Helen Gurley Brown's $30 Million Gift to Stanford and Columbia

The news that longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown has established the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School and the Stanford School of Engineering brought back a flood of wonderful memories for me and for ThirdAge editor-in-chief Myrna Blyth. I was privileged to be Helen's features editor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Myrna contributed to Cosmo during the HGB era.

"I wrote for Cosmopolitan in its days when Helen was the editor and she was truly a great editor," Myrna says. "And, yes, she wrote about sex for women in a way nobody had before but she also really produced a magazine that was far more serious and substantive than most magazines for women now are. This gift is a wonderful and appropriate legacy." 

I wholeheartedly agree. I learned a great deal from Helen not only about the art and craft of writing but also about what it takes to create a great magazine and be an effective boss. She used to write personal notes, always on pink paper, to each of use when she had some praise for our work. She also wrote notes when she wanted revisions, but she knew exactly how to phrase her corrections so that we were eager to do her bidding rather than feeling wounded. I've saved a packet of those pink paper notes from the inimitable HGB and I refer to them occasionally even now when I need some encouragement about my ability to do this work. One of them says: "Sondra: That's such a darling blurb on INSURANCE . . . not a frisky subject but you made me want to read the article. H." Another one says "Pet Patter. Sondra, could we do a new lead-in? We never want to tell somebody that something is 'irresistibly zany' – we might disappoint her. It's like telling her that something is going to be hilarious or she'll go to pieces or whatever. Everything after the last 6 words is okay. H."

I rewrote the pet blurb and sent the note back asking "Any better?" She responded immediately: "Yes, perfect!" I never forgot that lesson, or any of the lessons she taught me. When Helen left Cosmo in 1997 at the age of 75 to become the editor for the 59 international editions of the magazine, I wrote a letter thanking her for her mentoring me and letting her know that I deeply respect her. She wrote back saying how much she appreciated my letter and she ended by saying, "I'm going to save it forever. Love, Helen." I'll bet she did. She's so genuine. I believe she donated the money for the bi-coastal institute because she truly wants to make a difference regarding the future of publishing in her name and in the name of film producer David Brown, her husband of 50 years who died two years ago. In a statement she said: "David and I have long supported and encouraged bright young people to follow their passions and to create original content. Great content needs useable technology. Sharing a language is where the magic happens. It’s time for two great American institutions on the East and West Coasts to build a bridge." May the new generation of journalists who will benefit from Helen's gift always be grateful for her generosity in the same way that I continue to remain grateful for her stewardship of my nascent career so long ago. Sondra Forsyth is a Senior Editor at ThirdAge.com
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