Who Owns Helen Gurley Brown’s Legacy?


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Helen Gurley Brown in her office in 1982. She commuted there on the M10 bus well into her 80s. Her Beresford apartment has an estimated value in the tens of millions of dollars.

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Harry Benson/Contour by Getty Images

From the apartment of Helen Gurley Brown — No. 22D, a turreted quadruplex in the Beresford building on Central Park West — one can glimpse among the sleek modernist skyscrapers in the Manhattan skyline the Norman Foster-designed Hearst Tower directly to the south, a little over a mile away. Famously thrifty, Ms. Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, commuted there on the M10 bus well into her 80s.

The interior of the apartment, as seen earlier this summer, is a time capsule of midcentury glamour. An elevator opens into a vestibule, bright with floral wallpaper and lit by a black Murano chandelier. A curved staircase, wallpapered in fuchsia and gold, leads to a hallway filled with photographs of Ms. Brown and her husband, David, the film and theater producer, posing with Barbra Streisand, Joan Crawford, Barbara Walters and others.

On a desk in the library, near a leopard-print makeup bag and an accountant’s business card, is a silver-plated typewriter (Ms. Brown used them long past the advent of smartphones), with an engraved inscription recognizing her 40-plus years of service to Hearst, the owner of Cosmopolitan. There is also an issue of The New York Post from Aug. 8, 2012, the last day Ms. Brown was well enough to make it into work, and a daily calendar open to the same date, with the sole entry: “Broadway Show With Eve Burton & Dinner.”

An obvious crown jewel of the Manhattan real estate market, the Beresford apartment has an estimated value in the tens of millions of dollars. But 22D is not for sale, much to the growing consternation of the building’s co-op board and the agitation of top real estate brokers.

The person who has been impeding its arrival on the market is Ms. Burton, 56, the general counsel for and a vice president of the Hearst Corporation and the co-executor of Ms. Brown’s will. She is the bearer of the flame for this transformative figure in the worlds of publishing and feminism, whose storied rise from poverty in Green Forest, Ark., through the secretarial pool to a position of advocacy for the modern independent woman has inspired creators, including Matthew Weiner (who told writers on “Mad Men” that “Sex and the Single Girl” was required reading) and Lena Dunham (who has said that her book, “Not That Kind of Girl” was inspired by Ms. Brown’s “Having It All”).

Though other executives at Hearst are members of what Ms. Burton calls “Team Helen,” she is the point woman for matters related to the financial, philanthropic and cultural legacy of Ms. Brown, who had no children or other heirs. “I am the keeper of the brand,” Ms. Burton said.

The women came to know each other after Ms. Burton, a First Amendment lawyer who previously worked at CNN and The Daily News, joined Hearst in 2002. At first, she and Ms. Brown merely consulted each other on occasion over matters of copyright related to Cosmo’s international editions, of which Ms. Brown became editor in chief in 1997 after being replaced by Bonnie Fuller at the flagship brand.

Then, during an executive retreat in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ms. Burton asked Ms. Brown if she would be taking part in a rafting excursion.

“Pussycat,” Ms. Brown said to Ms. Burton, using her favorite term of endearment, “I don’t raft.”

Ms. Burton persisted. “I went out and got her sneakers,” she said. “I got her into a pair of shorts, or I should say a short skirt, and I hauled her into the canyons.”

The next year, the women were on the same flight, headed to London for a four-day executive meeting. Ms. Burton packed one bag, small enough to carry with her on the plane. Ms. Brown, the onetime self-described “mouseburger,” showed up with six steamer trunks.

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Ms. Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, in 1968.

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Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Ms. Burton helped Ms. Brown manage her luggage and before long, she was helping her with more: overseeing medical appointments and meals, and hiring minders. “I put together a high-level eldercare group,” Ms. Burton said. She encouraged the older woman to use a car and driver rather than the bus. She persuaded her to donate some of her more flamboyant outfits to the theater departments of local high schools and then took her to see their productions. The two women went to the South Bronx, which Ms. Brown would refer to as “the country,” to watch the baseball games of one of Ms. Burton’s two foster children. They attended black-tie events. “She’d dance and I’d make sure she didn’t take her clothes off before we got to the car,” Ms. Burton said. She has kept a French bulldog, Miss Lou, that she bought Ms. Brown, who was long partial to cats.

When David Brown died in 2010 at the age of 93, much of the couple’s fortune was in bonds and cash. Ms. Brown went to Frank A. Bennack Jr., then the chief executive of Hearst, to ask him for help managing her affairs, and because Ms. Burton was the company’s chief lawyer, Mr. Bennack enlisted her as well. (Mr. Bennack, now executive vice chairman of Hearst, was unavailable to comment.)

