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“I was able to tell a different story and show the impact that Helen Gurley Brown had on the life of a young woman, new to the city and all that a place like New York had to offer her.”
Helen Gurley Brown is one of the most interesting and controversial figures in the history of magazine publishing, arguably turning Cosmopolitan magazine into the publication we recognize today. In her latest novel, author Renée Rosen looks at the story of the editor from a new light, putting her into a fictional narrative where readers can hopefully understand the complex woman more clearly, taking on a new understanding of her work that included discovering the voices of Nora Ephron and Judith Krantz.
Rosen tells us about the struggles she had when writing about HGB, how she worked to create this fictional world, and whether or not she believes the legendary woman would approve of her portrayal.
How did you become interested in writing?
I’ve been writing from the time I was a young girl and actually started writing before I discovered my love of reading—which is completely backwards and not recommended for anyone who wants to be writer. I have no idea where this “need” (and it is a need) came from, as I have no writers in my family but I do remember attempting to write my first novel when I was in high school. Thankfully it was never published and never will be. But all through college and into my twenties and thirties, I was always writing, working on one novel or another. I spent 17 years working on my first novel before I was able to get it published and from there, I just kept going.
All of your novels are historical fiction. What do you like about this genre and how do you decide which time periods to explore?
For me, the best part about writing historical fiction is being able to discover a new time period or delve deeply into event. It’s like going back to school for each book and I love the learning process. When it comes to deciding what time periods, I’m usually more drawn to a person or situation, making the time period almost secondary. It always starts with the characters and they could have lived during the Gilded Age or the 60s or any time in between.
Your latest novel, Park Avenue Summer, explores the life of the much-famed Cosmopolitan magazine editor, Helen Gurley Brown. How much did you know about HGB before the book and what attracted you to her as a subject?
Before writing the book, my knowledge of Helen Gurley Brown was limited to my older sister’s copies of Cosmopolitan that I used to pore over. In fact, I had always assumed that Helen Gurley Brown started Cosmo, so I had much to learn before I could write Park Avenue Summer. What I learned about HGB was fascinating and unexpected. She was a very complex woman and it was a great challenge to bring her to the page.
The novel is written from the perspective of a fictional assistant to HGB. Why did you decide to create and utilize such a character in the novel?
I wrestled for a bit with the POV for Park Avenue Summer and in the end, I decided to go with a fictional narrator for one very key reason: So much had already been written about Helen Gurley Brown, including two very thorough biographies after her death, not to mention the many books Helen Gurley Brown herself wrote. Given all that had already existed, I didn’t want to just write a straight “biopic-type” book. By using Alice Weiss as a narrative vehicle, I was able to tell a different story and show the impact that Helen Gurley Brown had on the life of a young woman, new to the city and all that a place like New York had to offer her.
HGB's time at the magazine was enveloped in many scandals, which make their way into the novel. With the hindsight of modern day and the knowledge of where Cosmo magazine stands in popular culture, do you think all of the reactions to Gurley Brown were warranted?
I think Helen Gurley Brown was always a controversial figure. It’s hard to say a definite yes or no. Some of what she stood for was absolutely correct and valid, and those who opposed her ideas back then, wouldn’t have a leg to stand on today. That said, she did hold many views that were unpopular then and now. As she got older, she was a bit out of step with the times. For example, during the Anita Hill hearings, she went on record saying that women should be flattered by their co-workers advances. But if you know anything about HGB, it only makes sense that she would have thought that. I’m sure that the #MeToo movement would have puzzled her, despite the fact that she would have championed all women for standing up for themselves and pushing back. As I said earlier, she was an extremely complex woman.
The novel also includes a number of contrasts between small town and city life for women, and how both HGB and Alice understand the difference as they look to "have it all." Do you think this narrative still rings true today?
Absolutely. I think that young women moving to big cities in order to chase their dreams is as old as time itself. Especially in the 1960s when women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. I think for someone like Helen Gurley Brown, she had to be in a major city in order to fulfill her desires. The same was true for Alice. There’s a sophistication that comes with living in a cosmopolitan city (no pun intended) including experiences and opportunities that simply are not available when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and career outlets are limited. I left a small town for DC, New York and Chicago for that very reason.
How do you think HGB would have responded to the novel herself?
Great question. While I was doing my research, I was fortunate enough to meet a woman who regarded HGB as her second mother. Lois Cahall was kind enough to read the book, vetting it while sharing many personal stories and memories with me. One of the great compliments I could have ever hoped for was when Lois told me that “Mommy Helen” would have approved of Park Avenue Summer.