In Renée Rosen’s new book, budding photographer Alice moves to New York and becomes assistant to Cosmopolitan magazine’s first female editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown, famous for her groundbreaking 1962 nonfiction book “Sex and The Single Girl.” Rosen charts the rocky beginning to Brown’s thirty-two-year reign (from 1965 to 1997) as she remakes a tired magazine into an essential guide for modern career women. The editor and her assistant must counter plots by the Hearst old guard, as well as sabotage efforts by apparent friends. Alice witnesses the hiring of unknown writers Nora Ephron and Judith Krantz, the infamous “bosom memo” sent to female staff seeking information about what single girls want, as well as telling the story of her own awakening in 1960s Manhattan. Renée Rosen talks about “Park Avenue Summer” and its trailblazing inspiration.
Did you grow up reading Cosmopolitan? What was the influence of the magazine and Helen Gurley Brown on you?
One of the many benefits of having an older sister was that I got to read her back issues of Cosmopolitan. I remember flipping to the “Bedside Astrologer” section, looking for guidance on my budding sixteen-year-old love life. All those hours spent poring over the glossy pages of Cosmo essentially shaped my view of female sexuality and female empowerment, too.
While researching, what was the most scandalous tidbit you came across?
When it came to sex, no one was off-limits in HGB’s world, and that included bosses and married men. It was her attitude about affairs with married men that I found most scandalous, especially because HGB was a girl’s girl. She was all for women’s liberation, so the fact that she’d turn around and sleep with another woman’s husband didn’t seem to fit with everything else I’d discovered about her. But she truly felt that sex was paramount to a woman’s happiness and she got it where she could.
Were you surprised that such a reputed hard-ass was also prone to tears and relied heavily on her husband to bail her out in difficult meetings?
Absolutely, but that’s what made her such a fascinating character to try and capture on the page. She was very complicated, a walking contradiction, preaching independence while running to her husband, David Brown, for help. Without David Brown (a very accomplished Hollywood producer) there never would have been the HGB we know. David Brown was the one who told Helen she should write a book about being single. It was also David Brown who convinced Hearst to hire Helen as Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief, despite her having no previous editing or magazine experience. Helen was terrified and David Brown often told of how he found Helen curled up in the fetal position, sobbing the night before she started.
What did you come to most admire about Helen Gurley Brown?
I loved her courage and flat-out chutzpah. She was a 105-pound powerhouse who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and ultimately for all women. She was vulnerable, too. A self-proclaimed mouseburger, she shared her flaws and weaknesses; not afraid to admit she wore a wig, a padded bra and had her nose fixed. She was also a big believer in psychoanalysis. I believe she wanted her readers to learn by her example and see that if she could overcome her shortcomings, they could, too.
Who did you draw on for the character of Alice Weiss?
I think there’s a little bit of me in Alice. Growing up in Ohio, I had a love affair with New York City from as far back as I could remember. I eventually lived there briefly and I think Alice being both intimidated and awed by the city came out of my own experiences. The other aspects of her character I owe to my editor who kept asking me to drill down deeper, find out who she is and what makes her tick.
Did you love writing about New York as much as Chicago?
After doing four previous novels set in Chicago, I needed to find some fresh territory. New York has a very different vibe from Chicago and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture that. It gave me an opportunity to stretch and I hope my Chicago readers will follow me on this out-of-town journey.
What challenges arose in the writing?
The greatest challenge was Helen Gurley Brown. It would have been very easy to make her a caricature and I wanted to tap into all her complexities and dimensions. Luckily, I was introduced to Lois Cahall, who was like a daughter to Helen Gurley Brown. Lois was kind enough to vet the manuscript and help me portray HGB as accurately as I possibly could.
You maintain a bright, breezy style with no words wasted. It is very readable and perfectly pitched to be read over summer—but it’s not frothy and, like your last novel, contains pointed observations about gender, sex, media and workplace sabotage. How do you walk the tightrope of seemingly effortless (I know it’s not!) writing with weighty subject matter? Many edits? Or do you research then do a very solid draft? How do you work?
This might sound crazy, but after I breathe a certain amount of life in the characters on the page, they just take over. I let them lead the way, tell their story. I’m not a fan of “info dumps” and never want a reader to feel my hand behind the words. I like to make the storyline and characters feel organic. I want people to get swept up in the story and hopefully along the way, certain messages and themes will resonate with them.
As for process, I tend to write in layers. My first draft is really just me telling myself the story. I’ll write twenty or thirty drafts, adding more texture with each layer. I’m also very good at writing myself into 20,000-word corners that I end up trashing—all part of the process.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a new novel, “The Social Graces,” which tells the story of Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt vying for control of New York society during the Gilded Age. I wrote about Chicago’s Gilded Age in “What the Lady Wants,” and it’s great fun to return to that period. This one comes out in January 2021.
“Park Avenue Summer”
By Renée Rosen
Berkley, 368 pages, $16
Renée Rosen launches “Park Avenue Summer” at 7pm on April 30 at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665. Lake Forest Bookstore hosts an author luncheon at 1130am on May 1 at the Deer Path Inn, 255 East Illinois, Lake Forest, and at 630pm at The Book Stall, 811 Elm, Winnetka.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at email@example.com.