Not just a little girl from Little Rock

Helen Gurley Brown wasn't just a little girl from Little Rock, to borrow a lyric from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." No, sir, she was from Green Forest, Ark., which is about 125 miles up the road from Little Rock. And from Los Angeles as well as Texas State College for Women at Denton, to name a couple of other locales that could claim her.

Born in 1922, the daughter of schoolteachers, she soon had to learn how to fend for herself. What would you say the chances were for a girl who lost her father at 10 (in a freak elevator accident at the state Capitol), had to support her mother and polio-stricken sister the rest of their lives, and wound up knocking around the country?

Answer: The chances are very good (a) if you're born in America, and (b) if you're born Helen Gurley. The young lady was no dummy (class valedictorian at her high school in L.A., and most popular girl, too) and never said no to an adventure. Or failed to learn something of commercial value from it. All of which explains her success, at least by the world's fleeting standards.

"I'm just a little girl from Little Rock/ But fate led me straight to Murray Hill." Well, maybe not straight, but she'd wind up making once fashionable Murray Hill look like the slums. Her obituary in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called her "one of the world's most popular and influential editors," which may say more about the world's taste than hers.

Editor/author Brown's success provides ample documentation for the sage observation attributed to H.L. Mencken that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Onward and Downward! But never call it vulgarity. Call it popularity and influence, which the obit writers politely did in Helen Gurley Brown's case. Nil nisi bonum and all that. After all, her 1962 best-seller "Sex and the Single Girl," was published in 28 countries, translated into 16 languages, and became a Major Motion Picture starring Tony Curtis. So there. She could laugh all the way to the Chase Manhattan.

How describe Helen Gurley Brown? She was a best-selling writer, an advertising copywriter of considerable note, savvy editor, mother confessor who never ceased confessing, certainly a stylesetter, and a combination Mae West and Oprah Winfrey for her (long) time.

What a girl and, soon enough, woman. She edited Cosmopolitan, that supermarket staple, for 32 years and made it a guide for young women all over the world who adopted her advice ("Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere") or pretended to.

Editor and celebrity Brown knew better than to take her quip too seriously, as her happy marriage/love affair of 51 years attested. But she talked, wrote and sold a great game. And was 90 when she finally threw in her cards the other day.

Maybe she didn't raise the standards of American taste, but at least she took some of the starchier prejudices out of it. And her own tastes were certainly better than those who confused what she wrote with literature.

In whatever category her own prose fell, Editor Brown could spot quality in that of others, and could sum it up in a pithy phrase. Her most memorable editorial judgment may have been scribbled on a submission from a contributor to Cosmopolitan named Florence King, whom Ms. Brown always addressed by the reversed salutation, "Florence Dear," but whom connoisseurs of American prose will know as a thinker, delight, misanthrope, conservative lesbian feminist, and Southerner par excellence. And that scarcely covers her complexity.

. . .

Miss King must have needed the money to wind up publishing her stuff in Cosmo's pages, but don't we all need some at one time or another? Which would explain those bodice-rippers and porno pulps she'd punch out for fun and profit under a nom de plume, or at least nom de typewriter. ("Nothing is more frustrating than sitting in an office amid typewriters and mimeographers when you know what deus ex machina means." --King, F.)

. . .

If the distinguishing traits of the Southern character are identity, complexity and eccentricity, Miss Florence has 'em all plus a subversive depth behind her devastating wit. All of which Helen Gurley Brown summed up in her note on that submission to Cosmo: "Well, we never get anything pippy-poo from Florence, she's always so warpy-and-woofy."

Brevity is the soul of good editorial judgment as well as wit. Who says Helen Gurley Brown wasn't a great writer? At least in her editorial notes. For it takes one to tell one. The moral of her life story: Never underestimate a little girl from ... Green Forest, Ark.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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