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So credit is due Margalit Fox of the New York Times for a page-one obituary of Helen Gurley Brown that teetered on the edge of the pit. My brother-in-law Paul Perri spotted it during a family vacation and read Fox's lead out loud. The first paragraph concluded:
"[Brown] was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger."
Was the obit signed? I wondered. That sort of flippancy would be remarkable indeed in an uncredited wire-service story.
Was it snarky throughout? For it would have been a horrendous misjudgment to write dismissively of the editor who reinvented Cosmopolitan magazine and reoriented sexual freedom from academia to suburbia.
It wasn't. It was detailed, chatty, and respectful.
Brown's fingernails weren't 90 years old. That was my first thought. And certainly not her hair. Few parts of a 90-year-old person are themselves 90 years old—regardless of whether she's had work done. I did some serious thinking along this line for several minutes, until I was dead certain it led nowhere. (If this were Anatomy Week, rather than Botany Week on the Bleader, I might have soldiered on.)
Fortunately, a general discussion of Brown and feminism in its various stages broke out. Hugh Hefner was introduced for purposes of comparison and contrast. All agreed that Playboy was once worth reading for the articles. On the other hand, Helen Gurley Brown never made a fool of herself in her dotage by running around with twin 20-year-old boy toys. And Cosmo—come to think of it—was worth reading only for the articles (in the view of readers who considered it worth reading), the occasional centerfold of a naked Burt Reynolds notwithstanding.
And someone—I believe Paul—had this to say about the cheeky "parts of her" line: It sounded like something Helen Gurley Brown would have written herself.
Were it not for this one elegantly calibrated line a whisper away from reprehensible, Paul would have read the article in silence and gone on to the next article and the conversation wouldn't have happened. Good things can come when writers swing for the offenses.