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Helen Gurley Brown and her husband, David, in 1984.

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Hearst

Ms. Burton set up the Pussycat Foundation, listing Ms. Brown as one of four directors. Its 2012 filing cited Ms. Burton as the foundation president and Ms. Brown as president emeritus. In all, the estate of the Browns is worth approximately $105 million, Ms. Burton said, excluding the $73 million already donated by its trust and foundation.

While she was still alive, Ms. Brown started to give her money away, hoping primarily to transform the lives of underprivileged children. “Helen said, ‘Pussycat, I don’t give money to institutions. I give money to people,’ ” Ms. Burton said.

Yet Ms. Burton knew that Mr. Brown had cared about institutions, so she tried to come up with ideas that would serve both of their desires.

In 2012, Ms. Brown gave $30 million jointly to Stanford and Columbia universities, both alma mater of Mr. Brown’s, to create the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, focusing on the development of new media technology and content. When she and Ms. Burton went to visit with Nicholas Lemann, then the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Ms. Brown — in a wheelchair, wearing fishnets — was displeased to see bars on the classroom windows.

“The dean said, ‘This is the way it always has been and it’s hard to change things,’ ” Ms. Burton said. “Helen said, ‘Well, if you want my money and you want my institution, you’ll take the bars off the windows.’ ”

The bars came off — one building, at least.

About a week after the visit to Columbia, on Aug. 13, 2012, Ms. Brown died at age 90. Since then, Ms. Burton has overseen two other significant gifts: $15 million to the New York Public Library to fund a literacy program through the library’s branches in Manhattan and the Bronx and $7.5 million to the American Museum of Natural History to fund a program that teaches computer coding to teenage girls.

To inspire the children who take part in the programs, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, Ms. Burton has been opening the Beresford apartment for meetings and events. Ms. Brown’s desk was moved there, the bits and bobs atop intact as if in a museum exhibit, from the Hearst Tower.

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Her office desk was moved intact to the apartment.

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Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Designed by Emery Roth and completed in 1929, the landmark Beresford is known for its late-Renaissance architectural flourishes and its residents, who include Jerry Seinfeld, John McEnroe and Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic.

“The apartment is extraordinary,” Mr. Goldberger said of the former residence, adding, “it is the apex, the architectural climax of the building.”

Carol E. Levy, a real estate broker who has lived in the Beresford for 23 years, is among those who have been salivating. “When it goes on the market, I have numerous buyers who would buy it happily for more, maybe much more, than $50 million,” she said.

Ms. Brown was a beloved figure in the building, though not close to many residents. The couple rarely entertained, said the gossip columnist Liz Smith, who worked for Ms. Brown at Cosmo from 1965 until 1978 and remained a lifelong friend. “Helen was always working,” Ms. Smith said.

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Ms. Brown seated with Little Richard, left, and Dick Cavett on television in 1969.

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ABC Photo Archives/ABC, via Getty Images

After Ms. Brown died, Ms. Burton, as her co-executor and co-trustee (along with Mr. Bennack), had a discussion about the apartment, which is held in trust and whose sale will benefit Pussycat, with John Phufas, a member of the Beresford board and a lawyer.

The rules of the co-op dictate that an estate without an heir who is an immediate family member must sell the apartment as soon as possible. Ms. Burton asked for some time before selling, so she could unwind the estate, and Mr. Phufas was fine with that.

“Estates from notable people and with complicated trusts often take years to settle,” he said.

But patience began to dwindle a few months ago when Ms. Burton told Mr. Phufas that she wanted the trust to continue to own the apartment.

“That is a wish,” he said. “Wishes are one thing and legal obligations are another.” He later added: “We told them they have to sell it ASAP. Our common courtesy commitment has been fully fulfilled.”

Ms. Burton initially said of the board, “We are in a battle with them to let us keep it.” She later attributed the delay at least in part to renovation on the building’s facade and tower. “We couldn’t sell it because the roof was leaky,” she said.

“Ideally you want that to be done before you put it on the market,” Mr. Phufas said, “but it took less than one year. It’s been three years.”

William D. Zabel, a lawyer in New York who is uninvolved in the estate but has represented the estates of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and many others, found the situation unusual.

“This is a strange, strange story,” he said. “There is no good reason for keeping that apartment for more than six months. These things can take time when you are negotiating estate taxes but when it’s all going to charity, there are no taxes,” he said.

Moreover, a trustee should not subject an asset to possible devaluation in a fluctuating market, said William Josephson, a retired partner at the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, who was the head of the New York’s attorney general’s Charities Bureau. “A trustee is obligated to sell an illiquid asset as soon as possible,” he said.

