Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Goodbye Pussycat

Urban sunbathing. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012. A beautiful, warm, sunny summer day, yesterday in New York. With the slightest, slightly cool breeze running in the afternoon along with the tallest, puffiest clouds on display passing through overhead.
Yesterday's cloud formations over the East River.
Helen Gurley Brown died at the New York Presbyterian Hospital sometime during the early part of the day. She was 90 on her last birthday, February 18.

Many of us who knew Helen hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. In the previous decade and more, I spent Thanksgiving dinner with Helen and her husband David Brown as their guest at the Four Seasons restaurant. Always at the same table, for four, in the  Pool Room, always at 4 pm. We had met in the mid-90s at one of Judy Green’s cocktail parties, or  at Alice Mason’s dinner parties.I think it was Alice who, also sharing several Thanksgivings with David and Helen, first suggested they invite me as a fourth when another guest couldn’t make it. It became an excellent – and for me a fortunate – habit.

Helen and David. A partnership to remember.
Credit: Librado Romero/The New York Times.
Helen always called in May to make the date. “Hello Pussycat,” she’d purr (well really, almost, in that soft gentle voice), greeting me on the other end of the line, “we’re hoping you will join us for Thanksgiving this year.”

I was always happy to accept. “Now don’t back out on us Pussycat,” she’d say in her dulcet tone, before saying good-bye.

A couple of weeks before, I’d get another call in the morning. “Good morning Pussycat,” and of course I knew whose voice  I was listening to: “David and I are looking forward to seeing you on Thanksgiving at 4 at the Four Seasons.” How could I forget?

That was a partnership, “David and I.” A partnership to remember. A tribute to Love and Marriage. Anyone who was ever around them knew that. A complete partnership. There never were children, and – I don’t think – not even a pet. (David had a son Bruce, from a previous marriage,) It was Helen and David/David and Helen. He was the “he” and she was the “she,” and she/they lived out their marriage together, very often together, very often planning together business, dinners, trips.

When Helen had to travel for business, David, who had a long and very successful career as a film and theater producer, was by her side, or standing behind her. When at the end of her career they’d moved her upstairs and sent her out to open the Cosmos across the world, David went with her, always taking the backseat, the Mr. Helen Gurley Brown, and delighted to do it. It amused him because of course he was attending with his teammate. He was the story of her life.

They met in Los Angeles in the late 1950s through Don Belding, the California partner of the major advertising firm of Foote, Cone, Belding (now part of Interpublic), where Helen had started out as the secretary to Belding who ran the agency's West Coast office. She later became a copywriter after nagging (wrong word – because Helen wasn’t a nagger – but right idea) her boss for “a chance.” She was given it ultimately, and she succeeded.

That was about 60 or 65 years ago, and to give you an idea of what Helen (and David) was/were like – when she was given that promotion to copywriter, she brought in a young woman named Charlotte Kelly to replace her as Don Belding’s secretary. Helen had originally hired Charlotte, on Belding’s behalf, to work as a file clerk. The two women became good friends from the start. The last time I had Thanksgiving with David and Helen, in 2010, the other guest was Charlotte Veal, the former Charlotte Kelly, now a long time New Yorker and close lifelong friend of Helen. The Browns made friends and kept them.
Neither David nor Helen had a flamboyance of ego which often afflicts people in what are perceived as “important” positions as “important” people – positions they held in their professional lives. They certainly could get VIP treatment wherever they went, and I’m sure they didn’t mind it for the convenience of moving more quickly through a crowd. But they conducted themselves as if they saw themselves as one of us, just people. When they celebrated their 50th Anniversary with a dinner together at Per Se, the haute cuisine restaurant (which Helen thought was too expensive) in the Time Warner complex on Columbus Circle, on leaving the restaurant, Helen wanted to take a bus back to their apartment on 81st Street and Central Park West. David reneged on that one, persuading her that he wasn’t going to finish celebrating the day by taking a bus home. He was thinking of the convenience he had earned and she was thinking of what was financially practical.

Helen very often took the bus.
The first time I ever saw her in New York, sometime in the late 1960s when she was already the famous and famously successful editor of Cosmo, she was getting on the uptown bus, in the vicinity of the Hearst offices, carrying a couple of briefcases and a shopping bag full of papers. When she took you out to lunch and had invited you, she’d pull out her change purse to count out the nickels and dimes to get the exact change on the table. She wasn’t “cheap,” but she was tight.

David wasn’t crazy about that, and they did have the kind of money where they could afford a car and driver anytime, but Helen wouldn’t hear of it.
Helen Gurley Brown in her office at Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1965. (SANTI VISALLI/GETTY IMAGES).
In the 1960s, by then a successful copywriter at Foote, Cone, and married to David, who had become involved in film production (he was working for Darryl Zanuck as a story editor at 20th Century-Fox), having been hired away from Cosmopolitan Magazine where he had been their story editor, he suggested to Helen who had been a single girl well into her 30s – considered in those days well on the way to spinsterhood – that she write a book about her experiences as a single woman supporting her family and looking for a man.

