Jane Pratt Remembers "Industry Big Sister" Helen Gurley Brown

On never-too-thin self-image, rocking "Geraldo" and pink stationery.

Aug 14, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

Magazine publisher, author and icon Helen Gurley Brown died yesterday. I asked Jane Pratt to share her memories and thoughts on the industry icon.

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HGB in 1964, Library of Congress

Mandy: When did you first meet her?

Jane: I met her in person the first time when we did "Geraldo" together in 1988 or '89. It was shortly after I started "Sassy," and we were in the green room, and I was super nervous. I was wearing these ridiculous black suspenders with a skirt and didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was so scared, but I had planned out everything I was going to say.

Helen looked, of course, impeccably fabulous. I just remember she was sooooooo nice to me. Remarkably nice. She was talking to me before we went on to calm me down. And then after the show she wrote me this nice little hand-written note.

Mandy: What did it say? What did the note look like?

Jane: She said I did a really good job on the show and to keep in touch with her and reach out for anything that I ever needed. The note was on a heavy card stock, pale pink, with a nice little envelope that she had written out. I always think about that.

I remember hearing that she was offended that she wasn't invited to march for the ERA with Gloria Steinem and others and I understand that much of what she did wasn't feminist. Like how she was so much about men and pleasing men. But I do feel like on a very personal level she was about really about helping other women. I experienced it personally.

Mandy: Did you regard her as a competitor or a colleague?

Jane: More like the older sister who you learned so much from even if though you want to do things completely differently with your life and career. When I was starting "Jane" magazine, I was looking a lot at what "Cosmo" was not doing. The way that "Sassy" was the counterpart for "Seventeen," I wanted "Jane" to be the counterpart to "Cosmo." I felt like I was going up against that.

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Our take on Cosmo's "Fun fearless female"

Mandy: What did you respect the most about her, industry big-sister-wise? Jane: She was extremely driven, and we might steal people from other people's staffs, but it was never anything personal. It was like there was this unspoken support for trailblazing as women in leadership roles at magazines. I very much respected her, even though she was the big sister whose philosophies I completely disagreed with.

Mandy: She was known for being very thin and for having body issues, like saying she still always wanted to be a few pounds slimmer than she was. I think a lot of people picked up this message from "Cosmo" and criticized her for it. Did you ever experience this?

Jane: I didn't personally, but one of the things I heard about from a coworker who also worked under Helen was a story about walking in on her in the company bathroom one time, and Helen was completely naked, just examining herself in the mirror. I guess it was to make sure she was thin enough. I don't even know if it's true, but I've never been able to forget that image, because my heart goes out to her.

My heart always went out to her a little bit over the years. I do think that in her way she was doing the best she could to give other women advice. Even if that version of it looks very different than what my version does.

Mandy: What are your most guilty "Cosmo" pleasures?

Jane: Oh I loved her coverlines. Some people said her husband did those, and I don't really know the truth of that. But everyone in magazines learned how to sell stuff based on what she did. Put the juicy stuff in quotes. Use numbers. Use the word "orgasm." Use the word "sex." "8 orgasms to improve your sex life." That kind of thing.

Mandy: What did you like about her personal style?

Jane: She was just so completely fearless. I remember seeing her at her office and then also seeing her at magazine events, and she was always dressed in a way that might be considered inappropriate for someone her age. Which was just: Awesome. Like really, really mini dresses. And she'd sit in her chair with her legs totally curled up. It was so eccentric.

Mandy: What did you think about how she handled men in the magazine?

Jane: I often loved it. It was very fun when she objectified men. Like she did an issue every year that was some kind of beefcake, and she put Burt Reynolds lying on the rug posed like a Playboy bunny. That's totally brilliant. Turning everything completely on its ear. Of course, she also gave me a lot of fodder for making fun of "Cosmo." Like in "Jane" we would always try stuff out, like the ridiculous sex tips of, say, putting a scrunchie on a man's penis. That was classic.

Mandy: What is the most personal way she inspired you? Do you think she's giving scrunchie on the penis sex tips in heaven right now?

Jane: Oh totally. You know what's crazy is that I actually still use some of the sex tips I learned from her. Like her blow job tips. That one about you suck in at the same time like as if it's a vacuum. I think she taught me that. And definitely, I bet she's having fun. I'm sure she's having a great time -- and plenty of sex.