Park Avenue Summer, Renee Rosen brings us another fascinating novel of a young woman in historical New York City,1965.
After reading and enthusiastically reviewing Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues, I’ve been looking for more of her novels. Rightly so, because the one I just finished, Park Avenue Summer, is every bit as ‘fascinating’ as its predecessor. This book imagines another young woman caught in a historically fraught moment. The setting is New York City in 1965, when Helen Gurley Brown, author of the infamous bestseller Sex and the Single Girl, was hired by the Hearst Corporation to salvage its eighty-year-old family magazine, Cosmopolitan. Needless to say, Helen’s Cosmo vision clashed mightily with the expectations and wishes of the up-tight corporate suits.
That conflict is the central premise of Park Avenue Summer, as told through the eyes of a typical “Cosmo girl.” Helen conceptualized a new sort of Cosmopolitan reader, “a young, vibrant, single woman. She’s career minded and driven. She’s sexy and fun-spirited. Even a bit naughty. And I know her better than anyone,” Helen insists, “because I was that girl.” She hires a Cosmo girl prototype as her secretary, the fictional Alice Weiss. Alice recently moved to New York City from Ohio. She wants to be a photographer, but she needs a job to support herself. An old friend of her mother’s connects her with Helen, a connection that plunges Alice into the center of the heated debates about what Cosmopolitan’s editorial direction should be.
The editorial meetings, as narrated by Alice, are hilarious. Most of the male old timers on the staff are horrified by Helen’s salty language and by her suggestions for content. They want Ray Bradbury and James Michener; she wants “Men’s Naughty Bedroom Fantasies” and “How to Have an Affair with your Boss.” They want recipes and home improvement tips; she wants make-up and stylish clothes (with lots of bosom showing). At the same time, Alice is getting an education in Helen’s notion of a modern young woman, she’s learning to live the life of one, too. She acquires a suitor, a Don Juan type. Helen says every woman should have one. Just for sex. But don’t fall in love with him. Alice learns to agree.
Park Avenue Summer is a focused novel, microscopically concentrating on the first Cosmopolitan issue that Helen edited, July 1965. That focus brings a depth to the story, as the editorial fights escalate, as sabotage abounds, as the various characters (some real, others imagined) spar for victory. Rosen also acknowledges the conflicting feminist visions of the 1960s. For example, Alice attends a Betty Friedan lecture one evening, she reads Gloria Steinem, and she muses about how much they disdain Helen’s hyper-sexuality. I remember those culture wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I thought Rosen captured the talking points, the hypocrisy, and the nuances, with great finesse.
But she always keeps her eye on her focus, Helen Gurley Brown and her Cosmo girls. Alice Weiss tells the tale, but there are other Cosmo girls, too. Even women of previous generations, like Alice’s mother when she was young and her best friend Elaine, who linked Alice up with Helen. Girls of the present generation, too, Alice’s co-workers at Cosmopolitan, and her apartment building neighbor, who frets about her freckles and who dreams of being an architect, just as Alice fantasizes being a professional photographer. Women learning to be strong women. “Yummier and sexier,” as Helen would say.
Also available by Renee Rosen: Windy City Blues; The Social Graces; What the Lady Wants; Dollface; White Collar Girl; Every Crooked Pot.
Outside link: https://reneerosen.com/