Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That Cosmopolitan Girl

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964.
In 1989, Helen Gurley Brown sent me a four-leaf clover that she had plucked from the lawn of her sister’s house in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and we had been exchanging letters off and on since I left my job at Cosmo, four years earlier, to begin a nomadic life as the wife of an itinerant actor.

After hearing the announcement yesterday of Helen’s death at age 90, I looked through some boxes of memorabilia in search of that clover. I didn’t find it. Maybe it went the way of other HGB mementoes, like the blue-and-white Tiffany plates (a wedding present) and the party dresses (we were the same size). Instead, I found a letter of recommendation that was produced in 1985 on Helen’s clattery old manual typewriter. The voice is distinctly hers—breezy, confidential, and opinionated. “To Anyone This Might Concern,” it began: “Sara Tucker has worked in the copy department of Cosmopolitan for six years, the last two years as head of the department (copy chief). She is really terrific. You know how harried copy departments are. Well, this one has worked the best it’s ever worked because Sara is dedicated, conscientious, gifted and a perfectionist but she is also calm and pragmatic. I am devastated that she is leaving … some lucky company will get to hire her next!”

The words I’ve italicized (Helen loved italics) were actually underscored—her old typewriter didn’t have an italic font. And I’m a little disappointed that I rated only one exclamation point (“screamer” in industry slang), a punctuation mark that Helen adored!

I went to work for Helen in 1979, when she was 57 and at the height of her powers. Cosmo had three million readers then and was thick with ads. I was 26 and knew nothing about copy editing—the task I had been hired to do. I had to learn on the job—just as Helen had done, years before, as an advertising copywriter. There were six of us in the copy department and we went through tons of paper, colored pens, and White-Out—desktop computers were years in the future. It was not a glamorous job, and I worked like a dog—we all did. But nobody worked harder than Helen.

On my last day at Cosmo, Hurricane Gloria struck the East Coast and New Yorkers stayed home. I went to work, because I couldn't not go--I had to clean out my office. Helen was there and she was irate that her entire staff had deserted her on account of the weather. A few of them had rushed out to Long Island to see if their vacation homes were still standing. I remember Helen poised, ramrod straight, at the bulletin board outside my office, posting one of her typewritten notes to the staff. "You're all pantywaists!" she had written. Imagine staying home because of a hurricane.

In my search for the clover, I rediscovered another artifact from those years: a letter that Helen had dictated to her secretary, Ramona. It was dated two weeks after I left the magazine and moved to Louisville, where my husband’s work was then located. “Sara dear,” she wrote. “Thanks for your darling note. We miss you badly—those were such halcyon (because everything worked!) years with you. That is such a tough job and nearly everyone in it goes slightly mad but you never did. Of course you may have Got Out In Time! I’m quite serious – you can always come back.” There’s another paragraph, and then the closing, which reads “Sara, tell me about your life down there when you have a chance. Love, Helen.”

During those six years when I worked for one of the most successful magazines ever published, I often felt like I was wasting my time and talents on a product that had nothing to do with me. I felt utterly disconnected from the Cosmo reader, and the magazine—indeed, the entire magazine industry—inspired in me both fascination and loathing. But the more distance I put between myself and Cosmo, the more I came to appreciate what I’d gained from toiling in Helen’s shadow. In fact, I was developing myself as a writer, an editor, and a human being. I learned skills that I would rely on throughout my career. Helen’s letter of recommendation opened countless doors for me. Maybe the clover helped, too.

Despite Helen’s kind offer to keep the door open, I never went back to Cosmo, and eventually she and I lost touch. The 1989 letter containing the four-leaf clover was my last communication from her. Over the years, I have repeatedly thanked her—in my imagination—for the opportunity that she and Cosmo gave me. But I never expressed my gratitude to her. I became one of many young people for whom Cosmo was just the beginning, not the main event. We gulped the experience and fled, never looking back.

So thank you, Helen, for the Tiffany plates and the Givenchy dresses, the underscores and the screamers (and the passion to go with them!), the lucky charms, the lessons learned, the glamour and the grit. Above all, thanks for the weather-be-damned chutzpah to Get Out In Time and embrace the Next Big Thing, whatever that thing might be.

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