Goodreads: Park Avenue Summer
Publication Date: April 30,2019
Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada as Renée Rosen draws readers into the glamour of 1965 New York City and Cosmopolitan Magazine, where a brazen new Editor-in-Chief–Helen Gurley Brown–shocks America 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 the job of a lifetime working for Helen Gurley Brown, the first female Editor-in-Chief of a then failing Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Nothing could have prepared Alice for the world she enters as editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. While confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands, someone tries to pull Alice into this scheme to sabotage her boss. But Alice remains loyal and becomes all the more determined to help Helen succeed. As pressure mounts at the magazine and Alice struggles to make her way in New York, she quickly learns that in Helen Gurley Brown’s world, a woman can demand to have it all.
Park Avenue Summer is an interesting fictionalized account of the first months that Helen Gurley Brown took over a dying Cosmopolitan magazine and, against the wishes of Hearst executives, turned it from a women’s magazine about the home into one about sex and relationships. The protagonist is actually Alice, Helen’s new secretary who is completely unqualified for the position but gets it through personal connections (such is the world of publishing, I supposed). However, though the book does deal with Alice’s personal life including her friendships, sexual flings as she tries being a modern girl who has sex without ties just for fun, and her family secrets, the book really does revolve all around Gurley Brown and her vision for Cosmopolitan, and readers get a sense of how Alice is sucked into a mentality of “work and the magazine before all else,” trapped in the cult of Helen Gurley Brown, a bit like in The Devil Wears Prada.
My personal issue with the main tension of the book being “Will the new, sexy magazine succeed?” is that I didn’t really care either way. Rosen does a fantastic job of portraying Helen as the underdog fighting an entire executive board, even an entire industry to launch a “modern” magazine for “her girls” that will touch on topics that are rather taboo. When readers see how far people (mostly men) go to sabotage her, her career, and the magazine (which Hearst actually wants to fold, not revive, as they stated when they hired Gurley Brown), they won’t be able to help rooting for her. However, beyond the “I like when underdogs win” feeling, I wasn’t invested in either Gurley Brown or her vision.
Alice talks about Gurley Brown as if she’s a force of nature, strong-willed and able to get her way even when people don’t want to give it to her. However, those moment are represented rarely in the book. Instead we see her crying (fair, considering what people are doing to her), calling other female employees things like “pussycat” (which seems the opposite of empowering), and, worst of all, frequently calling her husband to bail her out. She got the job through her husband’s influence, then she calls him every time something goes wrong. She leaves the office to spend time with him so he can calm her down. He is at every restaurant she hosts an important meeting at, ready to bail her out. He writes parts of the magazine and solves her problems for her. There’s nothing wrong with relying on a spouse for support, but I don’t know how much Gurley Brown was a strong, insightful woman with a vision. vs. a woman with a powerful, confident husband who did half her work for her.
I also balked at really rooting for the vision of the magazine. Gurley Brown talks a lot about the modern, career-oriented woman and how she wants to help them (ok, “her girls”) succeed, but none of the stories she pitches are ever about careers or general empowerment. She tells Hearst executives that she’s going to write about how to touch a woman’s breasts, how to best masturbate, how to have an affair with a married man, etc. Every other word out of her mouth was about having sex and sexual pleasure. Being sex positive is one thing, but I could kind of see why the other magazine employees thought she was crazy and incredibly vulgar. She seems more sex-obsessed than interested in actual female empowerment.
The fact I didn’t personally like Helen Gurley Brown or her vision for Cosmopolitan doesn’t mean the book was bad, of course. I don’t need to find characters likable or relatable. However, I do think the book struggled with the balance of focusing on Gurley Brown vs. focusing on the actual protagonist. Alice herself is, frankly, a bit dull. She gets all of her big breaks from nepotism, which is irritating, but, worse than that, she’s a bit dull. Things seem to happen to her or at her, rather than because she herself took any action. If she weren’t working for Gurley Brown and getting dragged into things bigger than herself because of luck and personal connections, she’d be incredibly uninteresting.
So, as a story, I think Park Avenue Summer is a bit dry. As an account of an interesting period in the magazine industry and the history of Cosmopolitan in particular, it’s worth a read if you don’t know much about this topic.