For the 112th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Paula Hunt describes the transformation Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown brought to the magazine and the commercial success that followed.
Independent scholar Paula Hunt’s work focuses on 19th and 20th century American media history and practices. She is the author of “Editing Desire, Working Girl Wisdom, and Cupcakeable Goodness: Helen Gurley Brown and the Triumph of Cosmopolitan,” published in the Fall 2012 issue of Journalism History.
Featured Image: Helen Gurley Brown, full-length portrait, sitting on a desk / World Telegram & Sun photo by John Bottega. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/99472883/
Paula Hunt: Almost from the get-go, Cosmopolitan started churning out money for Hearst. At one time, it was making as much money as 12 other Hearst magazine titles combined. And that kind of success gives you a lot of leeway with management.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
[0:01:00] For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
The 1960s were a sexy time, or at least our general understanding of American popular culture would tell us. A big influence on that understanding is, undoubtedly, Cosmopolitan magazine. Cosmo, after beginning as a general interest magazine and featuring both literature and muckraking articles, was eventually transformed into a magazine that unabashedly discussed sexuality and single-womanhood that was at the cutting-edge of the sexual revolution.
Behind that transformation was Helen Gurley Brown, who edited Cosmopolitan from the mid-’60s through the late-1990s. And joining me to explain how Brown managed this transition and the tremendous financial success that followed is Paula Hunt, an independent scholar who has studied Brown
[0:02:00] and her influence over Cosmopolitan magazine.
Paula, welcome to the show. Now, you would expect research on a magazine like Cosmopolitan to be pretty focused, or at least I would, on what everybody else thinks of when they hear “Cosmo,” like a preoccupation with sex. But your research is far more interested in things like management and identity. Why is that?
Paula Hunt: Well, I wanted to take an institutional approach by examining Brown’s journalism practices, simply because there did seem to be a space for doing that, because a great deal of the research focuses on the coverage of sex and sexuality, and whether or not Brown was a feminist or not. And Brown herself credited the success of Cosmopolitan to the writing, so, why not take a look
[0:03:00] at the writing and the institutional practices that she said were the reason for the success, the fabulous success, of Cosmopolitan?
Ken Ward: Sure, that makes sense to me. Now, you mentioned Brown, Helen Gurley Brown, we’ll get to her in just a second, but could you help us understand a little bit about how Cosmopolitan came to be in the first place? Like, where is this magazine? How did it get started? What did its early content look like?
Paula Hunt: Cosmopolitan started in the late nineteenth century, kind of a general interest magazine, literary bent. William Randolph Hearst purchased it in 1905, and he really turned it into a literary powerhouse. I mean, it published George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. It published this muckraking article, “Treason of the Senate,” in 1906 by David Graham Phillips. So it had a very, very hefty, deep, respected background in the early twentieth century.
[0:04:00] And as what happened to many magazines starting in the 1940s, these general interest magazines really started to lose a lot of steam, and we started to see more specialized magazines, like Sports Illustrated, that were very narrowly-focused. And Cosmopolitan really became rudderless; it was all over the place. So by the time Helen Gurley Brown came in, in the 1960s, it was pretty much on its last legs, and Hearst, the publisher, was ready to close it down.
Ken Ward: So, you mentioned these broader changes that were going on in the magazine industry during this first half of the 1900s. You also mentioned who we’re going to focus on, Brown. How much of the sort of change in the way magazines looked, during that first half of the century, how much of that had to do with things like leadership? If we’re going to really focus in on Brown,
[0:05:00] how important is an editor to a publication like Cosmopolitan, or magazines more broadly?
Paula Hunt: Well, during this time, the editor was essential. The editor was the individual who put the stamp on a magazine. And most of the people working at this time were really embedded in magazine publishing. They had been working there for years; if not at a single title, they would move from one title to the other. But really, as an editor, at this time, you were the one who picked the content, who picked how the magazine looked. You knew what was gonna be on the cover, you knew what the content was gonna be, so you really had, at this time, a great deal of control over magazines. Particularly because this was an era before data-driven decision-making, so it was really the editor and the team of editors who decided what this magazine was gonna be.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. And so, in your research,
[0:06:00] you argue that, at Cosmopolitan, it was a woman named Helen Gurley Brown who turned the magazine around during this period of decline. So, fill us in, who was Brown? Where did she come from? What was her background?
