Helen Gurley Brown took discussions about equal pay, women’s health rights and sexual freedom deep into middle America.

Book review: Not Pretty Enough – on Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown’s enduring legacy

The former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief turned a dying magazine into a cultural juggernaut, and her work as a feminist pioneer deserves reappraisal

Not Pretty Enough

by Gerri Hirshey

Sarah Crichton Books/FSG

4.5/5 stars

Helen Gurley Brown’s book about lesbians might be the most entertaining non-fiction book that never actually got written.

Brown’s proposal for such a book as a follow-up to her 1962 debut advice guide, Sex and the Single Girl, is revealed almost as a throwaway detail about halfway through Not Pretty Enough, Gerri Hirshey’s new biography of the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. It’s just one of many illuminating details uncovered by Hirshey that link Brown to modern conversations about relationships, the workplace, branding, body imagery and the media.

Brown’s lesbian project might have contained egregious factual errors, a questionable focus on pleasing men and cringeworthy seduction tips. What would a woman notorious for being man-hungry have had to say to or about women who aren’t?

Brown’s sequel ultimately explored more familiar terrain – Sex and the Office – that she rehashed again and again in subsequent books and magazine columns. A study of lesbians for a mass-market, mid-1960s readership, though, might have secured more serious consideration for Brown among feminists.

As one of two biographers sifting through Brown’s many contradictions this year, Hirshey argues for Brown’s inclusion in the feminist pantheon alongside such luminaries as Betty Friedan (after all, Sex and the Single Girl was published before The Feminine Mystique).

With exhaustive research in spite of limitations imposed by Cosmopolitan’s publisher, Hirshey peels back decades of parodies and kitsch to reveal how Brown turned a dying magazine into a cultural juggernaut.

Helen Gurley Brown worked hard for everything she got (including men).

Hirshey dwells on Brown’s fraught relationship with her calamity-prone mother, a woman whose hips were unbalanced from carrying around younger siblings when she was still a child herself. Yet it’s pride in a self-made woman, not pity for childhood trauma, that Hirshey evokes as she considers the astonishing distance Brown travelled from her Depression-era roots in Arkansas.

For anyone who thinks Brown flirted her way to the top desk at Cosmopolitan, Hirshey has the details of the sexism and double standards that dogged her success. Not Pretty Enough makes clear how Brown worked hard for everything she got (including men).

Think Cosmo and “women’s magazines” are just news stand candy? Wait until Hirshey lists the now-revered authors Brown hired to write for her.

Brown’s editorial voice may have been “I am woman, hear me purr”, but that voice carried discussions about equal pay, women’s health rights and sexual freedoms farther – and more lucratively – into middle America than did the voices of “serious intellectuals”. She made mistakes and seemed out of touch with the feminists of her era, but she was talking about slut shaming and mantras such as “I am enough” long before anyone started communicating with hashtags.

In Hirshey’s portrait, the men who regard Brown as a peer shine well. Her husband produced Jaws and other beloved blockbuster movies, but his tombstone simply reads, “Married to Helen Gurley Brown”.

HGB may be feminism’s somewhat tone-deaf, sex-crazed aunt, but Hirshey’s right – she was in the fight, and her legacy deserves serious review.