The publishing world lost one of its most enduring figures today when Helen Gurley Brown, legendary editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and author of Sex and the Single Girl, died in New York at the age of 90. A pioneering force in modern women's magazines, Gurley Brown shocked America and defined generations of young women with her revolutionary views on sex, men, work and money.
Gurley Brown was born in Arkansas in 1922, and later moved with her family to Los Angeles. After graduating from Woodbury Business College in California and holding a string of secretarial jobs, Gurley took an executive secretary position at advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding (now part of Draftfcb) and, after impressing Don Belding with her writing skills, was made a copywriter. She eventually became the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast.
Gurley Brown rose to further prominence in 1962 with the release of her groundbreaking advice book, Sex and the Single Girl, which encouraged women to stop worrying about marriage and instead to embrace financial and sexual independence. The book spawned a film adaptation and several sequels, including Sex and the Office and The Single Girl’s Cookbook.
In 1965, Gurley Brown took over as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. After first launching in 1886 as a family magazine, by the 1960s, Cosmo was a failing Hearst property in dire need of a makeover. Gurley Brown reinvigorated the title (and often stirred up controversy) by using trademark sexual frankness to appeal to a younger, single reader, who soon became known as the “Cosmo girl.” After more than 30 years at the helm of the U.S. edition of Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown was replaced by Bonnie Fuller in 1997, but stayed on at Hearst to oversee the magazine’s international editions.
Over the course of her career, Gurley Brown amassed a long list of awards and honors—from an induction into the Publishers' Hall of Fame to her American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame Award—and, along with her husband David Brown, helped to establish the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia and Stanford.
“Helen was one of the world’s most recognized magazine editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism—and beyond,” Hearst CEO Frank Bennack wrote in a company-wide memo announcing Gurley Brown’s death this afternoon. “Life here will somehow not seem the same without her near-daily arrival at 300 West 57th Street.”