Book of the week: Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon

Scanlon’s biography of Helen Gurley Brown is a “sympathetic and thorough” portrait of the controversial editor of Cosmopolitan.

(Oxford, 270 pages, $27.95)

Future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown was 19 when she landed the first of more than a dozen secretarial jobs that she would hold in 1940s Los Angeles. “You can’t sleep your way to the top or even to the middle,” the Arkansas native said years later, though she claimed to have been “sexually involved” with a boss or colleague at every office she worked in while single. Happily unmarried until she wed movie producer David Brown at 37, the by-then accomplished ad exec decided that other women needed to understand that they could live, without apology, a single life as active as hers had been. In 1962, her Sex and the Single Girl sold 2 million copies in its first three weeks.

Brown spent the next 35 years as the avatar of a pragmatic feminism tailored for “the girls in the secretarial pool,” said Sue Ontiveros in the Chicago Sun-Times. Unlike women’s movement stalwarts Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, Brown was not out “to change the system” so much as to use her groundbreaking book, and then Cosmo, to show women how to “manipulate” the male-dominated culture in order to get what they wanted and deserved. Brown, who still oversees Cosmopolitan’s foreign editions, “has finally been accorded her due” in Jennifer Scanlon’s “sympathetic and thorough” biography, said Marion Elizabeth Rodgers in The Washington Times. “One wishes” that Scanlon’s tone had been less “academic and sober.” But Bad Girls Go Everywhere delivers an “intelligent, rounded picture” of a still controversial flag bearer.

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Brown doesn’t deserve the laurels Scanlon heaps on her, said Charlotte Hays in The Wall Street Journal. This was a woman who disdained all housewives—and slept with more than a few of their husbands, simply because doing so afforded her more fun money or better apartments. Call Brown “shrewd,” but don’t call her a feminist hero. Brown did pave the way for women to have both a fulfilling career and “sensational lipstick,” said Laura Miller in But that doesn’t make her a true feminist. “It is one thing to enjoy the trappings of conventional femininity and another thing entirely to feel as if they are obligatory.” For a “Cosmo Girl,” it always seemed, the only path to a fulfilling life lay in playing the courtesan.

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