Influential Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown Dead

"Sex and the Single Girl" writer had four decade reign at Cosmopolitan magazine.

By Colin Bertram
|  Monday, Aug 13, 2012  |  Updated 5:04 PM EDT
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Influential Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown Dead

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Circa 1965, American writer and magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown in her office at Cosmopolitan magazine, 1960s.

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Helen Gurley Brown, the long time editor of Cosmopolitan who helped transform the women's magazine market died Monday morning at age 90.

A spokesperson for the Hearst Corporation, which publishes Cosmopolitan, released a statement announcing that Gurley Brown passed away at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia following a brief hospitalization.

Following the publication of her 1962 bestselling book, "Sex and the Single Girl," Gurley Brown became the go-to for a generation of women ready to embrace (and more importantly discuss) their sexuality and role in the modern world.

"Helen Gurley Brown was an icon. Her formula for honest and straightforward advice about relationships, career and beauty revolutionized the magazine industry," said Frank A. Bennack, Jr., CEO of Hearst Corporation said in a statement. "She lived every day of her life to the fullest and will always be remembered as the quintessential 'Cosmo girl.' She will be greatly missed."

The legendary editor created a paradigm shift in the magazine publishing landscape when she became editor at Cosmopolitan in 1965, transforming the monthly from a staid periodical into what would become a bible for "single girls" and the glossy of choice for "fun, fearless, females" the world over. Throughout her four decade reign at the magazine she encouraged women to "have it all": a career, marriage and great sex. At her death she held the title of editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan's 64 international editions.

It was Gurley Brown who introduced the big-haired, ample-breasted models that became a hallmark of Cosmopolitan covers in the 1970s and 1980s. She also pioneered the eyebrow-raising coverlines that would stop newsstand browsers in their tracks. Examples include "The Naughty Orgasm Trick Couples Love" and "Nothing Fails Like Sex-cess — Facts About Our Real Lovemaking Needs." It was that fresh point of view mixed with provacative content that kept young female readers returning month after month.

Gurley Brown also famously introduced the male centerfold during the 1970s. Actor Burt Reynolds and his strategically placed arm caused a sensation in 1972, but the practice of showcasing semi-nude men was discontinued in the early 1990s.

Sales of Cosmopolitan grew annually with Gurley Brown at the helm. In 1997 she stepped down from the day-to-day duties of running the U.S. version but continued to be a major force at the masthead and within the Hearst Corporation through her ongoing role as global editor-in-chief.

Helen Gurley was born Feb. 18, 1922 in Green Forest, Ark. Growing up in the Depression, she earned pocket money by giving other kids dance lessons, according to the Associated Press. Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles where Helen graduated as valedictorian of John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939.

An early career as an ad copy writer flourished before she met her future husband, David Brown, who would encourage her to write for herself. She married Brown, whose film credits include "The Sting" and "Jaws," in 1959. Before his death in 2010 the couple were highly regarded philanthropists who encouraged the pursuit of journalistic excellence through their endowments. As recently as January of this year, Gurley Brown donated $30 million to Columbia and Stanford Universities to establish the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. The couple moved to New York following the success of her book, "Sex and the Single Girl."

She constantly monitored her rail-thin, 5-feet-4 frame and never allowed her weight to vary more than a few pounds up or down thanks to regular exercise and careful diet. A proponent of cosmetic surgery, she spoke openly and often of her numerous facelifts and filler injections.

In 1967 she hosted a TV talk show, "Outrageous Opinions," which was syndicated in 19 cities. Gurley Brown wrote five more books, including "Sex and the New Single Girl" (1970), "Having It All" (1982) and The Late Show: A Semi Wild But Practical Guide for Women Over 50" (1993).

Her journalistic accomplishments were often overshadowed by the sexy public image she cultivated to help push newsstand sales. According to the New York Times she had the following quote prominently displayed in her office: “Good Girls Go to Heaven — Bad Girls Go Everywhere.”

"It was a terrific magazine," she said, looking back when she surrendered the editorship in 1997. "I would want my legacy to be, 'She created something that helped people.' My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own."

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