“‘Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada,’ which might as well be saying ‘put me in your cart immediately.’”—PopSugar
It’s 1965 and Cosmopolitan magazine’s brazen new editor in chief—Helen Gurley Brown—shocks America and saves a dying publication by daring to talk to women about all things off-limits...
New York City is filled with opportunities for single girls like Alice Weiss, who leaves her small Midwestern town to chase her big-city dreams and unexpectedly lands a job working for the first female editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown.
For Alice, who wants to be a photographer, it seems like the perfect foot in the door, but nothing could have prepared her for the world she enters. Editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller Sex and the Single Girl, and confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands. When someone tries to pull Alice into a scheme to sabotage her boss, she is more determined than ever to help Helen succeed.
While pressure mounts at the magazine, Alice struggles not to lose sight of her own dreams as she’s swept up into a glamorous world of five-star dinners, lavish parties, and men who are certainly no good. Because if Helen Gurley Brown has taught her anything, it’s that a woman can demand to have it all.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Renée Rosen is the author of Windy City Blues, White Collar Girl, What the Lady Wants, and Dollface, as well as the young adult novel Every Crooked Pot.
Read an Excerpt
New York City
I had creased and folded my subway map so many times over the past few days that it was on the verge of tearing in two. Somehow I had boarded the wrong train. Again. I'd ended up at Times Square instead of 57th Street. Now what?
I exited the train, took a few tentative steps and froze on the platform, people weaving around me, bumping up against my portfolio, jostling the photographs inside. A young woman in a pink and gold sari called to a little boy running on ahead of her, past a man playing bongos. The Times Square station was a maze of tiled corridors and tunnels, stairwells that led from one frenzied level to another. A blur of signs pointed me in all directions: Uptown, Downtown, The Bronx, Brooklyn, 8th Avenue, 40th Street . . .
I didn't have time to risk getting on the wrong train, so I folded my tattered map, tucked it inside my pocketbook and made my way to the 42nd Street exit where I was met with a blast of horns, a gust of exhaust. I stood at the curb feeling as bewildered as I'd been inside the station, and yet, it was exhilarating. I'd arrived in New York about a week ago, and like the city, I was alive, filled with possibility and adventure. Anything could happen now. My life was about to begin.
I'd never hailed a taxicab before and was momentarily paralyzed. All I could do was observe other people's techniques, like the businessman who raised his hand ever so slightly, accomplishing the task with just two fingers. Another man with bags under his eyes, big and full as cheeks, yelled out a commanding "Taxi," making a driver swerve across two lanes before bringing his cab to a screeching halt. Job done. The woman beside me waved her hand like a magic wand and a taxicab appeared. I mimicked her approach, my fingers flapping amateurishly. Two taxicabs barreled past me as if I wasn't there before one pulled up alongside me. I gave the driver the address while he laid on his horn, inching forward, leaving barely a whisper of air between his bumper and the taxicab in front of us. We were one in a chain of yellow cabs going nowhere fast.
I checked the clock on the dashboard. "I have an appointment in twenty minutes," I said to the driver through the cloudy Plexiglas window separating us. "Do you think we can make it in time?"
He shot me an impatient look through his rearview mirror. "You coulda walked it, lady," he said in a thick Brooklyn accent.
I sat back, trying to relax, clutching my portfolio: a homemade case that protected my photographs, mounted to sheets of construction paper and held between two cardboard covers. I used a black ribbon to tie it shut.
It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, and the driver had all the windows rolled down. I drew a deep breath, unable to place the scent until I realized that it was everything I was not smelling: the absence of grass, trees and those easy, open-space breezes. The flow of air, obstructed by the buildings, seemed stagnant, almost stale, yet the city was in constant motion, all vigor and energy.
At the corner of 47th and Eighth Avenue, I spotted a man and a woman waiting for the light. They reminded me of couples I'd seen in the movies. He was in a dark suit, his fedora worn with a Sinatra tilt. She was impeccably dressed in a skirt and matching jacket, belted at the waist. He pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket, offering her one before he suavely lit them both. As puffs of smoke gathered above their heads, the streetlight changed and off they went. I watched until they disappeared into the throng of New Yorkers, wishing I had my camera with me. You didn't see people like that back in Ohio.
My cab cleared the intersection and I grew giddy thinking that soon I'd be taking my place among the locals, walking with a purpose, each step bringing me closer to the very things I'd come here for. And with that, I couldn't help but think about my mother. She was supposed to have been by my side when I came to New York, and I wasn't one of those people comforted by the ethereal; she's still with you, watching over you.
As we continued on, I craned my neck, not wanting to miss a thing. There was more to see here in just two blocks than in all of Youngstown. I leaned forward to get a better look at the giant Camel billboard of a man smoking a cigarette, blowing actual smoke rings. All of Times Square was flashing with Canadian Club, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and a sign for Admiral Television Appliances. Even in the middle of the day, the theater marquees were lit and winking, some reputable while others advertised peep shows starring raw naked women. Again, I itched for my camera. Even when I didn't have it with me, I was still taking pictures in my head.
