Settling down with Helen Gurley Brown for an evening, via her 1962 exhortation to premarital gratification, Sex and the Single Girl, is much like sharing Thanksgiving dinner with a scandalously un-p.c. great aunt. A throwback to the days when men were men and girls prepared Pepper Steak España for them, this aunt has never learned that one simply doesn’t tell a young woman she has to learn to cook, or come out with statements such as, “No one likes a poor girl. She is a drag.” This is the aunt who is apt to pull you aside and tell you that to get more dates, you ought to change your hair, wear makeup every day, and ditch the chunky heels for more feminine shoes. Appalled as you know you ought to be, you instead find yourself surreptitiously writing down her pronouncements for future memorization, not so much for specific advice, but for the sheer invigoration of opinion without disclaimer, opinion that feels—for all its frequent indefensibility—like something you can grab onto.
At least that’s how it felt to me. I discovered Sex . . . as a single twentysomething—the tattered copy in the used bookstore, falling apart at the spine and missing half of Chapter Eight (“The Care and Feeding of Everybody”). Here, finally, was the friend I’d been looking for in my single life. A friend to whom I wouldn’t have to explain why my preferred Saturday activity—more than any athletic, social, or, God knows, cultural endeavor—was to stay home and clean. (“Spic-and-span the apartment. He does notice, if only subconsciously.”) Here was the friend who understood why, rather than organize potlucks in the park or go out for $15 pasta, some of us erstwhile kitchen slouches were fervidly learning to pound chicken breasts. (“Cooking is part of wooing when you have a live one.”) And speaking of cooking, here was the friend who even acknowledged the instinct a young woman might have, the morning after, for “a hearty little breakfast you can toss together while he is taking a shower.” Here, in other words, was the slightly older, more worldly female friend whose head wasn’t filled with a confusing dialectic of undergraduate gender polemics (of which a little knowledge was proving, for more than a few of us, more than a little confusing) and who could, in short, advise one with the very advice one longed to hear.
That was 10 years ago. Besides the answer to the mystery of the missing half of Chapter Eight—what single girl with any potential wouldn’t rip out the recipes for Stuffed Lobster Tails and Chocolate Angel Pie?—the amazing thing Barricade Books’ blissfully unupdated reissue of Sex . . . offers is the opportunity to confirm that it still holds up. For while part of the fun of Brown’s little book has always been the over-the-top, yet boil-it-all-down brilliance of lines like “What you really need is a black silk Balenciaga great coat” or “After your thirtieth birthday, a Great Dane would do more for your image than two roommates, and dogs don’t borrow sweaters!” Sex . . . does something the other early ’60s revivals (Down With Love; the ghostwritten, 1967 stewardess tell-all Coffee, Tea, or Me?) do not. It transcends camp. Despite the fact that it is being reissued as the first of a projected series of “cult classics,” Sex . . . has something real to offer—though not the something one might assume.
It goes without saying that the nostalgia we feel for the Pillow Talk age is partly our yearning for a simpler moment, a post-war, pre-feminist decade in which a man was free to hold a door and give a compliment—in turn freeing his date, career girl though she might be, to whip up that hearty, post-hook-up breakfast without internal conflict. But on a second go-round, the more fascinating aspect of the world conjured by Sex . . . is that not only do men and women inhabit separate and unequal universes; so do beautiful, glamorous women and ordinary, less-than-movie-star-beautiful girls. Brown always includes herself among the latter, nowhere more emphatically than in her unforgettable first-page manifesto: “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor and I have always helped support them. I’m an introvert and I am sometimes mean and cranky.”
Brown’s declaration sounds the opening note in a theme she returns to again and again, of us (career girls who have to work at it) versus them (great beauties/movie stars/ certifiably glamorous international jet-setters). “The truth is, not all girls can be beautiful,” she writes in Chapter Five. “That fabulous face? Can you achieve it by being very, very clever with make-up?” she asks in Chapter 11. Just as one is assuming the answer to be a rhetorical “yes,” Brown succinctly replies: “I don’t think there’s a prayer!” Instead, she prescribes a no-nonsense strategy: “What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
Granted, Brown was writing in a time when ideals of beauty were standardized and anything but inclusive. But 40 years later, the us-versus-them dichotomy has a curious effect: The book is an astonishingly liberating read. Instead of the current, personality-annihilating zeitgeist that we can all be millionaires (or at least millionaires’ wives) Brown frees us to be ourselves, warts and all. Yes, she suggests covering those warts—along with bleaching, buying a wig, and plastic surgery (“Oh, my foes and oh, my friends—the results!”). Yes, she exhorts us again and again to work on ourselves (“like a son of a bitch,” in fact) but—to change the emphasis—she exhorts us again and again to work on ourselves. Rather than slavishly devote herself to an ideal, or follow one set of—ahem—”Rules” in order to catch a man, Brown, writing in the supposedly more conformist time, encourages the single girl to be more expressly individualistic. No wonder she took sex as her subject: The most individualistic thing about oneself is one’s sexuality.
So read Sex and the Single Girl for the hilarious set pieces on dating Don Juans and Married Men, or for the bizarrely specific advice on money (“Don’t retire, retread”) or for Brown’s one-line dismissal of churchgoing (“Friends tell me it offers spiritual benefits, but few men”) but cherish it for another reason: the encouragement to be yourself.