The result was “Sex and the Single Girl,” a title David had also suggested. It sold in the millions, and Helen became very famous. She was now married, and much of her time was being taken up personally responding to the thousands of letters she got from women all over America, single and married, seeking advice.

One day David, seeing how assiduous and serious she was about answering each letter, suggested she turn the whole thing into a magazine where she could have articles of “advice,” etc. He had the nose: the time was ripe.

Helen Gurley Brown at a book signing for “Sex and the Single Girl,” 1963.
The two of them, the team, then set out to make a proposal for a magazine. And when it was finished, David, using his connections in the business, went with Helen around to publishers with the idea.  The famous book was the editorial hook. It wasn’t an overnight sensation in the executive suites of the magazine industry. In the mid-1960s, the topic of women and sex as a popular publication was either avant garde or pornographic (and in a time when pornographic was as far from mass appeal as it was from avant garde).

But that was just as the culture was in transition. Finally when Helen and Davd took their magazine idea to Hearst, the man they pitched too – someone David knew well – understood the idea although he was wary of investing in and launching a new title.

However, at that time David also had learned that one of the company’s former staples, Cosmopolitan Magazine, long having fallen out of interest to the reader – with an editorial history of popular fiction, film star stories, etc. – was going to stop publishing. Why not give it a new life as a fresh, brand-new magazine -- David suggested to the man at Hearst -- with Helen as the editor doing her thing?

The rest is history. As ordinary as it seems today, it was ground-breaking. It was not a “woman’s magazine;” it was a magazine for a woman making her way, on her own. The current obituaries on her list Helen as “an editor” of the magazine. That is incorrect. She was the magazine. It wouldn’t have existed without her.  And David. Ever.
Helen Gurley Brown being presented a gold record at a party celebrating Cosmopolitan Magazine's millionth copy edition at their office. (WALTER DARAN / LIFE / GETTY IMAGES).
Helen Gurley Brown (and David) won the day and created a new magazine that went public using an old, nearly defunct title. In short time it became so hip (read: successful) that it was then forever known as Cosmo. Hearst made millions. For more than two decades it was the hottest and biggest grossing magazine in the Hearst stable. Whether or not it is true, it has often been said and reported, that for years Cosmo kept its parent company in the black.

The editorial focus came easily to Helen because it, like her best selling book (that was made into a film with Natalie Wood), was a reflection of her life. She grew up a poor girl from Arkansas who had to work to support herself and her mother and her sister who had been crippled by polio at an early age. She was a worker-bee, and always. But a natural student, with a flair for expressing herself in words, with no illusions about her looks, she was equipped with a focus on matters at hand that she could solve.

I never asked her about it but I am certain that in her three decades at the helm of her magazine, she had her eye on the ball all the time. That was the way she was brought up and the way she lived. That was actually the way her whole generation of Americans were brought up (whether they acted on it or not). Helen’s great success in her business originated with hard work, was faithful to her dreams, wishes and needs as a woman, and was magnificently enhanced by her marriage and intellectual/creative partnership with her husband.
Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood in "Sex and The Single Girl."
Over the years, the Browns were enormously successful professionally separately and together. With this mutual success they shared a mutual respect and devotion and loyalty to each other. There were issues that you might call marital. I don’t know of them, but they were only human. He thought it was ridiculous to take a bus when you could easily afford a limousine (or at least a taxi), and she felt one glass of scotch before the dinner meal was enough. Both opinions of opposition were expressed in front of their friends, but always rather mildly. Those matters were not their focus as a couple.

David always wrote the cover lines for Cosmo just as he suggested the book and its title. As a man who was always looking for a good story – he was the man who purchased writer Ernest Lehman’s short story “Sweet Smell of Success” for Cosmopolitan  when he was story editor of the magazine in the late 1940s, early 1950s -- David was always aware of what his wife was thinking about editorially, which was often what he was thinking.

Helen with Evelyn Lauder.
David and Helen with Bobby Short.
David and Helen with Dominick Dunne.
Helen with Carmen.
In their great careers, they came to know the world and the world came to know them. Together and separately they were polite, gracious. He was courtly and she was girlishly intimate in conversation, and they both were curious to know about You. They were serious about their interests, their curiosity and their endeavors. They loved their social life but it never owned them. They lived in the last three decades in a triplex apartment at the Beresford on 81st and Central Park West, that their friend Alice Mason had found for them, but it was just “home” to them.

Together they wore their luxury like an old coat. They lived well, were wined and dined by the best upper sets, etc., but Helen always made David breakfast before she left for the office. And that was after she’d had her morning workout with a trainer at the crack of dawn. She always managed the household staff, planned the dinner dates, arranged the trips, sent the cards and wrote the “thank you.” David handled his own business similarly.

