Sex and the Supermarket

Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan had roots in Arkansas.

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Cosmopolitan is in the magazine rack at checkout lane seven at Kroger on Union, right next to the frozen-food aisle. Taking no chances, I picked up a half-pint of ice cream to beard my buy.

"The magazine, it's for my wife, see?"

No one looks twice at a man with ice cream. A magazine cover that touts "25 sex moves he secretly wishes you'd try, they're so specific, it's shocking!" is another story. Of course, I only bought Cosmo to check the ads and the page count — 270 of them, the envy of the struggling magazine publishing business — information as essential and illuminating to a journalist as the interview in Playboy.

The modern version of Cosmopolitan was the creation of Helen Gurley Brown, who died Monday at the age of 90. Before Fifty Shades of Grey, before Sex and the City, there was Sex and the Single Girl, Brown's 1962 bestseller, later made into a movie. She followed it up with two more bestsellers, Having It All in 1982 and The Late Show in 1993, which foreshadowed geezers-rediscover-sex movies like Hope Springs and Something's Gotta Give.

"I very clearly remember reading my older sister's copy of Sex and the Single Girl for the first time when I was probably in about the fifth grade," Jill Conner Browne, author of "The Sweet Potato Queens" books, told me.

"As I recall, she circumspectly spoke of a certain single girl who had men positively lining up, eagerly awaiting their invitation to while away a few hours in the single girl's apartment simply making brownies. It was a few years before I fully grasped the concept, but it did dawn on me eventually. It is no accident that the very first recipe in my first book is 'Chocolate Stuff.'"

Helen Gurley Brown was a lifelong writing machine and a fixture on television talk shows. A generation ago, it seemed like you couldn't turn on The Tonight Show without seeing her once a week. Now she's a name to Google, but Cosmo is her legacy: sex in the supermarket.

She was born in a small town in Arkansas and grew up in Little Rock. In Sex and the Single Girl, she described herself this way:

"I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world's worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I didn't go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor."

She answered fan mail at a radio station for six dollars a week while learning shorthand, leading to countless secretarial jobs.

"There is a catch to achieving single bliss," she wrote. "You have to work like a son of a bitch."

Unmarried until she was 37, she preached the gospel of self-reliance, thrift, confidence, and sexual experimentation. In addition to her books, she wrote proposals for reality television shows featuring celebrity chefs in a cook-off and celebrities advising ordinary people on their marital problems. In that, she was ahead of her time, but, boy, did she know how to sell magazines. Even after a 15 percent drop in the first half of this year, Cosmopolitan is the top seller on newsstands, at 1.3 million copies per issue.

Unburdened by the responsibilities of weekly news magazines, Cosmopolitan delivers sex, celebrities, career advice, and models curvier than Brown, who looked borderline anorexic even in her prime.

"Now if you are already mounds of pounds overweight, you must Do Something, or you can't hope to be blissfully single," she wrote in Sex and the Single Girl. Even Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor "can't survive runaway fat."

The book was reissued in 2003 as "a cult classic" with a pink cover and a picture of a pair of hot-pink lips. It is remarkably similar to a recent cover of Newsweek showing a pair of disembodied lips open to receive some asparagus. The headline: "The 101 Best Places to Eat in the World."

"Yes, it was a cheesy grab for attention, akin to Time's cover gambit of having a 4-year-old hanging off his mother's breast," wrote New York Times media reporter David Carr. "But magazines are nothing if not desperate these days."

Some are more desperate than others. As long as there are drug stores and grocery stores and airports, I expect there will be magazine racks.

And as long as there are magazine racks, I expect there will be copies of Cosmo, with ever more tips to drive a man wild.

Right next to the ice-cream freezer.

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