Hoping to lure a man at the beach, Anna David laid out a towel printed with an inviting game of checkers. No one wanted to play. Attempting to reach another guy through his stomach, she cooked up a feast, but he preferred his broccoli steamed, not sautéed.
Many attempts flopped when Ms. David decided to try out nearly every ruse espoused by the late Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Single Girl, the divisive 1962 guidebook to dating and domesticity for working-class girls. Still, depressed as she flew solo after a string of failed relationships, Ms. David took to HGB’s celebration of feminine wiles – of single women as sexy, not spinsters.
The result was the 2011 book Falling For Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Travelled to Seville and Fell in Love, which follows Ms. David navigating HGB’s retro advice, and occasionally dodging it. (Where HGB recommended Proust and sewing “silly, wonderful cotton brocade tea coats,” Ms. David opted for windsurfing, pottery and French.)
Now 42 and dating, the author spoke with The Globe and Mail from her home in Los Angeles about Ms. Gurley Brown’s infamous maxims – some of them Cosmo-obtuse and others surprisingly modern.
Sex and the Single Girl helped you get your life in order, but plenty of women will naturally clean house when they’re protractedly single.
You’d be surprised. There’s still a very strong societal message that if you’re single and a woman, your life is sad – like when Jennifer Aniston was single. I internalized that; many women do. The more I embraced Helen’s ideas, which are really about self-love, the more I realized how much I’d been living in a world of self-hate.
Why did you take up pottery?
I’m definitely a workaholic and I would pass things up – Indian dance class or surfing – because of my busyness. It kept my life really small. In New York, I lived across the street from this pottery studio and I’d find myself saying to people, “I’d love to take a class there” – and then never sign up. The project forced me to sign up for things that were not productive. I mean, Helen was a big fan of productivity, but also pushed doing those things because they nurture us.
HGB writes that “cooking gourmetishly is a particularly impressive skill for a career woman.” But her recipes are rather sparse, three or four sentences for elaborate meals.
I feel like she put these recipes in there and said [to husband David Brown], “Oh pussycat, we’re going to have a chef make that.” I didn’t get the sense that she got her hands dirty with oven grease all that often.
She also had different ideas about what the woman eats and what she is serving. The elaborate meals are for the man and for company, but there’s a silent indication that you don’t have to eat the Baked Alaska, you can just push it around your plate.
Moving on to Helen’s domestic tips: What did those Moroccan throw pillows do for you?
I’d basically been living like a college kid many years out of college. It was this belief that my life was going to start when I moved in with a man: “I’m not enough [of a reason] to bother making this nice for.” And then I’d keep really busy with plans every night to ward off the “I might get lonely if I’m home” feeling.
This was about challenging it: Since this is where I spend a lot of my time, I’m going to make it beautiful. Now I always buy lilies because they smell so good. It’s a gift and a treat when I get to be here without any obligations. In changing my externals, I got more comfortable internally.
Her domestic advice was a lot less crazy than her flirting advice.
She had a tip for the bar scene that you didn’t attempt: If you spot a handsome man but he’s on a date, just crash into him.
That was my favourite of her ridiculous suggestions. Charm him so much he forgets he’s got a girl sitting at the table. Other things that I did try weren’t that effective: a colourful beach towel will attract men on the beach! A pin, a sparkly pin, will make people ask all about you. She was very optimistic about a woman’s ability to charm a man. But it’s all about the self-love message, which she doesn’t get a lot of credit for. You can’t love somebody else until you love yourself.
How about this one: A man must take you out 20 times before he’s invited for a home-cooked meal. You managed five times.
Her ideas about how much men should pay for women – that he should pay for all bar tabs and trips – just aren’t relevant anymore.
She also advocates the use of younger men and Don Juans as sexual appetizers before marriage. You got attached.
I’m certainly guilty of getting attached to Don Juans – aren’t we all, a little bit? Her message was definitely don’t get too attached, but it’s easier to say that when you’re writing from the comfortable perch of marriage. She was married and 40 when she wrote Sex and the Single Girl. It’s easier to say these types of men serve a purpose once they’re a part of your past, rather than when they are in your present.
Most contentiously, she recommends single girls get involved with married men.
I’d already been in a ridiculous situation with a married man when I stumbled upon this book; it was the single most painful experience of my life, and I’m not the guy’s wife. Helen may have preached that, but I understand she kept a pretty firm leash on her own husband.
It was also a different time – some wives turned a blind eye. Our partners weren’t expected to be our everything. She didn’t have moral judgments about a lot of things, for better or for worse.
After finishing S&TSG, you decided that women had it better in the ’60s when they didn’t have unrealistic expectations of their partners or feel they had to “do it all.” That didn’t go over well.
I wrote that piece [“Women Had it Better in the Sixties”] for Huffington Post and it got 900 comments, 898 of them wanting to skin me alive. I’m incredibly grateful for what the women’s movement has done for us, but it didn’t solve everything – the unrealistic pressure we put on women to be successful and have the perfect husband and children. I think it was easier for some women when there wasn’t so much pressure in every single arena.
You write that before this project, “you’d grown more independent and less feminine.” Is the suggestion that workaholism robs women of their feminine wiles?
I had it in my head that femininity was for silly girls; serious women don’t spend time trying out different mascaras. Helen perpetuated the idea that women could be taken seriously and also be sexual. That didn’t align itself with the other feminist messages of the 60s.
Of course HGB was herself a workaholic, pulling long days well into her 80s.
And refusing to retire.
Ultimately, the idea of doing all this stuff to attract a mate is as offputting now to many women as it was to some feminists back in 1962. You don’t land anyone in the end.
I’m happier to have rid myself of the self-hating thoughts that tormented me, of not fitting the traditional mould and marrying at 28. If you don’t accept yourself, you won’t be happy with Mr. Perfect anyway.
As part of the book you desperately wanted to meet Helen. But her people ignored your calls, e-mails and your last plea: two stuffed toys – a mouse and a burger – sewn together, a plush homage to ‘mouseburgers,’ the word Ms. Gurley Brown coined for homely women with few romantic prospects.
I accepted and understood it – supposedly she wasn’t quite as with it any more. I didn’t need to meet her to express my gratitude – my life is an indication. It’s more important than being able to tell her over tea and scones at the Plaza, which is what I’d envisioned us doing. With her not eating the scones, obviously.
This interview has been condensed and edited.