He enjoyed her “wifely” habits, as well as enjoyed her “womanly” issues of keeping herself in shape and looking good. “Sexy” was an important part of her regimen. Later there were “liberated” women who would criticize her for it, but it was her modus Vivendi, how she, this little girl from Little Rock (a small town outside actually) got what she had always wanted yet never imagined she could have got.

David liked that too. Their professional lives were their main mutual interest, their great bond outside the bonds of holy matrimony. David was really Helen’s executive editor. The reverse may have been true for her with him. Although whatever feedback he got from her about his work, was kept between them.

Their myriad friends from the rich, the famous, the celebrated and the completely unknown, were all their pleasure. They enjoyed everyone’s company. David was very liberal (in the current vernacular) in his political leanings, although they were always mildly expressed or with an ironic tone of voice, and Helen was always the wifely listener. You could easily imagine that she shared his opinion, whether she did or not.

The last time we all dined together (with Charlotte Veal) was on Thanksgiving 2009 at the Four Seasons Restaurant. David, who up until a few months before had been in relatively good health, was now suffering from serious kidney ailments and was on dialysis. He had been inambulatory for about a year, requiring a wheelchair which annoyed him greatly. Helen too, had begun to have trouble getting around, although when I met them for dinner that year, she refused to be taken into the room in a wheelchair.

I walked her (we took the service elevator to the main floor) from the kitchen into the poolroom to our table on the other side. It was a long walk for a woman who had seemed to me to have become frail overnight. It took us a good twenty minutes. David’s infirmities had more than begun to get the best of him. Sound and sharp in mind, his body was failing him. His natural mild manner was afflicted with the little things that had become monumental, like feeding himself (he did), and sitting at table in a wheelchair.

He nevertheless kept up our conversation with anecdotes and questions to me about the world I was seeing and the thoughts I was having. But it was a hard one for him.

After dinner, David was quickly wheeled from the dining room, although Helen still refused a chair to help her move quickly from the crowded (and still crowding) room. Our trip to the door was even slower because so many got up from their tables to say hello and to tell her how much they admired her work. The lady loved the compliments. They warmed her heart like a gift from a loving husband at this late date.

Meanwhile, David had to sit there and wait on the ground floor. Once we were together, several of the staff came to help the couple out into their waiting limousine on a jammed East 52nd Street at 6:30 PM. The whole ordeal upset David very much although he naturally withheld his high exasperation, for the benefit no doubt of his frail wife who was maintaining her own frail demeanor.

I left them that night very concerned about their days ahead. David could no longer fill his role as her partner and protector, nor could she completely fulfill her role as wife and care-giver. I knew they were well taken care of by special staff but nothing could provide the gusto and the energy that propelled this extraordinary couple to a big, rich, full life blessed with work and reward, friendships and amazements.

David died two months and four days after that Thanksgiving. He was 93. I was amazed at his great age because in the previous twenty years I had known him – as a man much older than I – his mind and thoughts were always fresh and not young but vigorously fertile.

When I heard the news that he had died, I was relieved for him although my thoughts immediately turned to Helen’s future. I know it was a great concern of David’s because in those last days he could still assess her situation, and she had become very vulnerable. It was one of those situations where I was sorry they couldn’t have left together, as evenly as they had lived the previous half century.

Charlotte Veal and I had dinner with Helen that following Thanksgiving. As was her habit, she called me on the phone, “Pussycat ...” the previous May, and again the following October, to make sure we still had a date.

I knew this dinner wouldn’t be easy for her but this time she let them bring her to table in a wheelchair. We talked about many things including me. I learned that she had several opinions about my habits and how I liked things and what I didn’t like, etc. I was amused by her thoughts because they also reflected how she had assessed all men and how she had navigated successfully through life on her point of view and its subsequent assessments.

But she was failing that day too. And it made me very sad when we left that she was not going home to David because, she was now lost without him. And getting more lost.
She was a very gentle spirit. You could hear it in her voice. I’m sure there were “downsides” to the lady who pressed the Zietgeist, that may have annoyed some, perhaps many (although it’s hard to imagine). But she was a woman of morals, and grace, and a natural courage. That was her birthright which she managed with prudence and alacrity. She was loyal, and devoted to her friends, as well as her husband. And she was kind.

These simple virtues, as natural as the Sun and the Wind, are not so easily found in many of the work and social environs that Helen Gurley Brown navigated on her extraordinary all-American trip from Little Rock to the Great Metropolis. But she did. Because she was. She had been granted a great life, with a man who was her great man, and life granted us a friend, and a friend to many, including the many she would never meet and never know who would yet somehow know her. A good life passed through and blessed us all.

Photographs by PatrickMcMullan.com (Helen Gurley Brown)

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