I had moved to New York to become a photographer despite my father and everyone else, including the editor at the Youngstown Vindicator, telling me a woman couldn't do that kind of work. Taking personal snapshots like my mother did was one thing, but professional photographs for newspapers and magazines? Never. Maybe not in a small town, but surely New York City would be different. And just knowing they said I couldn't do it made me all the more determined to prove them wrong. Stubbornness, something I'd inherited from my mother.
My father and Faye, his new wife, said they weren't financing my pipe dream, so after graduating from secretarial school and working as a typist in a steel foundry for three months, I'd saved $375. I knew that wouldn't go very far, seeing as the taxicab meter had already hit 90 cents. My most immediate need was a job-any job. I'd already interviewed with an accounting firm, followed by a scaffolding manufacturer and an insurance agency. They were jobs I didn't want and thankfully didn't get.
That was why I finally pulled out the number I'd been carrying since I'd arrived but had been too shy or proud to use. I called Elaine Sloan. Elaine and my mother had been roommates in New York, living at the Barbizon Hotel, both of them aspiring models. My mother, beautiful as she was, had fallen short of the dream, becoming a Midwestern housewife. Elaine ended up as a book editor at Bernard Geis Associates. I'd met Elaine once, at my mother's funeral, and had exchanged a few cards and letters with her since. She said to contact her if ever I needed anything. I thought maybe she could help me land a photography job, or at the very least, something in publishing.
When I arrived at Bernard Geis Associates on East 56th Street, I found myself on the forty-second floor, in a colorful lobby filled with pop art and Eero Aarnio pod chairs suitable for a moon landing. In the middle of it all was a pole you'd expect to see in a fire station. It extended all the way through a circular cutout in the ceiling of the floor above. While I gave the receptionist my name, a woman slid down that pole, her skirt bunched up, revealing her blue garter, before landing with a respectable dismount.
Moments later Elaine Sloan made a more dignified entrance through a side door. The first thing I-or probably anyone-noticed about Elaine was her hair. She was prematurely gray, each strand a luminous shade of silvery white that caught the light and accentuated her blue eyes. Eyes that looked as though they'd seen more than most women her age. I told myself she resembled my mother, though they looked nothing alike. My mind was playing tricks on me and I knew why. Yes, I was a grown woman of twenty-one, but I still wanted my mother. Elaine Sloan-her most devoted and dearest friend-was the closest I could get to her now.
She greeted me with a warm smile and showed me into her office, which had a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. "Tell me how I can help you," she asked, gesturing for me to sit in the chair opposite her desk.
After sharing tidbits of my disheartening job search, I set my portfolio on her desk. "But what I'm really looking for is something in photography."
"I see." She leaned forward, reaching for my case. "May I?"
"Please . . ." I untied the ribbon for her and sat silently while she leafed through my photographs, pausing here and there but saying nothing. She closed the cover before she reached the end.
It was a blow, but I would not be ungrateful and let my disappointment show.
She smiled and sat back, inching my portfolio toward me with her fingertips. "You have an eye," she said, just to be kind.
"Thank you." I tied my portfolio shut and set it in my lap, thinking how much more competitive everything was here. Back home people appreciated my photographs, selecting them for the school newspaper and yearbook. But in New York my pictures were barely enough to hold anyone's attention.
"Well, it's not photography," she said, "but I do have something in mind." Elaine pressed the intercom on her desk and said, "Get David Brown on the line for me, will you?" She released the talk button and reached behind her for a book on her credenza. "Are you familiar with this?" She held up a copy of Sex and the Single Girl.
That blue cover instantly took me back to my senior year of high school, to a slumber party in Esther Feinberg's basement. Four of us had stayed up half the night, taking turns reading aloud from Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl. I remembered certain passages made us squeal and roll onto our sides, pillows pressed to our faces to smother our giggles and shock. At the time, I didn't think the book applied to me because I had Michael Segal. My future was set. At least it was until I gave him back his grandmother's ring after he said he wasn't ready to marry me. The next day I went out and bought my own copy of Sex and the Single Girl and read it cover to cover. More than once.
A moment later the secretary's voice squawked back on the intercom. "I have Mr. Brown on line one for you."
"The best way to get to Helen is through her husband," Elaine said as she picked up the phone and swiveled around in her chair, facing the window. "Hello, David." She leaned back and laughed at something he said. I watched her reflection in the glass as she propped her feet on the windowsill and crossed her ankles. She was wearing a pair of Gucci loafers. I recognized the interlocked gold G's on top. "Is Helen still looking for a secretary?" she asked. "Oh, good. I have someone I think she should meet." She looked back at me and winked. "Her name's Alice Weiss. Shall I send her over? Okay, let me know. Thank you, David."
