Image from Esquire Clas­sic:​“Helen Gur­ley Brown Only Wants to Help” by Nora Ephron, Feb­ru­ary 11970

In the Feb­ru­ary 1970 issue of Esquire, an arti­cle by Nora Ephron appears in which she writes about the icon­ic Helen Gur­ley Brown. Ephron encap­su­lates Gur­ley Brown’s con­tro­ver­sial reign as edi­tor-in-chief of Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine as only she could, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that Ephron wrote for the pub­li­ca­tion and worked inti­mate­ly with Gur­ley Brown. Some would even go so far as to say that Gur­ley Brown dis­cov­ered Nora Ephron.

The year was 1965, ear­ly in Gur­ley Brown’s tenure as Cos­mopoli­tan edi­tor-in-chief. Hearst exec­u­tives were already ner­vous about her step­ping into the role. After all, she had no pre­vi­ous edi­to­r­i­al or mag­a­zine expe­ri­ence. Hearst had been pub­lish­ing mag­a­zines since the 1800s but in the ear­ly 60s, sub­scrip­tions began to steadi­ly tank. Assum­ing that Gur­ley Brown’s attempt to res­ur­rect the mag­a­zine would flop, Hearst hand­ed her an impos­si­bly tight bud­get from which to produce.

The brazen edi­tor went scout­ing for new tal­ent, tal­ent that she could afford. That’s when she plucked Nora Ephron from near-obscu­ri­ty. At the time, Ephron was a reporter for the New York Post and was, of course, was already very famil­iar with Gur­ley Brown. Two years before the women met, Gur­ley Brown had pub­lished the scan­dalous best­seller Sex and the Sin­gle Girl.

The brazen edi­tor went scout­ing for new tal­ent, tal­ent that she could afford. That’s when she plucked Nora Ephron from near-obscurity.

Ephron was already engaged to her first hus­band, Dan Green­burg, so why would a nice Jew­ish girl, with a nice Jew­ish guy, want to read the shock­ing escapades of sin­gle women who cel­e­brat­ed sex — casu­al sex, monog­a­mous sex, naughty sex, and even for­bid­den sex with mar­ried men? But read it she did, and prob­a­bly — like mil­lions of oth­er women — read it more than once. In Sex and the Sin­gle Girl, Gur­ley Brown wrote about her encoun­ters with old­er men, younger men, hand­some men, not so hand­some men. She didn’t dis­crim­i­nate even when her lovers did, as in the case of the anti­se­mit­ic man she dat­ed who open­ly con­demned her Jew­ish friends, refus­ing to social­ize or even meet them. But he was great in bed and, in Gur­ley Brown’s world, which was enough to erase a mul­ti­tude of sins. One has to won­der how Ephron, a proud, though not obser­vant Jew­ish woman, felt about all that when the two final­ly came face to face.

I like to imag­ine that first encounter: There was Ephron, big toothed, with thick, unruly dark hair — which Gur­ley Brown must have envied as she always wore wigs to hide her thin­ning hair. Gur­ley Brown must have rec­og­nized aspects of her­self in Ephron who, like Gur­ley Brown, was smart, irrev­er­ent, and not afraid to write what few women would dare talk about. The two women would come to real­ize that they had much in com­mon. Ephron grew up in Bev­er­ly Hills and Gur­ley Brown in Los Ange­les; Ephron’s par­ents were both screen­writ­ers and Gur­ley Brown’s hus­band, David Brown, was an acclaimed Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­er. It was almost as if the two had been cir­cling one anoth­er for years and their lives were des­tined to inter­sect. I think they must have formed an imme­di­ate bond because they weren’t clas­sic beau­ties, had learned to thrive with their heads, not their looks. And of course, they both had chutzpah.

Gur­ley Brown gave Ephron a shot at writ­ing her first mag­a­zine piece, ask­ing her to do an arti­cle on the cho­rus line at the then-pop­u­lar Copaca­bana night­club. Though Ephron was thrilled at last to get a mag­a­zine assign­ment, by all accounts, she wasn’t all that enam­ored of the club or the cho­rus line. But the arti­cle gave her a foot in the door and that was the begin­ning of many arti­cles she would go on to write for Cos­mo.

By now Ephron was mar­ried and though she wrote for the mag­a­zine, she didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want her fel­low New York­ers know­ing she was a Cos­mo read­er. She would com­mute about town, keep­ing the cov­er hid­den. Like mil­lions of women, sin­gle and mar­ried, it was her guilty pleasure.

Set­ting Ephron, the Cos­mo read­er, aside, I won­der how Ephron, the Cos­mo writer, felt about hav­ing her work edit­ed by Gur­ley Brown. The edi­tor-in-chief was always push­ing her writ­ers to dig deep­er and com­mit to paper the very things that her girls (which was how she referred to her read­ers), dared to think about late at night, all alone, with the lights turned out. Gur­ley Brown demand­ed this type of can­dor from her writ­ers and it shaped some of Ephron’s most notable pieces includ­ing, Men, Men Every­where But…” where­by Ephron spelled out what it was like to be a gawky, self-con­scious sin­gle girl amidst a sea of poten­tial male part­ners. She was also brave enough to vol­un­teer to be the sub­ject of a Cos­mo Beau­ty Makeover. Ephron even poked fun at New York’s upper crust in a piece called Women Wear Dai­ly Unclothed.” The revered fash­ion bible was not amused and turned around and sued Cos­mopoli­tan.

The edi­tor-in-chief was always push­ing her writ­ers to dig deep­er and com­mit to paper the very things that her girls (which was how she referred to her read­ers), dared to think about late at night, all alone, with the lights turned out.

From my research, I know that Gur­ley Brown was a metic­u­lous, hands-on edi­tor. She was famous for shred­ding Liz Smith’s copy, fir­ing Rex Reed for writ­ing what she called pip­py-poo copy and slash­ing all poly­syl­lab­ic words with her red pen. I can’t help but think that Gur­ley Brown did much to shape Ephron’s future writ­ing includ­ing Wall­flower at the Orgy and I Feel Bad About my Neck. Like Gur­ley Brown, Ephron was able to strike a bal­ance of irrev­er­ence and vulnerability.

Fast for­ward to 1970. Ephron had already made a name for her­self when she sat down with her for­mer boss for the Esquire inter­view. Accord­ing to Ger­ri Hirshey’s biog­ra­phy on Gur­ley Brown, Not Pret­ty Enough, the edi­tor-in-chief was ready to come clean, squeaky clean about every­thing! She even gave Ephron the name and con­tact infor­ma­tion for one of her ear­ly con­quests. Ephron, exer­cis­ing bet­ter judg­ment than Gur­ley Brown, opt­ed to spare the man and his wife from expo­sure in the article.

Some­thing else struck me as I was work­ing on my book: When one thinks about the clas­sic Cos­mo Girl, Nora Ephron is prob­a­bly about the last per­son that comes to mind. But in fact, Ephron was exact­ly who Gur­ley Brown was think­ing of when she took over as the edi­tor-in-chief of Cos­mopoli­tan. Gur­ley Brown, who often referred to her­self as a mouse­burg­er, want­ed noth­ing more than to help girls every­where become their very best selves. That was the spir­it behind Ephron’s Esquire piece, and I’d like to think that some of that rubbed off in Park Avenue Sum­mer.

Renee Rosen is the best­selling author of Park Avenue Sum­mer, White Col­lar Girl, What the Lady Wants, Doll­face, and the young adult nov­el Every Crooked Pot. She lives in Chicago.