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NEW YORK — Helen Gurley Brown is famous for her unique brand of “you-can-have-it-all-and-then-some” feminism, but this modern woman has a very old-fashioned hobby: writing letters. In her new book, “Dear Pussycat: Mash Notes and Missives From the Desk of Cosmopolitan’s Legendary Editor” (St. Martin’s Press), Brown shares more than 300 notes, including memos to Cosmo staffers, a letter to John F. Kennedy Jr. and another to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written when she was just 15 years old.
“I’m a psychotic letter-writer,” says the perennially thin Brown, who relies on her Royal manual typewriter and dictaphone instead of a computer to churn out her observations. The fruits of this particular morning’s labor include a note to Good Housekeeping editor Ellen Levine about a television appearance. “Talking to people can take 10 or 15 minutes, but if you do a letter, you can get it over in three,” says Brown.
Sitting in her office outfitted with leopard carpet and pink walls, she’s the consummate flirt. When a photographer tells her to look into the camera lens, she responds, “I prefer looking in your big blue eyes.”
Her latest book, something of a nod to Visionaire’s recent publication of Diana Vreeland’s staff memos, showcases Brown’s endearing combination of no-nonsense practicality and girlish charm. Early last year, Brown and her assistant sorted through a three-foot-high stack of papers (all carbon copies from 1965 to 1990 were thrown away in an office move, so there are few letters from that time), and Brown arranged chapters such as “Thank You, Friend,” “Will You Do Something for Me?” and “Cosmopolitan (How It Works).”
“My rules to myself are: If you’re thanking somebody for something, do it quick, and if you’re complimenting a famous person, quote something in it that you like,” she says. “Celebrities like to get letters, but you mustn’t go on too long.”
Brown, now 82, often writes to people who need a little good-luck charm. “Well, I’m not the philanthropist of the Western world,” she admits. “I don’t raise a lot of money for causes and I don’t go to luncheons because I’m busy, but I can make people feel good.” She sent a four-leaf clover to Lizzie Grubman after the Hamptons car crash and an encouraging note to Katie Couric after ABC enlisted Diane Sawyer.
One memo that didn’t make the cut was to embattled domestic diva Martha Stewart. “A few years ago, she was being criticized for something,” remembers Brown, who promptly sent a letter to Stewart’s home. “It said, ‘Martha, you are just so fantastic and when you hear rotten things from people, it’s all due to jealousy.’” But Brown didn’t get a response, so she’s not writing Martha this time around.
Other juicy tidbits include efforts to set up Barbra Streisand and Barbara Walters with eligible bachelors and a note to Norman Mailer asking him to write an article for Cosmopolitan about powerful men being powerful in bed (he declined). The letters are not just addressed to personalities. Brown also thanks a Moscow hotel for opening its pool after hours and requests that the air-conditioning be turned down in the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom.
Though there is an overwhelming sense of positivity in the book, Brown also includes an “I’m Pissed!” section. Most notably, she writes to people who have upset her husband, the producer David Brown. “Look, I don’t believe in hate mail, but I’ve made a few exceptions to people I thought were hurting my husband unjustifiably,” she says. Included in the bunch is a friendship-ending letter to Liz Smith from 2002, after the gossip columnist trashed the musical “The Sweet Smell of Success,” which David Brown produced. “She was a beloved friend,” says Brown. “I miss her badly, but she was wrong and I said so.”
After 31 years at Cosmopolitan’s helm, Brown, who still works every day, is now the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan International and the unofficial ambassador for the magazine. She just returned from Bulgaria to launch the 50th international edition of Cosmo, and she will celebrate Russian Cosmopolitan’s 10th anniversary later this month.
As for the book’s title, it comes from Brown’s favorite term of affection. “I don’t think you can call somebody honey and you can’t call them darling, but you can be affectionate by calling them pussycat,” Brown explains. “That’s not going too far. Nobody minds being called pussycat.”
— Jamie Rosen