Great to read Anna David's piece about Helen Gurley Brown and her impact on women's lives. Helen changed my life.
The year was 1956 and I was standing in the ladies' room at Foote Cone Belding, the ad agency where I was working. I held up my compact so I could see my profile in the big mirror over the row of white sinks.
Right then, my boss, executive copywriter Helen Gurley, strode in.
"And what are you doing?"
"I... well, I just hate my nose," I said.
"You should have it done," Miss Gurley snapped.
I wanted to tell her, "You should have your name changed. It's too cutesy for you." But what I said was that it made me look like my father and to get it done would be a serious rejection of him.
"It's your nose," Miss Gurley snapped again, "and have you finished the astrology pantyhose catalogue for Hanes? The deadline is tomorrow morning. We will be staying here all night until it is done. I trust that's clear."
She was like Rosalind Russell crossed with the Wicked Witch.
"I'm about through Virgo," I said.
We stayed all night. We were on the floor in her office drinking coffee out of paper cups.
"See," Helen says, "how much snappier this sentence is now? Cut these words. Take this out. Move this here."
"But those are some of my best bits. I really like this!"
"Words are not accessories. Not decorations. Get to the point. Use exactly the word you really need." She shook her head. "The word must be required. The word is not something to hang on the wall. Cut is the hardest word a writer hears. Learn it."
She looked at the gold charm bracelet I always wore. My parents gave me a new charm every year.
"Words are not charms to hang on a sentence." Exasperation, that shake of her head.
"Too many rattle and distract the reader."
Perhaps Miss Gurley was a foster child or packed her own lunch for school. She did not talk about family. This was work. She showed me the way a writer does work.
"And what does this mean?" Slash.
We finished the "Star Sign Guide To Your Legs" by 4 a.m. Downtown was an empty set. I felt like a New York copywriter now as I drove home.
I did not wear the charm bracelet to work again.
A few years later, I read Helen's book and wrote her about how much I liked it. She was famous now in New York. I doubted she'd see the letter. A week later, I got a phone call from Helen Gurley Brown.
She was Editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine now, she told me, and making some changes.
"I'd like you to write something for us," she said.
"Anything!" I was excited.
"I'd like you to get your nose done and write about it."
"Yes, you can. And Cosmo will pay for it."
It was a real assignment. And for a New York magazine.
I had the nose job. Wrote the story. I stopped wearing off-beat hats to shade my profile. I walked smart. I felt tall.
She changed my life.
Then, a few months later, Helen called, "I'd like you to write about the female orgasm."
"What is that?" I asked.
"It's a response women should get from good sex. And most women don't know what it is either. I want you to read everything you can, talk to doctors, other women and men. And write all about what you find," she paused. "Happy hunting."
For most of us, the intercourse thing was still largely about lying down with him on top of you going up and down until he falls asleep. Then, I'd get up and work on my novel about a great artist who was really a woman.
I did some research on something called the Orgone Box, a Victorian kind of telephone booth you'd go into and get one. But no one showed you how it really worked and it was invented by a doctor. It looked like it was a new way to kill women, who were hunting for a feeling that wasn't any of their damn business.
Then, at a party, the very appealing artist husband of one of my friend's looked me over: "I can help you with your research. I have some good ideas."
The next day we met up and the rules slipped away, easily as clothes, I learned, in the gentle language of our time, what the sexual exchange could really be.
Helen was far ahead of her time in every way. Like so many of the great women who guided me, who taught me how to write, and to love, Helen had no patience for sentimental dithering, self-pity and rambling.
"The Ostentatious Orgasm" was the right story at the right time -- we didn't know it then. You never know until you look back at how connected your own moves are to major cultural tides. I was deeply scared and embarrassed by this hot, dangerous feeling. It was evil, surely a sin, but not to men who had written about it so well. I fell for Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, oh yes, and now Lady Chatterley's Lover, seemed innocent as the tulle formals we once wore, our firm neat little tits pressed carefully into the tight-boned strapless bodices, not a line of cleavage to be seen. Cleavage, like orgasm, was a word one never said. The sex games that start with such light laughter and smooching now got all dark and interesting. The more inventive the guy, the more creative it got.
And sex, now, was an enormously comfortable exchange which expanded our communication, the remarkable release we give each other's spirits.