Hugh Hefner has died at the age of 91, and the next few days will no doubt bring a number of meditations on his legacy. That legacy is considerable — Hefner created a publishing empire and changed the way Americans think about nudity and sex. But one of his friends may have had an even bigger impact on media, culture, and sexuality today: Helen Gurley Brown, the long-serving editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and author of the groundbreaking best-seller Sex and the Single Girl.
Hefner’s influence shouldn’t be understated. He didn’t just help make pictures of naked women mainstream — as Laura Mansnerus writes in a New York Times obituary, he also championed sexual openness in a time of rigid mores, campaigning against laws restricting abortion and obscenity. And with Playboy, he pioneered a particular view of male sexuality and success — “the guy who is young, vigorous, indifferent to the bonds of social responsibility,” as sociologist Todd Gitlin put it to the Times — that still holds sway today.
But among midcentury publishing figures and sexual provocateurs, Brown’s legacy may be more enduring than Hefner’s. The two were contemporaries: He was born in 1926 and founded Playboy in 1953, while she was born in 1922 and became editor-in-chief of Cosmo in 1965. They were also friends. In an interview after Brown’s death in 2012, Hefner told the Hollywood Reporter that Brown had approached him for a job before joining Cosmo: “She wanted to do a female version of Playboy,” he said.
“Her views on sexuality and the sexual behavior of unmarried women were radical and the same as mine,” he added. “In terms of male and female relationships, our philosophy was very similar.”
But Brown’s Cosmo was more than a female Playboy, and Brown was far more than a female Hefner.
Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, is famous for making the claim, then considered radical, that a woman could be happy, comfortable, and sexually fulfilled…