Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, dies at 90

Folks who came through Stanford Publishing Course will remember Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, who gave such memorable talks about her rise to the top of the New York publishing world–alongside her husband, film producer David Brown (Jaws, The Sting, Driving Miss Daisy). Helen died today at the age of 90.

Helen Gurley Brown at Stanford Publishing Course

photo by Rod Searcey

Helen was full of both bravado and anxiety. And she was willing to show you both. That was her charm.

Here’s a little story that captures her quirkiness better than any I can remember.

When I took over the Stanford Publishing Course in 1994, David Brown was already a veteran speaker who taught participants how to turn a book into a Hollywood film. But Helen did not accompany him on his trips to campus. Turns out she had come to Stanford in the early ’70s, at the height of the Women’s Movement, and given a talk. Because she stood for women who put their men first, she received a not-altogether-gracious reception from Stanford women. She never forgot the experience.

Then one spring day in 1999, David left me a voicemail about the logistics of his upcoming PubCourse talk, adding–offhandedly–that his wife would be accompanying him on his trip to campus.

What?!

I immediately called him back, and asked him if she would consider speaking, too. “I don’t know,” he said. “Why don’t you ask her yourself.”

When I reached Helen, she was reticent, dodgy, anxious. Finally, she said, “I don’t think I want to speak, but if you can find somebody to interview me, I’ll do that. ” Bingo.

Getting someone with enough weight to interview Helen on stage was a challenge.    PubCourse director Paul Saffo came up with the best idea: Katrina Heron, the young-turk editor-in-chief of Wired would surely know how to engineer a provocative conversation with Helen. And she would herself be a coup to have onstage.

And so we set it up.

About three weeks from the start of the Course, Helen called. “Who is it that will be interviewing me?” she asked. I reminded her. “Okay. Sounds good,” she said.

Several days later, she called again. “I don’t think I need to be interviewed,” she said. “I’ll just talk.” I couldn’t set Katrina adrift, so I convinced Helen that the current plan was a better one. “Okay,” she said, this time with more reticence.

She called several more times with the same concern, and I continued to push for the interview format.

Finally, the evening of the interview came. Katrina and Helen were positioned on a stage set with two leather armchairs. Saffo made the intros. The moment he finished, Helen sprang from her chair, strode to the front of the stage, and started talking. She told stories about how she had risen from secretary to top editor at Cosmo, how she’d met and “snagged” her famous husband, what good sex they had (even now), and how any “girl” could have it all. Katrina, with enormous grace, simply sat there.

Paul started poking me. “Do something,” he whispered. But what could I do? We were witnessing Helen–in full “on” mode.

Finally, she paused and took a deep breath. Then she turned, sat down, and said to Katrina, “Now let’s talk.”

In those twenty minutes, Helen displayed and dispelled much of the anxiety she had harbored about speaking at Stanford. And when she had done so, she engaged with Katrina in a memorable conversation about what it takes to be an editor-in-chief at a top New York magazine.

I’ll miss Helen’s bravado. And her vulnerability.