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Helen Gurley Brown, Groundbreaking Cosmopolitan Editor, Dead at 90

Pioneering journalist Helen Gurley Brown helped reshape the image of American women during her 32 years as editor of Cosmopolitan

Helen Gurley Brown, a pioneering journalist who helped reshape the image of American women during her 32 years as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, died Monday.

Brown passed away at the McKeen Pavilion at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia after a brief hospitalization. She was 90.

She catapulted into the editor job at Cosmopolitan in 1965, three years after her best-selling book “Sex and the Single Girl” was published.

Brown reversed the fortunes of the failing magazine by turning it into a guide for the modern woman whom she urged to embrace sexual freedom.

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Her contention that women could have it all –“love, sex and money” — became a lightning rod for followers and conservative opponents, who saw her mag’s racy “how to” articles as undermining marriage and family.

Comments like "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere" became water cooler fodder, and she drew occasional fire from feminists, who saw her as more libertine than liberator.

Brown crystallized her philosophy simply: "So you're single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don't just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don't use men to get what you want in life — get it for yourself."

She created the independent, fashion-focused  “Cosmo Girl” and became a major voice in what came to be known as the “sexual revolution.” She also coined the term "mouseburger," which she used to describe herself and other ordinary woman who had to work relentlessly to make themselves desirable and successful.

Cultural impact aside, she was a successful editor from a business standpoint. Cosmopolitan's circulation was below 800,000 when she took over; by the time she left it was at 2.5 million and selling for $2.95 a copy.

Brown was replaced as the U.S. editor of Cosmopolitan by Bonnie Fuller in 1997, but remained editor of Cosmopolitan's international editions.

For all the advice she gave to single women, she remained married to her husband, David Brown, for more than 50 years. Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor, was a successful movie producer, whose credits included "The Sting." "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Jaws." He died at age 93 in 2010.

Together they established the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. They made a $30 million donation to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford's Engineering School designed to develop journalism in the context of new technologies.

Brown was born on February 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark.  Her family moved to Los Angeles following the death of her father, who at one point headed the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission.

She graduated as valedictorian of Sun Valley's John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939 and from Woodbury Business College in 1941. Over the next few years she worked at the Daily News newspaper, the William Morris Agency and the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency. Her work there landed her a job at Kenyon and Eckhardt, where she was among the highest paid women in the advertising industry. 

The news of her death was delivered to her colleagues Monday morning in an internal memo from Hearst chief executive officer Frank A. Bennack, Jr:

Dear Hearst Colleague:

I know you will join me in feelings of great sadness upon learning of the loss of our dear friend and colleague Helen Gurley Brown. Helen passed away this morning at the McKeen Pavilion at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia after a brief hospitalization. She was 90.

 It would be hard to overstate the importance to Hearst of her success with Cosmopolitan, or the value of the friendship many of us enjoyed with her. Helen was one of the world’s most recognized magazine editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism—and beyond.

 Life here will somehow not seem the same without her near-daily arrival at 300 West 57th Street.

Donations may be made to The Pussycat Foundation, c/o Karen Sanborn, Hearst Corp., 300 W. 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, to fund media innovation at Columbia and Stanford Universities. A fall memorial will be announced at a later date.