Books and the Single Girl

Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan, and the Research behind
Renee Rosen’s Park Avenue Summer

I write; therefore, I read. I really can’t do one without the other, especially when I’m writing historical fiction. Nonfiction is always my jumping-off point and that’s where I began when researching Park Avenue Summer, a novel about a young woman who moves to New York in 1965 and lands a secretarial job at Cosmopolitan magazine working for Helen Gurley Brown. I was lucky because not only did I have a number of books written by Brown herself, but two excellent biographies about her had recently been published.

Obviously, the first place to turn was Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Shocking for its time, this terse book was published in 1962 and sold more than two million copies in its first month. A combination of confessional and how-to, it essentially instructed single women to be independent and get out there and enjoy themselves sexually. Brown told her readers how to find men and what do with them once they found them. This groundbreaking book would serve as the blueprint for the makeover she would give Cosmopolitan three years later, much to the chagrin of publisher Hearst.

Ironically, Brown wasn’t single when she wrote the book: she was married to her true love David Brown, who encouraged her to write it, claiming she had been the most fascinating single woman he’d ever met. A big-time Hollywood producer, he also turned her instant best-seller into a blockbuster movie starring Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall. It’s hard to believe that an all-star cast like that, performing a script written by Joseph Heller, could have produced a bad movie, but they did. Yet, this over the top, slapstick comedy, based more on the title of the book than its substance, went on to break all kinds of box-office records in 1964.

Some of the advice in Sex and the Single Girl was bizarre, outlandish, and as unpalatable as the recipes she included for entertaining men.

Some of the advice in Sex and the Single Girl was bizarre, outlandish, and as unpalatable as the recipes she included for entertaining men (with main ingredients such as white bread and American cheese). It was fun reading nonetheless—and obviously essential to my research—though it did leave me with more questions about the fascinating author.

Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey

That’s when I turned to Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey. Hirshey takes readers back to Brown’s humble beginnings in the Ozarks and leads them all the way to her final victory lap after having resurrected the near-defunct Cosmopolitan. Filled with wonderful anecdotes and encounters from the likes of Liz Smith, Nora Ephron, Judith Krantz, and Francesco Scavullo, it was the perfect way for me to get more acquainted with the iconic Helen Gurley Brown.

Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, by Brooke Hauser

From there I started reading Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, by Brooke Hauser. This book came out within months of Hirshey’s, and while there is some overlap, Enter Helen filled in some crucial gaps. Meticulously researched, it sheds more light on the second wave of feminism that began in the mid- 1950s and really took hold in the 1960s. Hauser also does an excellent job of portraying just how revolutionary Helen was as an editor.

I really couldn’t write about Helen Gurley Brown, who absolutely considered herself a feminist, without taking a look at Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. What started as a questionnaire that Friedan gave to Smith alumni in 1957 grew into what some considered the bible of the feminism’s second wave. Published in 1963, just one year after Sex and the Single Girl, Friedan’s take could not have been more different. Her book focused on the suppressed dissatisfaction and unfulfillment of American housewives. Whereas sex was the cornerstone of Brown’s message, Friedan downplayed its importance. In fact, according to Friedan, housewives who had happy sex lives found that did little or nothing to fill the void in their lives.

The Feminine Mystique definitely spoke to an older audience and was much more sophisticated than Sex and the Single Girl, but like Brown, Friedan stressed the need for women to claim their independence. In the end, I think the varying perspectives of Friedan and Brown played a crucial role in the women’s liberation movement. And as the 1970s Virginia Slims slogan proclaimed, “You’ve come a long way baby!”

Given the subject matter of Park Avenue Summer, I have to mention The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. I confess I didn’t read Weisberger’s novel, though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie based on it. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly, a thinly disguised version of Anna Wintour, was masterful, and if anyone’s looking to learn more about the magazine industry and another iconic editor-in-chief, I’d feel safe in recommending the book.

Do you have other books you’d recommend for readers interested in Helen Gurley Brown, New York publishing, and second-wave feminism? Please Tweet them at me or share them in the comments!

Renee Rosen is a best-selling author of historical fiction. Her novels include Windy City Blues, White Collar Girl, What the Lady Wants, and Dollface, as well as the YA novel Every Crooked Pot. Her latest novel, Park Avenue Summer, is out now from Penguin Random House/Berkley. Find her on Twitter at @ReneeRosen1.

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