Literary critic Cyril Connelly once said that inside every fat man a thin man was struggling to get out. He himself was also quite fat. But is it the case that inside every monster a human being is struggling to get out? This was obviously so with Shakespeare’s wonderful invention, Caliban; but what about the real-life Helen Gurley Brown, whose obituary featured in the Telegraph earlier this week?
“HGB” as she was known to her staff on Cosmopolitan magazine, which she edited for 31 years, seems to have lived a life of monstrous selfishness before finally conceding defeat to the Grim Reaper aged 90. Among other things about her, we learn that in 1965 she got hold of this insignificant Midwestern publication and turned it more or less overnight into a publishing phenomenon with a worldwide readership of 33 million. How did she achieve such a success? Her formula, which reflected how she lived her own personal life, was very simple: to appeal to the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” This was packaged in five words: “Men, love, work, achievement, fun.”
What makes her seem so appalling to me at least, was her ruthlessness. She allowed nothing to come between her and her determination to push her raucous and shallow values onto as wide a readership of gullible young women as she possibly could. Like that other brittle oddity, the Duchess of Windsor, who once said one could never be too thin or too rich, one of HGB’s opinions was that “Skinny is sacred.” Growing old, she thought, was “the most disgusting thing in the world.” Well it would be, if sex appeal, youth and your appearance are all that matters. Making a deliberate decision, aged 37, to marry a film-maker she had targeted for his power and wealth, she chose to be childless. It does not surprise us to learn that she saw children as “horrible little competitors” for the admiration of others. They would have cramped her style; she had to be centre-stage.
Her first book, published in 1962 and an immediate best-seller, was “Sex and the Single Girl”. Described in a Telegraph review as “this most nauseous of handbooks” (you couldn’t write that in today’s climate), it nevertheless caught the spirit of the age, which was hedonistic, rebellious and armed with the supposed sexual freedom offered by the invention of the contraceptive pill. “Sex is wonderful and to be a sex object is fabulous”, stated this high-priestess of women’s lib. Interestingly, although HGB preached that girls should be in charge of their own destiny and that sex did not mean babies, she was never at one with the feminist movement. “Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle” was the fatuous slogan of a feminist pioneer, but HGB, like Barbara Cartland, the romantic novelist, intuited that women wanted romance as part of the “fun” equation: “romance” – but not marriage or building a home or raising a family. A later generation of young women, wrestling with “having it all”, found her deliberate child-free life alien to their own struggles to juggle children and a career.
The Telegraph obituary reveals a lot about HGB in its dry and understated way: “By her later years her face had been so lifted, botoxed, dermabraded and plumped with silicone that it was only residually human.” Poor old girl. I contrasted this pathetic image with the life (and face) of Sister Wendy Beckett, the hermit and art critic, who was interviewed recently in the Herald. Sr Wendy, who is now in her 80s, isn’t bothered about her looks or her figure; nor, as a nun, have men figured in her life. Yet she radiates the happiness, fulfilment and inner peace that come from having lived a deeply spiritual life, a life that is God-centred rather than self-centred. There’s a moral in this somewhere.