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Dane Huckelbridge. Morrow, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 9780062389756
Tig Notaro. Ecco, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-226663-7
Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. St. Martin's/ Dunne, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-250-10892-0
Gwyneth Paltrow. Grand Central Life & Style/Goop, $35 (288p) ISBN 978-1-45558-421-5
Gerri Hirshey. FSG/Crichton, $27 (528p) ISBN 978-0-374-16917-6
Hirshey’s compelling biography of Helen Gurley Brown chronicles a peculiarly American sexual history, beginning with the breadwinner-housewife marriages that birthed the baby boom generation. So it’s more than a little amazing that when in 1964 Brown published Sex and the Single Girl—in which she acknowledged having 178 affairs before marrying David Brown at age 37—she didn’t think encouraging unmarried women to enjoy sex was radical or revolutionary. She described the book as mainly practical, sharing what she and her girlfriends had been talking about for nearly two decades. If a woman had challenging work and great sex, children and husbands could come later.
This 500-page biography, thoroughly researched and reported, covers Helen’s childhood in rural Arkansas, sometimes inflating difficulties common to Depression-era families. Brown’s mother, Cleo, made thoughtless comments that damaged her self-confidence. (Didn’t all mothers of her generation do that?) A fatal elevator accident killed her father, leaving his 10-year-old daughter with “daddy issues” for life. Brown’s older sister, Mary, contracted polio and lost the ability to walk.
Those childhood difficulties may or may not have triggered the neuroses Brown battled throughout life. She sought psychiatric help for depression at age 22 and financial insecurity plagued her.
Weight preoccupations caused other neurotic behavior. She exercised fanatically at home and at the office, where she once stripped down to her underwear to work out in the stairwell.
While Hirshey offers copious evidence of Brown’s eccentricities, she also documents truly admirable traits. A solid work ethic powered her through 17 low-wage clerical jobs before she was finally promoted to a copy writing position at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding. As editor of Cosmopolitan, she worked 70–80 hours per week. An exacting perfectionist, she was admired by her staff as a fair and thoughtful boss with business acumen learned on the job: she managed a tight budget, repackaged book chapters into articles, expanded ads, and increased circulation. She lived leanly and sent a quarter of her monthly salary home to her difficult mother and paralyzed sister.
Brown’s compete makeover of Cosmopolitan overloaded the magazine with self-help articles about sex, beauty, fashion, girlfriends, jobs, money, and pleasing your man. She drove most of her writers bonkers at least once (myself included), rewriting copy that might make her “girls” mad, guilty, sad, wounded, or insulted. She made some tremendous blunders (refusing to examine AIDS and the need for safe sex) and ignored important issues (both abortion and birth control were illegal in some states), exempting herself from controversy because she was “a pragmatist, not an activist.” But, as Hirshey concludes, she ruled with naïveté and sincerity that were impossible to fake. (July)
Mary Kay Blakely is a professor of magazine journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and coeditor of Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference (Univ. of Missouri, Apr.).