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Sex and the 70-Something Girl

Helen Gurley Brown is still flaunting the libidinal prowess that made her the uber Cosmo girl.

June 08, 2000|SHERYL McCARTHY | NEWSDAY

Helen Gurley Brown still has sex with her husband.

Even though she's 78 and he's 83, they are still going strong in the bedroom, she told Newsweek. The cover story was about scientists' efforts to treat sexual dysfunction in women of all ages, but Brown wants us to know that in her late 70s she's more interested in sex than ever.

Why, she and her husband, David, just had sex the other night, she boasts in her confessional, while an accompanying photograph shows the author sexily clad in a short black dress and fishnet stockings.

The endearing thing about Brown has always been the honesty with which she acknowledged the struggles of her own life, even as she grew famous by editing a magazine based on hype and glamour.

Ask about her life and Brown, immaculate in a pink Chanel suit, will talk about growing up poor in the Ozarks, being physically plain, poorly educated and not noticeably bright, without social contacts and burdened with the responsibility of supporting a depressed mother and a disabled sister.

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She worked a string of secretarial jobs until she stumbled onto a job with a Hollywood mogul and became his mistress because she craved money and security. When he didn't deliver the goods, she dumped him and moved on to yet another clerical job.

Through hard work and determination, she rose from secretary to advertising copywriter, wrote a bestselling guidebook for single women, saved enough money to buy a used Mercedes-Benz and won the hand of David Brown, a movie producer who became a movie mogul.

In the 1962 bestseller "Sex and the Single Girl," she tells her readers that they shouldn't feel guilty about having sex and that in the absence of eligible bachelors married men would sometimes have to do. During a television interview with famous couples years ago, while the other women described love at first sight and how their husbands ardently pursued them, Brown confessed that David, who was divorced, didn't want to get married again and married her only after she delivered an ultimatum.

At Cosmopolitan magazine, which she edited for 32 years until her reluctant retirement in 1997, she tantalized her young, single, working women readers with visions of the glamorous lives they could have if they only dressed the right way, wore the right perfume, told men the right things and were good in bed. She dispensed the kind of advice she wished she had gotten as a young woman, on how to get a man to give you cash and an apartment and the jewels you wanted, on how to have fantastic sex and, most important, on how to get him to marry you.

While many of Cosmo's readers were, in a word she coined, "mouseburgers" (plain and unexceptional, as Brown had been), the women on the cover were gorgeous and sexy. The magazine pushed the primal importance of sexy lingerie, even though most women I know find lace-trimmed teddies uncomfortable and impractical and most men I know couldn't care less about them.

Sometimes the magazine carried articles on serious subjects, but one writer who was assigned to do a piece about domestic violence was instructed to glam it up by changing the ages and professions and social class of the couples she had written about. Even violence, in Cosmo, had to be glamorized.

So now here comes Helen, retired as editor of Cosmopolitan, but with a consulting role, telling us that she still enjoys sex. In fact, a woman who stops having sex stops being feminine, she says.

"Sex is healthy, revitalizing, energizing, nurturing," and women older than 60 shouldn't feel guilty about pursuing it and enjoying it.

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That's good advice, on the whole, except that one senses in Brown's relentless quest to remain sexy a kind of desperation and fear--of losing her husband to another woman, of being nobody if she no longer has a job and the status that comes with it, of being unattractive if her stomach starts to pooch out, of not being a woman if she gives up sex.

Given her accomplishments, one wishes she could just relax. She has written bestselling books, built Cosmo into a huge success, married a millionaire. But one still feels that her self-esteem depends on those traditional female obsessions: looking good and having a man.

In her latest book, "I'm Wild Again: Snippets from My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts" (St. Martin's) Brown celebrates the freedom that older women have to be sexy, to attract men, to have fun. But one gets the feeling that she's now starting to hype her own life. At any rate, the daily physical workouts, the plastic surgery, even the sex, sound exhausting.

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