Paula Hunt: Well, Helen Gurley Brown would tell you that she was a hillbilly from Arkansas.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Paula Hunt: Unapologetically. She was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, in 1922. Her father died when she was 10. She and her mother and her older sister moved to Los Angeles. Her sister contracts polio. They had no money; they had no connections. Helen Gurley Brown was quite upfront about her lack of almost anything that might be considered advantageous in getting ahead in the world.
You know, she was not blessed with great looks, she was flat-chested, she had teenage acne, she had no college education, she went to business school to become a secretary.
[0:07:00] So, she really embedded herself in this belief in self-improvement and hard work. And that was really a part of the credibility of her message when she got to Cosmopolitan, which was that, “If I am a hillbilly from Arkansas, with no college education, with not really great looks, if I can do it, you can do it.”
Ken Ward: Well, so, how does she then come to take the editorship of Cosmopolitan? Like, how did she wind up there, of all places? You know, you mentioned no college education, any of those advantages someone else might have – how did she get there?
Paula Hunt: She became a secretary, she had 17 different secretarial jobs, and she managed to get a job at a very well-respected advertising agency in Los Angeles called Foote, Cone & Belding. And she argued her way into becoming a copy editor. And so, she was given
[0:08:00] very what would be called soft accounts, Sunkist orange juice, swimsuits, makeup, and she did very, very well. She got married, finally, at 37, to David Brown, who was a movie producer, and he was the one who really encouraged her to write a book. And this was called Sex and the Single Girl; it was published in 1962. And it was an immediate hit. It sold millions of copies. It made Helen Gurley Brown a household name.
She parlayed the success of the book into a nationally-syndicated newspaper column called “Woman Alone.” So, she had name recognition, she had commercial success, and she also got incredible feedback from the women who read her book and read her newspaper column, and that wrote her letters asking for advice.
[0:09:00] And Helen, being the former advertising person that she was, she said, “This is an audience. This is an audience that’s not being served by any publication out there.” So she and her husband got together and they produced a prototype for a magazine called Femme, and they brought it to Hearst.
And they said, “We’ve got this great idea for a magazine,” and Hearst Publishing says, “We’re not interested in Femme, but, hey, we’ve got this title, Cosmo, over here, that’s not doing anything. Why don’t you edit that?” So she was essentially handed a failing magazine that had no real editorial focus, and she completely turned it around.
Ken Ward: Well, so, how does she go about doing that? What are some of those first steps that she takes, once she actually has control of this magazine?
Paula Hunt: The first thing she does is throw out every single thing that had been commissioned for the magazine and started from ground-zero.
[0:10:00] And her magazine, she essentially wrote it, I think, for herself. Cosmopolitan has been called ‘Helen Gurley Brown’s autobiography.’ This was a magazine for all of the women who bought her book, who read her newspaper column, the messaging being, “You can get anything you want if you work hard enough for it.” Women from about 19 to 34 years old, in what we would call pink-collar jobs, so, these were clerks and secretaries and teachers and stewardesses, that are traditionally roles that you don’t need a college education for, that are traditionally jobs where there’s no, really, way to advance in your career. And she’s telling you, “Yes, you can do this.”
And really, the magazine took off very fast, in terms of
[0:11:00] newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising pages. It was like nothing else that was out there. She had identified an audience that really had nobody speaking for it, and she stepped into the breach and she had this amazing vision for what the magazine was. And she really embodied that editorial role of having complete control over the look, the taste, the sensibility of her magazine.
Ken Ward: So, you said a little bit about who the audience was that she saw for this magazine. What are some of the things that she did to adapt the identify of this magazine to suit that audience, then?
Paula Hunt: Well, when you look at the traditional women’s magazines at that time, these what were called the Seven Sisters, you’re looking at
[0:12:00] the traditional subjects that women’s magazines and a women’s page in a newspaper would cover, which are the four F’s, right? You’re looking at: furnishings, family, food, and fashion. Well, you can pretty much take family off of the table for Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan. The entire spin was, again, it’s self-improvement; it’s for the girl who didn’t go to college and really is looking to get ahead in life and what can she do. It spoke to her in a friendly, happy, big-sister voice that did not talk down to the reader. And I think what’s really important, as well, when we look at Cosmopolitan and is really overlooked was that Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan spoke to readers as workers, as women with jobs, that they should not be afraid to compete with men for jobs.
