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Helen Gurley Brown papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00022

Scope and Contents

Types of material in this collection include personal and professional correspondence, published and unpublished writings, personal records and memorabilia, printed materials, photographs, biographical materials, an audiotaped interview, videotapes, phonograph albums, scrapbooks, and posters.

Some material pertaining primarily to David Brown can be found in SERIES I. BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS and SERIES IV. WRITINGS. Since he collaborated with Helen on many of her projects, his work is interspersed throughout her papers. Helen Gurley Brown has been a pivotal figure in the magazine world in the second half of the twentieth century, and her papers give an insider's look into the Hearst organization, one of the most powerful media organizations of this century, and the publishing industry in general. The papers also address topics well beyond the world of magazines. Her work as an advertising copywriter at a time when women were not expected to work outside of the home certainly deserves consideration, and her call for "liberation" of the single woman was among the first. Brown's rags to riches career was unusual at a time when most women still did not work outside the home. Her experience of moving from pink-collar clerical worker to wealthy doyenne of the mass media was unique. She helped shape the popular culture of the 1960s and beyond. Sex and the Single Girl ushered in a spate of "Sex and the..." imitators but also launched a cultural dialogue on the question of the unmarried, sexually active, employed woman. The look of Cosmopolitan, which was conveyed on the signature covers photographed by Francesco Scavullo and the racy cover blurbs, defined young women's magazines for much of the second half of the twentieth century. As her career progressed, Brown associated with rich and influential people, who are well-represented in her collection. Additionally, the strong responses, both positive and negative, elicited by Brown's work give a sense of changing and conflicting public opinion on questions of sex, gender, and the media.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1865 - 2012
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1961-1990


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use with following restrictions on access: Three pieces of correspondence with Liz Smith are closed pending determination of access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that it owns copyright, Helen Gurley Brown's estate has retained copyright in her works donated to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by Helen Gurley Brown, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Author and magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown was born in Green Forest, Arkansas on 18 February 1922 to Ira and Cleo (Sisco) Gurley, both schoolteachers. Though the family was poor, Cleo quit teaching to rear her two daughters. In Helen's early childhood, the Gurleys moved to Little Rock when Ira was elected to the state legislature. He was killed in an elevator accident when Helen was ten. Cleo struggled to support her children in depression-era Arkansas, first moving back with family in the Ozark region, and then taking Helen and her older sister Mary to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. In Los Angeles, Mary contracted polio, which strained the Gurley's already grim financial condition. Despite hardship, Helen excelled socially and academically. She was active in leadership positions in several high school clubs and graduated class valedictorian.

Helen Gurley spent a year at the Texas State College for Women and then returned to Los Angeles to put herself through Woodbury Business College. Cleo and Mary moved back to Arkansas but remained dependent on Helen's financial support, a situation which continued for the remainder of their lives. Helen graduated from Woodbury with a business degree in 1941 and took on a succession of secretarial jobs. The seventeenth job, at the advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, was pivotal to Helen's future success.

Helen Gurley worked as executive secretary to Don Belding. During this time, she won a Glamour magazine contest for "Girls of Taste" that awarded her a vacation and a wardrobe. She had an active dating life, including a romance with prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Gurley's hard work captured the attention of her boss, and at the suggestion of his wife, Don Belding experimented, allowing Helen to write advertising copy. She succeeded at the task, and moved from secretarial work to copywriting. She wrote ads for several accounts, won prizes for her copy, and by the late 1950s had become the best-paid female copywriter on the West Coast.

In 1959, at the age of 37, Helen found a marriage partner in David Brown, a magazine and book editor who would become a film executive at the Twentieth Century Fox Studios, and later an independent producer. He was also an uncredited partner behind many of Helen's projects. After she found her advertising career stagnating at Foote, Cone, and Belding and then the Kenyon and Eckhardt Agency, it was David who encouraged her to write a book about her life as a single woman. The result, Sex and the Single Girl (1962), captured a zeitgeist of the early 1960s.

Bernard Geis Associates, a maverick publishing house, found great success with Brown's book, a guide to living single "in superlative style." It later published the wildly successful potboilers of Jacqueline Susann. Sex and the Single Girl, an advice manual that exhorted women to remain single and find fulfillment in an occupation and non-marital relationships with men, sparked national controversy and remained on the best-seller lists for months. Helen Gurley Brown made frequent personal, television, and radio appearances to promote the book. Rights to the title were sold to Warner Brothers at the highest price then ever paid for a non-fiction title. The film, Sex and the Single Girl (1964), starred Natalie Wood (as Helen Gurley Brown) and Tony Curtis.

Following the success of Sex and the Single Girl, David Brown and Bernard Geis Associates marketed Helen in a variety of enterprises. She wrote a syndicated newspaper advice column, recorded phonograph albums and radio spots, and wrote prodigiously. Her next book, Sex and the Office (1964), a racier advice manual and expose of a sex-filled world of secretaries, sold disappointingly in comparison to Sex and the Single Girl.

