Sex and the single back seat observer

As Helen Gurley Brown did the L.A. PR circuit for a new book, Joan Didion took notes for a magazine profile from the back seat of a VW. Then there was the "chauffeur."
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Sex and the Single Girl

As Helen Gurley Brown did the L.A. PR circuit for a new book, Joan Didion took notes for a magazine profile from the back seat of a VW. Then there was the "chauffeur."

Two uber-talented women climbed into my white, two-door Volkswagen Beetle in 1964, and spent the better part of three long days in my un-air conditioned car careening around the smoggy streets of Southern California on a quest to log as many hours of media interviews as possible in 72 hours.

From 7 a.m to after 9 p.m, we criss-crossed the wide array of newspapers, TV and radio electronic chatterboxes doing, if memory serves me well, roughly 16 live interviews in two days, plus two more on Day 3 in  Palm Springs. 

The author, my PR client, was there to build sales for her hot new book: a follow-up to her literary sensation of two years before. The woman in the back seat was then a modestly known novelist doing a profile of the author for a major print magazine; she had published her first novel the year before. I was the 23-year-old chauffeur —  a combination PR rep and gofer. 

Some chauffeur, some glorious ride. I can still see my client awkwardly climbing in and out of The White Angel (as she eventually dubbed it), gearing up for another predictable interview (she was a past master at the art of polished quips for media consumption). The writer, all but inscrutable, noted everything she said and we said, and missed nothing.   

This was an ordinary book tour, as book tours go, but this one wound up in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post — then still a major magazine —  as a feature article that almost got me fired.

The woman, the author, in my Volkswagen’s jump seat was Helen Gurley Brown. The back seat writer/observer, furiously taking notes, was American novelist Joan Didion.

These days come back to me because of Monday’s announcement (8/13) that Helen Gurley Brown died in New York at age 90. Here’s her obituary from the New York Times.

Brown had a remarkable career — first as the author of Sex and the Single Girl, which at the time was a bombshell of a book because, quite simply, it made the case that good girls could have sex outside of marriage and need not be either punished nor condemned for their actions. And then, three years after we met, Brown took the job that would define her for a generation of women, as the editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine from 1967 to 1992. Cosmo probably did as much as any other single source to bring frank conversation about sex and the virtues of single, independent living into the lives of women around the world.   

She was no bombshell. Brown could accurately be described as small, plain, or, as she described herself in Single Girl (as quoted in the Post article): a woman who relied on “[a] padded bra, capped teeth, straightened nose, Pan-Cake, false eyelashes and wig.” But to me on those days in Los Angeles nearly 50 years ago, she had charisma, sex appeal, and the personal power that following one’s own star gives to any of us. Soft-spoken and yet steely, she knew what she needed to do  — in this case, get interviews — and for two days there was no TV, radio, or print outlet too small for her to talk to. 

When she entered my life, albeit it briefly, I was two years out of college, fired from my first PR stint (my office was in a broom closet and I dared to complain), and hired by a PR firm, Irwin Zucker Promotion in Motion, which specialized in promoting rock and roll records and books.  (Irwin is still in business, nearly half a century later.)

Sex and the Single Girl was then still a best seller, two years after its publication. Her new book Sex and the Office was placed into my hands to promote in L.A. after the PR agency's success in promoting Single Girl

By the time Brown visited L.A. for Sex and the Office, she was already well into her tour; according to the Post article, she did a total of 28 cities. L.A. would have been high on the list because it had so many local and national media outlets. 

The media questions were virtually the same, many of the sniggering variety from male interviewers trying to get some sexual acknowledgement from Brown.  Hey, she put out and said so!  In writing!  (Lovers of television’s Mad Men, take note: the sexism of the era — it’s all true.)  I tried to be protective of Brown, as I did with other women clients who I knew would get the same treatment from the mostly male interviewers in L.A. But she needed no protection. She was even then a thoroughly modern woman.