Every single issue had an article about careers and occupations. It could be how to ask for a raise, it could be how to do your taxes,
[0:13:00] it could be how to keep your diet during a lunch hour. And these were subjects that simply were not covered in other women’s magazines.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. And you mentioned the Seven Sisters there, and the Seven Sisters being that group of magazines that were, like you said, focused on these domestic matters, mostly.
Paula Hunt: Yes.
Ken Ward: And in your research, you also note that those were mostly led by those editors with years of experience in the industry. So, how important was it, then, that Brown was kind of a relative outsider to this culture of the magazine industry?
Paula Hunt: You know, it didn’t matter to Hearst Publishing that she was necessarily an outsider, because she had commercial success. And I think what it did for Brown was that she didn’t know the rules of publishing, so she didn’t have to adhere to any preconceived ideas of what a women’s magazine could or should be.
[0:14:00] She had a lot of experience in advertising, and magazines rely on advertising for success. She was, despite her protestations, very smart, very shrewd, and very hardworking, and I think that she had an unfail-able belief in her gut instincts as to what this magazine should be.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. Now, in one of your articles about Brown, you note that a Cosmo staffer, you actually quote this Cosmo staffer, as saying, of Brown’s editing style, that she “edits a magazine the way magazines used to be edited before all this committee crap.” And that was a quote that really stuck out to me as I was reading. So, you know, what was the effect of this very personal, very involved approach that Brown took to editing this magazine?
Paula Hunt: Cosmopolitan was Helen Gurley Brown, in that, again, she had an able
[0:15:00] belief in what this magazine was. Nothing went into Cosmopolitan that, as she said, couldn’t help her readers get through the night. And I think we lose sight of that now, again, when decisions are data-driven and by committee, you know, a group of editors get together and they decide what’s gonna work, what’s not gonna work. This is not how Cosmopolitan ran, and she had a very firm grip on what went into her magazine; she had policies and practices put together that went out to all the editors. I have seen, in her papers, there will be a five-page memo about an article and what needs to improve in it. So she was very hands-on, and again, this magazine was a complete reflection that fused her lifestyle
[0:16:00] and her beliefs into a media product.
Ken Ward: I find it really interesting, just personally, because it seems like a lot of times when you have someone – in another context, we might call that micromanagement, right? When it doesn’t work, I suppose, [laughs] we call it micromanagement, where we have someone who is so hands-on, has such a strong influence in matters that they might not otherwise have. I wonder why it worked so well in this particular case. Do you have any idea why it was that, in this circumstance, it was so effective?
Paula Hunt: Cosmopolitan was fabulously successful. That’s why she continued to have complete control. Almost from the get-go, Cosmopolitan started churning out money for Hearst. At one time, it was making as much money as 12 other Hearst magazine titles combined, and that kind of success gives you a lot of leeway with management. She tread carefully;
[0:17:00] she was not a bull in a china shop. But she was very firm in what she asked for, and she could always point to the bottom line and say, “My title makes Hearst lots of money,” and it’s true. And that is what gave her – if Cosmopolitan was not a success, she would’ve had far less freedom to write about the things that she did.
Ken Ward: Sure, that makes sense. So, you mentioned, there, sort of this very practical side of Brown. She seems like an extremely practical person, right? If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And she sort of had this, I think you said, an unshakeable belief in what she was doing. I wonder if that leads us to a conversation about some of the ethical problems that sometimes may have, you know, been involved while she was editing the magazine. Things like accepting gifts, accepting travel from advertisers, maybe even
[0:18:00] having some parts of some stories fabricated in Cosmopolitan. So, you know, speak a little bit about the ethical problems that Cosmopolitan may have seen during Brown’s tenure as editor.
