I’m Wild Again: Snippets From My Life
and a Few Brazen Thoughts
By Helen Gurley Brown
(St. Martin’s Press, 287 pages, $24.95)
Twenty-five years ago when I wrote for Cosmopolitan, I was lunching with one of the editors when the conversation turned to the enigma that was Helen Gurley Brown. “I guess we’ll have to wait for her autobiography,” I said.
The editor shook her head. “Helen will never open up.”
She was right. Brown’s new book, far from being the tell-all of its advance publicity, is exactly what the subtitle says it is: snippets from a life, some of them taken almost verbatim from her earlier books, which in turn were variations on the theme of her first book, Sex and the Single Girl, the 1962 self-help land mine that gave her her start.
What makes her latest venture into print interesting — even, in a grotesque way, inspiring — is how successful she is in wrestling introspection, along with fat and aging, to a standstill. Helen Marie Gurley was born in Little Rock in 1921, the younger of two daughters of Ira and Cleo Gurley. When she was ten something terrible happened. Any other writer would make a calamity of this magnitude the centerpiece of her childhood and devote a long chapter to it, but Helen settles for a parenthetical — literally — account of her father’s death in a freak accident.
(Daddy had died five years before in an elevator accident in the Arkansas State Capitol Building, had run for the elevator, jumped on just as the doors were closing — you could do that then — life got snuffed out.)
Unless she’s a psychopath this has to have been a devastating trauma, but the only aspect of it she discusses is the financial crisis that ensued when her widowed mother had spent all the insurance money. She says nothing about her reaction to her father’s death, nothing about her feelings — or lack thereof — for him, and nothing about the man himself. He was a member of the State legislature; was he planning a political career?
She doesn’t even say whether the manner of his death left her with any feelings about elevators. Is she leery of them? What goes through her mind when she gets on one? Something? Anything? Or did she block out the whole incident and transfer her unresolved feelings for her father to the entire male sex? She has spent her adult life pleasing them in bed and out, and built a career around telling other women to do the same. Is her whole Cosmo stance an attempt to make up to her father for what happened to him? It’s food for thought, but Helen Gurley Brown, dieter par excellence, won’t touch it.
Tragedy struck again when Helen’s sister, Mary, got polio. Mother moved them to Los Angeles, where Helen graduated from high school and business school and embarked on a secretarial career (130 wpm shorthand) and what would eventually become a storied sex life.
She lost her virginity at 20, having no need to lose it earlier, she explains, because “I could be brought to orgasm by kissing.” At 24 she was kept for a year by her boss, a rich 43-year-old real estate developer; “not a beauty, but not a mongoose…I could handle it.” Her object was to get enough money from him to take care of her sister, who was now permanently confined to a wheelchair, but she admits she did not know how to handle him. He pulled strings to get her an apartment during the WWII housing shortage but she ended up paying the rent from her salary. When he happened to find $750 cash in a file drawer he gave it to her, but no jewels or stocks. Like most kept women she was home alone a lot. “Television hadn’t arrived. I read.” What did she read? She doesn’t say.
Her stint as a professional mistress lasted about a year. Her next lover was a vast improvement — “he was bow-wow in bed” — then came former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, whom she met when the ad agency she worked for hired him to endorse Bulldog Beer. Then 62, Dempsey would visit her for bed sport, yell “Straighten me out, darling” at the climactic moment, then be taken home by his driver who was waiting outside. She can be excused for not being introspective about this interlude; not even the Bröntes could come up with a deeper meaning.
By age 37 she knew enough about men to get David Brown to marry her. He said “Why can’t we go on as we are?” and she said “Don’t call me again unless it’s to tell me you’re ready to get married.” She stuck to her guns and it worked. David, then an executive with Darryl Zanuck, became her Pygmalion. It was he who came up with the idea for Sex and the Single Girl, urged her to write it, used his contacts to get it published, and then came up with an even better idea as he watched her knock herself out writing personal replies to the tons of fan mail she received.
The fan-mail story is Helen at her nicest. Somewhere in her makeup is a well-mannered Southern girl who knows that a lady always sends notes. As editor-in-chief of Cosmo she did wonders for her writers’ morale with warm little messages, always with an inverted salutation (“Florence Dear”), saying how much she appreciated our latest effort.
It would be just like her to take it upon herself to answer every single fan letter. She might still be at it had David not spoken up.
“If you had your own magazine,” he said, “you could answer them all at once. “
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