I could see she was dog-tired. Traveling in my cramped car didn’t help. Nor did my lifelong pedal-to-the-metal driving habits. Why I or my agency even allowed a royalty-level book author not to be driven about in a decent car escapes me. But she remained gracious throughout: a little distant, but that was her style. It had gotten Brown to her place in American pop culture as an exemplar of the self-reliant single woman. Only she wasn't; she was married to movie producer David Brown, who helped her shape the phenomenon that became Sex and the Single Girl. But no matter. (Brown passed away in 2010. He and Gurley Brown were married for 51 years.)

Those 16 interviews that Helen did in two days were virtually all in person.  For those who know L.A. traffic, and the vast distances between anywhere and anyplace, that many interviews squeezed into that short a time frame is an Olympics Gold Medal winner in public relations terms. 

We started somewhere at the crack of dawn — I think she was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel —  and we crisscrossed the city doing every conceivable form of interview. She would not quit. I may have been 20 years her junior, but she wore me out. On our final day, we had an interview set with an FM station that played “Moon River” and other oldies  —  music even then about as popular as brussels sprouts. I tried to dissuade her from a half hour interview on a minor radio station at the end of a long tiring day.  She looked at me with a glance that was both gentle and withering: “No, Skip, we will do the station.  It’s on the schedule.”

Joan Didion carefully noted everything, in what became a Saturday Evening Post article entitled “Bosses Make Lousy Lovers,” published on Jan. 31, 1965 which was both a profile of Helen and a write-up of her L.A. promotional tour. Here's a link to the article. Didion’s first novel, Run River, was published the year before we met. Play It as It Lays and other classics were still in the future.

Didion however, stayed silent and faceless —  the compleat observer. I search back in my memory and remember nothing of her except she wore white clothes. I also recall little interaction between Helen and Joan.

Throughout the article, there is reference to a somewhat annoying PR flack with the curious name of “Skip Ferderber”  — no agency affiliation given.  “Skip Ferderber,” his full name spelled out throughout the article, uses every opportunity on every appointment to sell his other books clients to the producers and interviewers he visits along with Helen. "Skip Ferderber" IS PR, a regular stereotypical Sammy Glick. A punch line.

This time, I was the punch line, by name, and I could do nothing about it except cringe. From that day forward, it gave me an appreciation of how innocent people sitting on the sidelines can get hurt by careless writing. It hopefully has served me well in my own journalism career.

It also had an additional effect — almost getting me fired, especially when my boss read it and realized his name was nowhere to be found in the article.  “What the f--- did you do?” was about the nicest thing Irwin said to me for several days, despite my telling him I had no control over what Joan wrote, nor had I any interest in Irwin not receiving full credit for the L.A. PR effort.  I think to this day, he is convinced that I aced him out of being mentioned in the Saturday Evening Post. So here I am, Irwin, 48 years later, reminding the world that Irwin Zucker's PR firm was responsible for the PR on Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Office. I hope it helps.

Didion left us after two days. And Brown and I drove out to Palm Springs the next day for two last interviews —  one with Arthur Godfrey, who welcomed Helen aboard his plane for a short talk, and Lucille Ball, who met me at the front door of her house while Helen waited in the car.  

Ball was then doing a CBS Radio network interview show in addition to her then-latest TV show. I believe the invitation to Brown was an open one, not a confirmed appointment. So it was my job to go to Ball's front door and ask if this might be a good time for her to do an interview. Ball's beauty had more than faded by the time I met her in 1964. Sadly, literally, I did not recognize her when she opened the door of her house. But Ball's gravelly voice made it clear who she was, and I then fetched Brown from The White Angel. Brown disappeared inside; I was not invited.

That short visit made me a lifelong Helen Gurley Brown fan. I corresponded with her a few times in subsequent years, and was always pleased that she responded graciously, almost always remembering The White Angel.  It was typical of the good manners that Helen Gurley Brown displayed in our brief acquaintance, and I suspect, with the thousands of other people she befriended along the way.

I never heard again from Joan Didion. But that was to be expected.

  

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