She hung up, dropped her feet to the ground and swiveled back around, facing me with a smile. "I know it's a secretarial position. It's not photography, but you have an interview with her tomorrow."
"With who? Helen Gurley Brown?" I was in disbelief. Helen Gurley Brown was a celebrity. A famous author who'd been a regular on radio and television shows even though hosts like Merv Griffin and Jack Paar couldn't say the title of her book on the air.
"David's going to call back with the time. I'll let you know as soon as I hear from him. Meanwhile . . ." She scribbled an address down on a monogrammed notepad, tore the page free and slid it across the desk to me.
"Is she writing another book?"
"Actually, no. The Hearst Corporation just hired her to be the new editor in chief at Cosmopolitan magazine." Elaine shook her head, bewildered. "Last I heard, Hearst was folding Cosmopolitan. Then all of a sudden, they bring in Helen. Must be some sort of a last-ditch effort to save the magazine. Hearst isn't in the habit of hiring women for positions like that, and frankly, we're all scratching our heads, wondering how she landed the job. I'm sure David had something to do with it, seeing as Helen's never edited a magazine before. My lord, she's never even worked at a magazine." Elaine laughed at the absurdity of it all. "But I have worked with Helen. I was one of her editors for this." She tapped Sex and the Single Girl resting on her desk. "And while I don't agree with everything she says in here, I do think she's smart. And God knows she's got chutzpah."
The following morning, I arrived at 224 West 57th. I was in the lobby, waiting for the elevator, when two girls walked up beside me. They were about my age and the one, with white-blond hair teased and backcombed into a magnificent bouffant, pressed the call button a second time, as if that would make it come faster. The Bouffant was wearing a chartreuse triangle shift dress. The other girl, a brunette with a pixie and chandelier earrings that touched her shoulders, wore a short red and white checkered skirt with knee-high boots. Compared to them, I had a big Ohio stamped on my forehead, even in my best houndstooth sheath dress.
The elevator landed with a ding, and after the doors opened, in we went. The two girls chattered on the way up, oblivious when I exited behind them on the fourth floor and followed them into Cosmopolitan's lobby. Before they disappeared down a hallway, the Pixie noticed me, glancing back with a neutral expression before she turned again, leaving me behind. There was no one at the receptionist's desk, so I waited.
The office was not what I'd been expecting. It suffered from neglect. The carpet was worn to its frayed backing. The seat cushions of the leather chairs were cracked, a vein of white stuffing poking through. Even the dust clinging to the leaves on the plastic plants in the entranceway said to all who passed through those doors that the reading public had lost faith in the old gal.
Still no sign of the receptionist. To pass the time, I studied the covers from past issues strewn across the wall, hanging in cockeyed frames. I was surprised by what I saw. The Cosmopolitan magazine I knew was filled with casserole recipes and housekeeping tips, but the lobby walls told a different story. There was a plaque with a list of authors who'd written for the magazine going as far back as the 1800s, including Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Kipling and others. Among the covers hanging up was the April 1939 issue featuring Somerset Maugham's The Facts of Life. Pearl S. Buck had a novella published in March 1935. O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi was also published by Cosmopolitan.
Reading Group Guide
Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen
Questions for Discussion
1. Do you think Helen Gurley Brown was a feminist? How do you think her brand of feminism compared to Betty Friedan’s or Gloria Steinem’s?
2. What did you think of Helen’s advice to Alice regarding her Don Juan? Do you agree that Don Juans are unavoidable and that everyone woman has that one man she can’t say “no” to?
3. Speaking of Alice’s Don Juan, did you understand why she got involved with Erik? Were you sympathetic to her situation or did you want her to break it off with him sooner? Or not enter into it at all?
4. Under Helen Gurley Brown’s leadership, Cosmopolitan became a groundbreaking magazine for women and inspired many copycat publications. Were you a Cosmo reader? And if so, what do you remember most about that magazine? What other magazines did you read growing up?
5. Can you define today’s Cosmo Girl? How has she evolved through the years?
6. When it comes to iconic female magazine editors, the two biggest names are probably Helen Gurley Brown and Anna Wintour. How do you think these two women are similar? How are they different?
7. In the book, Alice looks to both Helen Gurley Brown and Elaine Sloan as role models and mentors. How important do you think it was for a young woman back then to have that kind of guidance? And do you think it’s still important in today’s world?
8. In today’s digital age we’ve seen the decline of physical magazines. How do you feel about publications moving from newsstands to the Internet? Do you miss reading them physically?
9. If you’d been put in Ali’s position, would youhave told Helen that members of the Hearst staff were sabotaging her? How do you think you would have handled that sort of predicament?
10. What prominent themes can you find in Park Avenue Summer? Do you think any of them are still relevant in today’s world?
11. Alice, like so many people throughout history, moved to New York City to pursue her dream. Certainly, there are easier and more affordable places to live and yet Manhattan’s draw proves irresistible to some. Why do you think that is?
12. How did you feel about the ending of the book and were you surprised to learn where Ali ended up?