I thought of her and my uneasy association with Cosmopolitan when I heard that she had died last week at the age of 95.
In those days, Cosmopolitan occupied a rabbit warren of offices on West 57th Street in New York. You waited in a reception area the size of a postage stamp to be summoned by either the editor, Ms. Gurley Brown, or her managing editor, Guy Flatley.
Back then, before the advent of celebrity covers, the magazine featured a monthly Cosmo Girl, so often I would find myself knocking knees with the latest candidate, positively aglow amid the gloom, making me wish desperately I had spent more time shaving that morning.
Considering its huge success after Helen Gurley Brown took over in 1965, the Cosmo workspace was anything but glamorous. Ms Gurley Brown apparently was not about to spend a lot of money making her employees comfortable. The only person on the staff who had anything resembling a real office, as far as I could see, was the lady herself.
Not surprisingly, since the reincarnation of Cosmopolitan was her creation, Ms. Gurley Brown oversaw everything, although us lowly freelance writers–or at least this lowly freelance writer–had little to do with her.
As I was being guided through the maze back to the cubicle Guy Flatley occupied, I would pass her open office door and peer in at this tiny, birdlike woman nearly lost behind her desk. She would glance up as I passed, glare, and then return to work.
One time, I swallowed hard, and when she looked up I stepped into her office, introduced myself, and shook her hand. She did not have a clue, I don’t think, who I was, and could have cared less.
Everyone who worked at Cosmo kept one eye constantly on that office, and seemed a bit scared of their boss. I must say, from what little I saw of her, she did cut a daunting, I-suffer-no-fools figure. Everything revolved around what Helen thought, what Helen wanted.
If there was a feminist revolution going on at the magazine you could have been forgiven for missing it. It had become a kind of soft porn fantasy for women but certainly appealing, at least pictorially, to men as well–its sexiness rivaled only by the (slightly) more salacious Playboy.
The editors had the most curious method of assigning stories. The auditioning writer would sit and leaf through a big photo-type assignment book full of story ideas mounted behind plastic.
Most of the ideas, as you might imagine from an editor who had re-established Cosmopolitan’s popularity by endlessly talking about the subject, revolved around sex. Sometimes, the subject was serious enough–I was once assigned a story on rape, for example.
But mostly the ideas were pretty light; a lot of stories about how to improve a woman’s sex life, please your man in bed, attain more orgasms, etc. You would choose the topic best suited to your particular talents and that would become your assignment.
Although I had many ideas about how a woman might please a man in bed, I thought it best to keep them to myself. So for my first assignment, I chose to do a profile of the actress Carrie Fisher, daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and hugely popular at the time thanks to her portrayal of Princess Leia in Star Wars, the movie phenomenon that was all the rage at the North American box office.
Tiny and cute as a bug’s ear, Fisher was charming, witty, and, to all appearances, very much in control of her life–so vastly different from the wreck who later wrote with such ironic humor about her drug and alcohol problems that I’ve often wondered if I interviewed the same woman. Certainly I’ve been suspicious of the veracity of celebrity interviews, including my own, ever since.
Helen Gurley Brown did not like the piece I wrote. Rewrites were ordered. And then more rewrites. At one point, Fisher was calling me at home, a fact that thrilled my kids, particularly when they discovered they could talk to Princess Leia on the phone. Fisher was always good-natured and wonderfully patient: “No, no, it’s great. This is like therapy.”
Finally, the piece, to my relief, was accepted and published. I duly trundled back up to the West 57th Street offices, once again knocked knees with a comely Cosmo Girl before being ushered past Helen Gurley Brown’s office (was she glaring at me because I’d given her so much trouble with the Carrie Fisher profile?), and into Guy Flatley’s cubicle for a look at the assignment book.
This time I was to interview a young actor named Michael Douglas who was making a movie in Toronto. At the time he was most famous for being Kirk’s son, co-starring in the long-running TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, and for producing the Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Douglas, as he was to demonstrate many times over the years with the press, could not have been more likable or accomodating. My then-wife and I and Douglas and his wife at the time, Diandra, even ended up at dinner together.
Pleased with what I had written–always a mistake for writers of magazine articles and screenplays–I turned in my story to Gurley Brown and Company. Rewrites were called for. This was not what Helen had in mind, I was told. The tone wasn’t right. I tried again. And again.
Finally, Guy Flatley sent me a copy of the story that had been approved for publication by Helen. It had been rewritten so that I was no longer the reporter writing about an actor; I was now the adoring young thing, seemingly out of breath throughout, madly smitten by my proximity to Michael Douglas. Sentences along the lines of, He is so handsome! interrupted the piece, complete with italics and exclamation points.
I hid under my desk for a couple of days trying to shake off the sheer horror, imagining what Douglas would think when he read the article. Then I phoned Guy Flatley. Well, that’s the way Helen wants it, he said. I said I couldn’t live with the article the way it had been rewritten and asked to have my byline removed.
I tried a couple of other things for them, but my heart wasn’t in it. I don’t think I was really a Cosmo kind of guy. I could never get enough italics and exclamation points into my stories.
I ran into Michael Douglas a couple of times in the years that followed, and I tried to reassure him that although it may have seemed like it in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine, I really didn’t love him that much.
I don’t think he believed me.