Owen Edwards | Essays

Homage to Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown
Helen Gurley Brown in 1982. Copyright © Associated Press

My former boss, Helen Gurley Brown, died not long ago, and even though she had reached an impressive age and we were in touch only once in a great while, I couldn’t be sadder that she has left our vale of tears and ink.

Helen was an adventurer. Through true grit and the willingness to take chances, she went from secretary to advertising copywriter to best-selling author to one of the most successful editors the Hearst Corporation was ever lucky enough to have. Her sense of adventure intersected with my life in 1976, when, in an entirely unexplainable move, she hired me to be the managing editor of Cosmopolitan.

It would be a major understatement to say that I was unqualified for the job of managing a big, profitable, and — to me — fairly mysterious magazine. I had returned to the U.S. a few months before from six years of lotus eating on a Greek island, with winters in Athens and London, and had made my living, such as it was, as a freelance writer and a stringer for a third-rate news agency. Before leaving for Europe, I’d been a staff writer at a small trade magazine, and had worked as a press representative for CBS-TV, but — except for my time in the military — I had never managed anything or anyone.

Helen hadn’t made her decision entirely on a whim, I like to think. Though she operated editorially on gut instinct, whimsy was not her style. After having an assigned article for Cosmo rejected by Helen, the executive editor who has assigned it asked if I’d like to try for the ME job, which was about to be vacated by a man moving onward and upward at Hearst. What ensued was a month-long, fairly grueling tryout that included a full critique of three issues, several interviews, ten or so fully fleshed-out article ideas (no pun intended), and a survey of the competition (though there really wasn’t any real competition). Toward the end of the month, I discovered that one of the contenders for the job was the highly skilled woman who had given me my start writing for New York magazine. It was lucky I found this out late in the game, or I’d probably have been paralyzed by the absurdity of it all.

Whatever her reasons, in the end, Helen hired me. After I had the job, I took a look at my file and saw that Helen’s husband, the wise and thoroughly decent movie producer David Brown, had written a note saying that I was clearly the least likely candidate. Maybe she simply liked the cut of my jib, or of my one suit (thank you, Ralph Lauren). I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that with her decision she saved my life, but she certainly lifted me out of a dark place. My father had just died, I had separated from my wife, and my pay for Voice photography columns was a couple hundred a pop — half of which went to my then wife and son. So a job with a big salary and diverting, 12-hour workdays really was a salvation, financially and psychologically.

What I got with the job, however, was more than just a rescue. I got an education in management style from a true master. Helen had a large staff of smart, well-educated women — she may have been the only woman at Cosmo who didn’t have a college degree (the beauty editor had graduated from Yale Law). Under her leadership, they worked hard for a magazine that under different circumstances many of them might not have read at all. I learned more from her about how to keep people happy, loyal, and productive than I ever learned from any of the men at other magazines and organizations where I’ve worked.

Like any good leader, Helen worked harder than any of those she demanded hard work from. She tended to come in late, but she never left the office (except for social events where she had to be seen) until eight or nine. Though I was younger by quite a few years, I had trouble keeping up with her. Soon after I started at Cosmo, Helen advised me to follow her example and use the sofa in my office to take a short nap after lunch, telling my secretary — anybody remember secretaries? — to hold all phone calls. I had lived in Greece, so the idea of a siesta made perfect sense. But it amazed me that my boss was suggesting I adopt the Mediterranean way of life to West 57 St. And it worked. I usually lunched with writers, alchohol was involved, I worked late, so that half hour of semi-slumber was a great way to re-wind for the second part of the day.

The weekly, every-Tuesday editorial meetings at Cosmo were unusual, in that they were more scripted than spontaneous, but focused and productive; they gave me a model I always used when I became editor in chief of other magazines. First of all, they were held in Helen’s office, which was large, but not as large or equalizing as a typical conference room. This was her turf, reminding us tacitly that Cosmopolitan was not a democracy. Helen, the only one in the room who actually understood the magazine and its readers, was the person we had to please with our ideas, even if we might succeed in amusing our assembled colleagues. The meetings generally lasted under an hour (a notable blessing), and they were efficient. Each editor prepared in advance ideas for stories, usually no more than three, and pitched them in turn. I never remember any idea, however strange or unlikely, being derided — this wasn’t the kind of group grapple typical of creative writing courses; the typed-up ideas all ended up on Helen’s desk, and might or might not be put in the big assignment book that editors showed to writers. Though the meetings were far different from what took place at magazines like Time or Esquire, one Tuesday, on someone’s advice, a newcomer to the New York’s publishing scene, a Saville Row-suited Australian named Rupert Murdoch, sat in to see how things were done.

I learned a lot in my two years at Cosmo, but nothing more important than the simple act of recognition for good work. My previous experience, from the Marine Corps on, had been working for men — most of them perfectly okay guys — and their approach had been essentially military. If you did something wrong, or less than well, you heard about it fast. If you did a good job, well, that was just what you were hired to do. Corrections were commonplace, compliments rare. Helen’s approach was very different and very effective. You might come into your office in the morning and find a sheet of pink paper on your desk, on which would be written: “Owen, your editing of that story on the perfume business was just splendid!!!

Helen didn’t dilute the significance of these pink mash notes by giving them out too freely, and she was always specific about why you were being thanked. So a day that started out “pink” couldn’t be all bad, and, editorially speaking, some of my days might otherwise have been quite a mess. The salaries at Cosmo were generous — calculating for inflation, I probably have never been paid better — but the fact that Helen was so ready to acknowledge staffers whose work pleased her was in itself a kind of currency. The compliments wouldn’t pay the rent, of course, but they tended to forge bonds that made Cosmo’s editors among the most loyal in the business.

Helen had a temper, but she never bullied anyone. The one time I ever saw her melt down it was at a Dictaphone that had failed to record many letters she’d dictated the night before. You knew when she wasn’t happy with you through certain signs — she’d come into your office and shut the door, or summon you to her office and lower her voice. But if you did something she knew you knew she didn’t want you to do, she had ways to get revenge. While I was working for her, I rode a motorcycle, a racy little Honda 400F Super Sport (which I still have). I often rode to work from my Upper West Side apartment and parked in the middle of Columbus Circle (you could do that in those days). For some reason, which I never figured out, Helen didn’t like my having a motorcycle, and she didn’t like seeing my helmet on the credenza in my office. But I paid no attention. And one day, when I had somehow earned a mention in her column “Step Into My Parlor,” along with a man whose story I had edited, I suggested to the art director that it might be fun to have us photographed on my Honda. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” the art director said. “Helen really doesn’t like that motorcycle.”

But I insisted, sure that readers would think I was pretty cool. So I parked the bike in front of the office on 57th St., the writer and I sat on it, and the photograph was made. When Helen saw the shot, I later learned, she was furious. But by then it was too late for a re-shoot. She never said anything to me. Instead, she took a pair of scissors and did some strategic cropping. When the picture appeared in the column, in about three million copies of the magazine, the motorcycle had disappeared completely. What readers saw were two men with satisfied smiles on their faces, the one in back pressed tightly against the one in front. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I never again took Helen’s opinions lightly.

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