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Helen Gurley Brown leaves legacy of empowerment

Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine who invited millions of women to join the sexual revolution, has died. She was 90.

'My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own,' Brown said

Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 advice book Sex and the Single Girl propelled the then advertising copywriter to the status of a celebrity. (Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press)

Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine who invited millions of women to join the sexual revolution, has died. She was 90.

Brown died Monday at a hospital in New York after a brief hospitalization, Hearst CEO Frank A. Bennack, Jr. said in a statement.

Sex and the Single Girl, her grab-bag book of advice, opinion, and anecdote on why being single shouldn't mean being sexless, made a celebrity of the 40-year-old advertising copywriter in 1962.

Three years later, she was hired by Hearst Magazines to turn around the languishing Cosmopolitan and it became her bully pulpit for the next 32 years.

She said at the outset that her aim was to tell a reader "how to get everything out of life — the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity — whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against."

"It was a terrific magazine," she said, looking back when she surrendered the editorship of the U.S. edition in 1997. "I would want my legacy to be, 'She created something that helped people.' My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own."

Along the way she added to the language such terms as "Cosmo girl" — hip, sexy, vivacious and smart — and "mouseburger," which she coined first in describing herself as a plain and ordinary woman who must work relentlessly to make herself desirable and successful.

She put big-haired, deep-cleavaged beauties photographed by Francesco Scavullo on the magazine's cover, behind teaser titles like "Nothing Fails Like Sex-cess — Facts About Our Real Lovemaking Needs."

Male centrefolds arrived during the 1970s — actor Burt Reynolds' modestly nude pose in 1972 created a sensation — but departed by the '90s.

Cosmo readership rises

Brown and Cosmo were anathema to militant feminists, who staged a sit-in at her office. One of them, Kate Millet, said, "The magazine's reactionary politics were too much to take, especially the man-hunting part. The entire message seemed to be 'Seduce your boss, then marry him."'

Helen Gurley Brown is shown during an interview at her office in New York on Sept. 20, 1982. (Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press)

Another early critic was Betty Friedan, who dismissed the magazine as "immature teenage-level sexual fantasy" but later came around and said Brown, "in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women."

Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the 2009 biography of Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, a women's studies professor, argued that her message of empowerment made Brown a feminist even if the movement didn't recognize her as such.

There was no disputing that Brown quickly turned a financial turkey into a peacock.

Within four issues, circulation, which had fallen below the 800,000 readers guaranteed to advertisers, was on the rise, even with the newsstand price increasing from 35 cents to 50 and then 60.

Sales grew every year until peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, then slowly levelled off to 2.5 million at $2.95 a copy, where it was when Brown left in 1997. She stayed on as editor in chief of the magazine's foreign editions.

She was still rail-thin, 5 feet 4 inches and within a few pounds of 100 in either direction, as she had kept herself throughout her life with daily exercise and a careful diet.

"You can't be sexual at 60 if you're fat," she observed on her 60th birthday. She also championed cosmetic surgery, speaking easily of her own nose job, facelifts and silicone injections.

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