of Flying and loved it.

I knew she had been very trashed when Sex and the Single Girl came out. All women who do provocative things are trashed. Always. So she made a special effort when she saw me getting the same treatment for Fear of Flying to be nurturing. She identified with me, and I was moved by that. I didn’t have many women mentors. Mostly my mentors were men like Henry Miller and John Updike. 

Many women were threatened by my work, which she was not, which is why I think she taught me that mentoring was feminist. She really understood that mentoring younger writers was feminism.

She was interested in women and sexuality and women and independence. And, of course, sexuality and independence go together. Throughout history, the greatest lovers have also been the greatest feminists. She didn’t see any opposition between feminism and men and in that we agreed. She didn’t believe you needed to trash men to be a feminist. In fact she was a lover of men, as am I. That was the bond. That was what she wanted me write about. That was her vision.

She made our hook-up culture possible, or at least Cosmo did, which was completely her vision and to some extent her husband David Brown’s. He wrote the cover lines. She believed in ferocious independence for women and that independence included a satisfying sex life and orgasms. So I think many women too young to know who she was have absorbed her lessons. She did change the culture. No doubt about it.

- As told to Andy Lewis