Paula Hunt: Yeah, specifically, in consumer magazines, the wall between the business side and the editorial side is not – let’s just say it’s more permeable than, say, a newspaper should be in terms of accepting gifts and freebies. So, a practice – it was not an unknown practice in, particularly, consumer magazines to have writers go on junkets and accept gifts. The difference with Cosmopolitan is that it was far more, I would say, part of the way of doing business, and that it kind of slipped into some other ethical
[0:19:00] issues concerning fabricating quotes, fabricating sources, anonymous sources, not doing due diligence in terms of double checking your sources, and even using, you know, government studies as a source. The magazine simply did not do this.
There was a woman, one of the writers, essentially, admitted she made up a source about a call girl that went into the magazine. Writers would ask that their names be removed from stories, simply because of the heavy hand of editing that made it uncomfortable for the writer to be associated with that particular article. So, I don’t think that Helen Gurley Brown particularly had any problems with this. If a fabricated quote made the story brighter and jumped out, I don’t think she
[0:20:00] had a problem with that.
Ken Ward: Gotcha, gotcha. So, you know, Brown winds up being the editor of Cosmopolitan for decades. So, how did Cosmopolitan and the magazine industry change as that tenure stretched across those decades? Did her style change, at all?
Paula Hunt: No, over the 32 years that she was at the top of the masthead, Cosmopolitan kept up pretty much the steady diet that had started at the beginning. Of, you know, very much based on the emotional needs of the reader, articles about sex, articles about work; it never got into anything heavy-hitting. Where other women’s magazines would start to cover issues such as domestic violence, even cancer, Cosmo really stepped away from any kind of topics that were not
[0:21:00] happy. This was a happy uplifting book. Helen Gurley Brown did not want anyone to open up her magazine and read a downer. It was criticized heavily for, you know, its coverage of AIDS and some health issues, simply because they weren’t very rigorous.
And I think in that way, women’s magazines really became much more sophisticated in addressing the lives of real women, whereas Cosmopolitan was very much still on the kind of same wavelength for all those years. Now, it still made money. You know, toward the end of her tenure, subscriptions were tapering off, but I don’t think that when she was – she was pushed out the door, gently but firmly pushed out the door, in 1997. It was still a competitive magazine, but I think the feeling was that,
[0:22:00] you know, “Helen has had the same ingredients, the same mindset, for 32 years, and we need to have a change.”
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, and so, you mentioned she leaves the magazine in early-1997. As we think a little bit about her legacy, right, did the changes Brown made at Cosmopolitan have a lasting impact, more broadly, maybe, on American culture? You know, how is her influence felt today?
Paula Hunt: I think that Helen Gurley Brown has had a real influence in popular culture. Not necessarily as an editor, but in terms of the idea and the image that she presented of single women. And conflating single women and sex and it being okay. I think we can see her influence in Sex and the City. I think you can see her cultural influence when we watch Mad Men in the figures of Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, two women who started
[0:23:00] out as secretaries and ended up one running her own business and the other woman being a powerful force in advertising. So, I think another way is that this conflation of lifestyle and personality and media as a product, which I think we have really seen in social media in the terms of influencers, I think that Helen Gurley Brown was a force in kind of helping create that phenomenon.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Paula, we’re running out of time. I do, though, want to propose one last question to you; it’s one that we ask all the guests on the show. That is: why does journalism history matter?
Paula Hunt: Well, I think, first of all, journalism history isn’t just about the past or what happened in the past or who the primary actors were in the past. But it’s about a relationship between the past and the present. And I think that engaging in the complexities of the past really challenges us to think not just about journalism but the social and political and economic
[0:24:00] and technological and religious environment in which journalism is created. And I think this kind of engagement helps us with a deeper understanding of the past, and how that past presents itself today. When you know journalism history, you learn how it’s been central to American history and culture; you know what sets American history apart from other countries.
And I think, importantly, you know, in today’s journalism landscape, you look at our history and it kind of gives us some clues as to how we should move forward. I mean, when it was declared that the internet would kill journalism, we only have to think about the same thing was said about the telegraph, radio, and television when they came onto the scene, and journalism is still here.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Paula, I just wanna thank you so much for being on the show. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Paula Hunt: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter
[0:25:00] @jhistoryjournal – that’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, goodnight and good luck.