Ms. Burton said of the Browns’ fortune, “Since David has passed, their money has doubled. I do believe as fiduciary I am in very, very strong waters.”

On Friday afternoon, she said she had chosen a real estate agent and was preparing to list the apartment.

Ms. Burton’s efforts to manage Ms. Brown’s legacy goes well beyond real estate. She also holds tight rein on the substantial archive Ms. Brown gave to Smith College: papers filling more than 28 banker boxes and dating from 1938 to 2008.

The archive was more Mr. Brown’s idea than his wife’s, Ms. Burton said. “Two of Helen’s nemeses went to Smith and David wanted her papers alongside theirs,” she said, referring to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

Though the papers are housed by Smith College, their copyright is controlled by Ms. Burton. “She was quite clear that for commercial exploitation, she wanted us to oversee it,” Ms. Burton said. (Ms. Brown did sanction a 2008 biography, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” by the Bowdoin professor Jennifer Scanlon, published by Oxford University Press.)

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A detail from the apartment.

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Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Ms. Burton delegated the vetting of project proposals and archive permissions to another longtime friend of Ms. Brown’s: Kim St. Clair Bodden, the senior vice president and editorial director of Hearst Magazines International, of which Cosmo is the most prolific global asset. She is also an officer of the Pussycat (a third is Roger P. Paschke, the chief investment officer of Hearst; none takes an administrative fee).

“I’ve had a few stories come across my desk and for one reason or another it hasn’t been the right story or the right time,” Ms. Bodden said.

Gerri Hirshey, a journalist whose biography about Ms. Brown is set for publication in 2016 by Farrar Straus and Giroux, has been frustrated. “There is absolutely marvelous material in the archive and it is best in Helen’s very singular voice,” Ms. Hirshey said. But Hearst executives, Ms. Hirshey said, “have not answered any requests, any emails, any hand-delivered messages from me and my publishers seeking permission.”

When she began her reporting, Ms. Hirshey said she set up interviews with “several” current Hearst employees. Before the interviews took place, they all suddenly backed out. “Some of them said to me, ‘I just found out I’m not allowed to talk to you,’ ” she said.

Ms. Burton said the company is merely trying to ensure that any portrayal of Ms. Brown, whom she fears is often reduced to clichés of being a sexually adventurous man-pleaser, shows the full range of her character and accomplishments. “Hearst is a large place, it’s not possible to engage in a conspiracy,” she said.

Brooke Hauser, a contributing editor at Allure magazine who lives in Northampton, Mass., near Smith College, is also writing a book, “Enter Helen,” set for publication by HarperCollins next year. She has not yet sought official permission to quote from the archive. “My understanding is that they are protective of Helen and her image,” Ms. Hauser said cautiously.

Film rights to Ms. Hauser’s book have already been optioned by Chernin Entertainment, which has a production arrangement with 20th Century Fox. When she learned of the deal, Ms. Bodden let “Fox know that Hearst owned the rights,” Ms. Bodden said.

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Ms. Brown with models for a bachelor of the month calendar.

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Time Life Pictures/DMI, via The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Ms. Smith believes that Ms. Brown would relish the attention. “I really don’t approve of them deep-sixing her monumental records,” she said. “I never heard of Eve Burton until Helen died and I think I was closer to Helen than anyone.”

But Ms. Bodden doesn’t want to be rushed into any new projects. “I have to do some mourning myself, and reflecting on what I’m ready for,” she said. “It is me, and whether I feel comfortable or not.”

When the time comes, Ms. Burton said she potentially would negotiate a usage fee for a large-scale project, with the money benefiting the Pussycat Foundation.

However, because the officers of the foundation and trustees of the copyright all are Hearst executives, “there is a technical conflict,” said Mr. Zabel, the estate lawyer. “They might censor or approve an incomplete version of her life, which could result in more protection of the Cosmo brand but could deprive charitable beneficiaries of benefits.” (Legal-speak for a principle championed by Ms. Brown: sex sells.)

Ms. Brown and the brand she built are inextricably intertwined. “She was to Cosmo what Cosmo was to her,” Ms. Bodden said. “But my role as editorial director of Hearst Magazines International is certainly separate from my role in protecting Helen Gurley Brown as my mentor, my friend, my colleague.”

And Ms. Burton dismisses any suggestion of a conflict. “I see a company that has gone extraordinarily beyond the call of duty to honor an icon who helped the company become what it is,” she said.

Standing in 22D in July, amid the emblems of Ms. Brown in her professional prime, she had no regrets. “I feel like I got the best years of her life,” she said.

Correction: August 22, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a television series. It is “Mad Men,” not “Mad Man.”



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