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. "
The rest is history -- or should be. But she devotes little more than a page to how she breathed life into Hearst's dying magazine and turned it, for better or worse, into a greater influence on women's liberation than all of feminism's tomes put together. It would be fascinating to read a detailed account of her first year at the helm. Even more fascinating would be hearing her version of some of the great Cosmo legends, such as the "Breast Article" (how to fondle them, how to kiss them, etc.) that was leaked to the press by a treacherous staffer.
But instead we get a stitch-by-stitch account of her cosmetic surgeries. She's had three face lifts; the first at age 60, the second at 67, and the third in 1995 at the age of 73, when she also had her bosom augmented from the A cup nature gave her to the B she regards as her ideal size. She offers no explanation for why she waited so long, or why she even bothered at such an advanced age, except to say that fashions were bosom-revealing that year.
A year or so later she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but denies -- twice -- that it had anything to do with the "massive doses of estrogen" (two 1.25 milligram tablets a day) she had taken "for the past thirty years." A little while later she says it again: "I also don't dwell on the possibility of my having given myself cancer with the heavy dosage of Premarin for thirty-three years. Occasionally a doctor suggested taking less but nobody slugged me."
In other words, she started gobbling estrogen at 44. Why? Was she trying to ward off the menopause entirely and menstruate forever? She doesn't say.
Nor does she explain why, at 75, she sprang for a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy, saying only, "Whew! I get to keep most of my breast." Keep it, please God, for what? We never find out because she would rather explain that Crisco shortening, which she used as an emollient after surgery, also helps nails grow strong. Now she carries a tub of it everywhere she goes, prompting David to observe that it's like "being married to an apple pie."
Her other surgery was a hysterectomy that she almost undid when she insisted on doing her regular daily exercises in defiance of the doctor's warning that she could burst her sutures. The exercises are described in a prose style that manages to be both giddy and numbing at the same time; whenever she finds herself somewhere unamenable to a full work-out, such as an airplane, she goes in the lavatory and exercises by sitting down on and getting up off the toilet, over and over again. Her life's ambition is to have a "concave tummy," which still eludes her even though she weighs only 99 pounds.
Most of the book consists of the "brazen thoughts" of the subtitle, fragmented observations in no particular order, whatever pops into her head:
• "Good drivers are good in bed."
• How to Tell What Size He Is: Check out "the vertical indentation in a man's ear that dips down into the fleshy part of the lobe." In the best-endowed men it's so long it looks like Italy.
• Another firm statement (she had one in her first book) about the total absence of lesbianism in her life.
• Rewriting the Lord's Prayer to make it jibe with her definition of temptation. ("Don't scoop all the petit fours off the plate at a tony restaurant into your purse and, if scooped, don't eat them all at once when you get home. Try to make yourself throw them in the john.")
• Her favorite word is "pippypoo," whose definition ranges from shallow and superficial, to silly fun and frivolity, to decorative and cute. (I already knew this from her editorial notes on one of my articles, which contained the cryptic observation: "Well, we never get anything pippypoo from Florence, she's always so warpy-and-woofy.") Her disquisition on the dangers of gossip contains the worst writing in the book:
We had a nice lunch one day, chatted like old friends, but when I couldn't get another friend to return my phone calls, finally reached her, and asked about the blackout, she said Diane had told her I had said she, Maudie, the non-phone-call returner, never left her house these days but stayed in bed smoking pot. I'd actually told Diane about her staying in bed but not about the pot because I didn't know about it, that was said by Diane to me but whoever said it, you wouldn't tell the person it was said about them, would you, if it's something they won't like?
Like all skinflints she prefers to think of herself as "thrifty." She buys one bottle of spring water for $2.98, then refills the bottle with tap water and serves it to guests. She takes New York buses at senior-citizen rates, even after chic theater parties, and makes David ride them too, happily reminding him how much they saved on cabs. She once jumped out of a cab taking her the long way around the San Antonio airport rather than pay the $8 on the meter, and ended up walking down the freeway. Is it any wonder she recommends semen as a facial mask? It's free.
She won't come right out and admit it, but it's obvious that she hates children. Once she even screamed "shut up!" at a crying baby on a plane, mortifying the Cosmo editors traveling with her. The other time she lost it in public also happened on a plane, when they ran out of the baked salmon she had ordered and the stewardess brought her "fat sausage and runny eggs." Exploding, "I can't eat this s--t!" she upended the plate and dumped it in the aisle.
She doesn't connect these two episodes of air rage, but the reader does: Babies and fat sausages both ruin the figure.
Florence King's most recent book is The Florence King Reader (St. Martin's). She writes "The Misanthrope's Corner" column for National Review.