Twenty-one years ago, the world’s most successful magazine editor stepped down. In a dazzling 32-year reign, Helen Gurley Brown had transformed the pre-internet fortunes of Cosmopolitan and its publisher, the Hearst Corporation. It was a stunning second career for the former advertising copywriter who had written the 1962 bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl”.
She had no journalistic experience when, aged 43, she pitched her idea of a new-style young women’s magazine to Hearst. You can imagine the rolling eyes as Brown told the group of middle-aged executives bluntly: “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true—that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
Her vision morphed into a plan to turn the 80-year-old former literary magazine Cosmopolitan upside down and pick up where her book left off. It was a radical idea for the magazine then best known for its family-oriented novels and short stories. Like many general interest publications, it had suffered from the 1950s growth in TV audiences and advertising revenue that marked America’s consumer boom.
Once so profitable
The old Cosmopolitan had once been super-profitable, with a circulation of 1.7m and $5m of advertising back in the 1930s. It had even branched out into Hollywood movies. Those were the halcyon days when the intensely-political Randolph Hearst made more profit from his magazines than from his infamous newspapers. He had bought Cosmopolitan for $400k in 1904.
Unbeknown to Brown, her revolutionary vision for a “new” Cosmopolitan actually became the company’s only realistic alternative to closing the magazine altogether. But she still had to fight for her plan to turn it into a publication that spoke to the changing attitudes and appetites of young women. It would be a magazine for people like her: women with strong desires for men, independence, sex and equality. No mention of families or children.
In July 1965, Helen Gurley Brown became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan – and launched it into publishing history.