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Review: Park Avenue Summer, by Renée Rosen
Berkeley, 2019. 338 pp. $16

When twenty-one-year-old Alice Weiss arrives in New York in 1965 from Youngstown, Ohio, to make her fortune, she dreams of becoming a photographer. However, the job she finds is secretary to Helen Gurley Brown, author of the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, recently named by publishing giant Hearst to resurrect the then-flailing Cosmopolitan magazine. By the time Alice figures out what has hit her, her life has been changed forever.

“Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” Helen Gurley Brown in 1964, by John Bottega, World Telegram staff photographer (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice represents the New York office world and what was then called a “gal Friday,” because, like her namesake in Robinson Crusoe, she does everything. That involves getting coffee or lunch, typing correspondence, taking phone calls, managing appointments, taking minutes at meetings, picking up Brown’s pets from the vet, running other personal errands, working hellacious hours, and receiving unsolicited advice about life, men, and career. Most significantly to the story, Alice must decide whether to fend off the advances of a very attractive Don Juan executive who might be plotting against Brown, only one aspect of the complex office politics.

Forces within Hearst want to kill Cosmo and see Brown fail. Her superiors (all male, of course) nearly lose their lunches when they see how she plans to imbue the magazine with her frank vision of female sexuality, starting with provocative covers and articles about orgasms. Rosen brilliantly captures how an unrepentant woman occupying a corner office goes about making her mark — or how this inimitable woman does, anyway.

Brown’s feminism is decidedly heterodox, though, for her creed includes at least two dubious propositions: that a woman can and should use her physical attraction to advance her career; and that every woman should bed a Mr. Wrong, a skirt chaser with too much magnetism for anyone’s good, just to “get that out of her system.” For contrast, Rosen has Alice attend a lecture by Betty Friedan, where she hears a more appealing philosophy, though she remains loyal to Brown and sees wisdom in her mentor too.

Which fits, because Alice’s life reflects the story’s feminist themes, and Rosen deftly weaves the two narratives of Cosmo and her protagonist. But Brown’s the star here, the definition of larger-than-life, consummate actress, constantly outré, loyal to her friends, but always the center of attention. She’s good to Alice — mostly — but doesn’t listen particularly well, and her protégée needs that above all.

I’d never before met a woman who cried as often or with as much gusto as Helen Gurley Brown. Every upset and hurt, every frustration and disappointment, got washed away with her tears and an occasional eyelash or two. After a particularly hard crying jag, the kind that left her eyes puffy, she’d remove her wig and submerge her face in a bowl of ice water, holding her breath for as long as she could stand it. Afterward I’d hand her a towel and guard her door while she reapplied her makeup and reappeared, looking fresh-faced and perfectly composed.
I was shocked by her tears at first because I was just the opposite. I hadn’t let myself cry since my mother died.

I like how Rosen seldom cuts an emotional moment too short and lets Alice feel deeply even though a whole lot is going on. One notable exception: Brown uses Alice as a prop during a presentation to potential advertisers in an exploitive way, yet the young woman only blushes, harboring no anger. But otherwise, Rosen’s protagonist has much to deal with, and the author honors that without flinching.

Nevertheless, two aspects of Alice’s life seem empty, or nearly so. First, she’s nominally Jewish, but, aside from fleeting references that suggest its importance to her, she doesn’t live it. I’ve never been to Youngstown, but I’m betting there’s a hell of a difference between being Jewish there and in New York; shouldn’t Alice register this, especially since she feels lonely in her new environment? But she never even has cause to wonder that there seem many more of her coreligionists around; nobody ever pegs her as Jewish, whatever that means to them, or her; and her unabashed passion for certain nonkosher foods wants explaining.

Secondly, I don’t entirely believe this novel takes place in the mid-1960s, and not just because the dialogue occasionally includes present-day business-speak or idioms. The clothing styles, sexual attitudes, and workplace mores feel right, but there’s no Sixties vibe — no slang, manners, street life, or sense that the country is at war, in Vietnam and with itself (conflicts that would emerge even more strongly within the next two or three years). Nobody even thinks about those issues, and though Alice spends time in Greenwich Village, I get no hint of protest, counterculture, or avant-garde.

But Helen Gurley Brown did leave her mark. If you’d like a glimpse of what she did at Cosmo, Park Avenue Summer is an entertaining, often poignant story of a young woman struggling with heartbreak and dreams that feel beyond reach.

Disclaimer: I obtained by reading copy of this book from the public library.