The Browns submitted proposals for a variety of works to keep up the momentum of Helen's popularity following Sex and the Single Girl: plays, television shows, other books, and magazines. Their proposal for a magazine for single women ("Femme") drew the interest of the Hearst magazine corporation. Though they did not want to start a new magazine for Brown, they made a trial agreement for her to try her format at their failing general interest magazine, Cosmopolitan. Brown officially became editor of Cosmopolitan in July 1965, and she brought dramatic changes to the first issue.

Brown converted the conservative Cosmopolitan to a female counterpart of Hugh Hefner's iconic Playboy magazine. She featured sexy cover models, controversial subject matter, and a hip sensibility that garnered a large audience quickly. While editing Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown authored The Single Girl's Cookbook (1969) and Sex and the New Single Girl (1971), continued to be a guest on many TV shows, and became one of Hearst's biggest success stories. Meanwhile, David Brown, along with partner Richard Zanuck, produced many successful films, including The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, Deep Impact, and Chocolat.

In 1983 Helen wrote the best-seller Having it All, an advice manual and memoir in the style of Sex and the Single Girl. In the 1980s, she also had television stints as a regular on Good Morning America, a short-lived syndicated show A View from Cosmo, and was a guest on talk shows. She continued to edit the highly successful Cosmopolitan, which had by the 1980s grown to 300 pages, of which a hundred were highly lucrative advertisements. She oversaw expansion of the Cosmopolitan franchise into numerous international editions. In 1993 she wrote The Late Show, an advice manual and memoir about growing older. She published a writing guide, The Writer's Rules, in 1999, and in 2000 wrote her definitive memoir, I'm Wild Again.

Brown's career was often marked by controversy. Sex and the Single Girl, a celebration of independent womanhood published a year before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, sparked much dispute about women's place in pre-women's movement popular culture. In a literary world that had only recently seen the lessening of stringent restrictions on the portrayal of sex, Brown's emphasis on sex drew much opposition from conservative critics. However, by the late 1960s, she and her vision of adamantly man-obsessed womanhood drew opposition from non-conservatives as well. The incipient women's movement targeted Brown's limited vision of liberation. Feminists criticized the sex-object "Cosmo Girl" and envisioned a mass media that reflected a greater range of possibilities for women than the pink collar, man-obsessed vision of Cosmopolitan. Brown's idiosyncratic notions of liberation and sexual freedom raised controversy in later years as well. In the 1990s, her dismissal of sexual harassment as a significant workplace problem and her indifference to the risk of AIDS for heterosexual women drew great wrath again from feminists. Brown nonetheless identified herself and her magazine as unfailingly feminist. She worked on behalf of the National Abortion Rights Action League in support of abortion rights and supported other feminist organizations and causes.

While Brown was frequently the target of criticism, in the last years of her life she also accumulated accolades. Her work at Cosmopolitan was recognized through her election to the Publishing Hall of Fame and a Henry Johnson Fisher Award. She was declared a New York City landmark, being a familiar presence on New York City busses heading from her Central Park West apartment to the Cosmopolitan office. Her admirers and friends included gossip columnist Liz Smith, television journalist Barbara Walters, mogul Malcolm Forbes, and New York Mayor Ed Koch.

In 1997 Brown gave up her editorship of Cosmopolitan to become editor-in-chief of international editions of the magazine. Far from a retiree, she remained a workaholic in her new job, enjoyed travel with David, who continued to produce hit films until his death in 2010, and still voiced "outrageous" opinions that made her a frequent presence in newspapers and magazines. In early 2012 she established the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, donating $30 million dollars to collaborating institutions, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford School of Engineering. Helen Gurley Brown died in a Manhattan hospital on 13 August 2012.


28.563 linear feet (58 containers)

Language of Materials



Helen Gurley Brown was editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, advertising copywriter, journalist, and author. The bulk of the material provides a comprehensive picture of Brown's intertwined personal and professional lives. Materials include speeches and scripts, writings, audiovisual material, and memorabilia, as well as records from Cosmopolitan. A large selection of photographs include images of celebrity friends. There is extensive correspondence from celebrities, publishers, fans, and others. Correspondents include Edward Koch, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Barbara Walters.


This collection is organized into six series:



This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Helen Gurley Brown donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in multiple donations between 1972 and 2008.

Additional Formats

Selections of audiotapes from this collection have been digitized and are available to view online (on Smith campus only).

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. A full crosswalk of old to new numbers is available.

Processing Information

In 2022, the finding aid of this collection was reviewed and as part of a policy to avoid language that stigmatizes mental illness, the outdated term "man-crazy" used by previous archivists was replaced with "man-obsessed."

Finding aid to the Helen Gurley Brown papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Amanda Izzo
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss142 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:11-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2019-03-21: Made paper edit changes and updated finding aid.
  • 2019-03-29: Added digital accessions and re-published.
  • 2021-07-02: Added content description from accession inventories
  • 2022-09-29: Clarified access restrictions

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063