Helen Gurley Brown wrote my first recommendation letter.
Yes, the author of Sex and the Single Girl and long-time Cosmo Editor-on-Chief also served as my boss when I was a 20-something intern learning to negotiate the ins and out and hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.
I learned a lot from the lady, although our paths didn't cross all that often. To face the world with outward bravado, when my inner self-confidence seemed to shrink by the second. To follow my muse, when it called. To put off work when it got to be too much. To Xerox multiple copies on both sides of the paper (well, HGB - as she was known - didn't teach me about making copies, but I learned how under her watch). To negotiate the New York City subway system without a map, or to call a cab when it all got to be too much. To make the most of what I was given during three months in the old Hearst Building on West 57th.
I had a purple desk in a cubby near the Xerox machine. Invited occasionally to daily editorial meetings, I inhaled the rarified air of flamboyant art directors, curmudgeonly section assistants, pretentious clerical staff (all trying for big spots in the magazine's hierarchy) and an Editor-in-Chief who called even me (I'm not sure if she ever mastered my given name) "Darling."
But mostly, I read. Do you know how many "unsolicited" (meaning no one at the mag asked for them) manuscripts a periodical like Cosmo gets in a week? Well, take a gander:
Thousands of manuscripts - stories, interviews, poems, novellas, books approaching the length of War and Peace - arrive in Cosmo's mailroom daily. The pile could take up all of the staff's eight-hour day - to sort, to organize (much of it in the file of the "circular" variety) and deliver. And in this age of the Internet and a supreme feeling of entitlement by the masses, I imagine the piles have reached Mt. Everest proportions.
When I was tired of making copies, reading pulp fiction and searching for typos in sex advice columns (another of my periodic assignments), I was allowed to take advantage of some of the freebies. Included in my summer swag bag? A new hair style at Henri Bendel on 5th Avenue. Pedi's and mani's at salons seeking to get in the door. Model cover shoots (I'm sure it's done differently in the age of PhotoShop and all, but in the old days those wafer-thin gals acquired cleavage with the aide of adhesive tape, wrapped round and round the chest in a strategic pattern).
And when my internship came to a close in late August, I went to NBC's Rainbow Room with HGB and a passel of her gofers. I'm pretty sure she still didn't know my name, but nevertheless, she sweetly asked her secretary to make sure she said a good word for me before I left for my senior year of college.
So, I did, after a fashion, know the ground-breaking, barrier-busting Helen Gurley Brown, who died today at the age of 90. She wrote my first recommendation letter. And taught me that if you have confidence, you'll go far in this world.