21 August 2012

Phyllis Diller was to comedy was Helen Gurley Brown was to sex, and in one sad week the world’s lost both of them.

Diller and Gurley Brown were pioneering women of the swinging sixties who spoke their minds – particularly about taboo subjects such as sex and the relationships between men and women.  In the forty odd years since both were at the pinnacles of their careers, values have changed, in part due to their influences, but their currency has remained as valid today as ever.  These women were aged 95 and 90 respectively when they died, which shoots down ageist theories that older women aren’t interesting.

Both women spoke of life changing moments that shaped their destinies, and interestingly both women came from advertising backgrounds.  Phyllis Diller was a thirty seven year old housewife and mother, whose first husband urged her to give up her advertising career, which she did to go into comedy as a means of supporting her family.  She often told the story of the night she “bombed” on stage, yet it was that very night that Bob Hope was in the audience and discovered her.

No beauty, Phyllis Diller did everything she could to accentuate her looks, in the most negative way imaginable, but her wild and weird appearance and unladylike laughter became her trademark in an era which dictated that women had to look funny in order to be funny.

Helen Gurley Brown was fired from her advertising job, then went on to become editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, turning around the fortunes of the then-ailing magazine.  A feminist who believed women should support themselves financially and seek more than just marriage and family, she was the precursor to Samantha Jones, from Sex and the City, and continued to wear mini-dresses into her eighties.

Which of us, having struggled through a bad day in the office, hasn’t dreamed of following their example and leaving the drudgery of our day jobs behind and falling into the perfect role, which brings us – if not fame and fortune – then a modicum of satisfaction that we might not be feeling at the present time?

These pioneering women, who on the surface were quite different, taught several generations of women the following lessons:

-Be true to yourself
-Follow your passions
-Celebrate sex
-Enjoy your eccentricities
-Manage your money
-Be open minded about plastic surgery because you’ll probably end up having it

Might be time for this generation to grab a copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, to see we’re now living what she espoused.  And while you’re at it, see if you can get some recordings of The Phyllis Diller Show.  Her routines about her fictional husband Fang and plastic surgery, shocking at the time, paved the way for things which are now commonplace.  I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a rainy weekend than to immerse myself in the nostalgic legacy of these two irreplaceable women, who were not only my heroes, but who changed the cultural climate for a generation of American women.

The title of this blog post is a Helen Gurley Brown quote: “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”  I don’t know where Helen Gurley Brown and Phyllis Diller have gone, but I do know two things – the world is a richer place for their having been here, and they will be missed.



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