Grace, and a Golden Touch

Nice guy David Brown helped launch Spielberg and Cosmo during a storied career.

March/April 2010

Reading time min

Grace, and a Golden Touch

Photo: Jonathan Becker

Wise and witty, David Brown was a man of many words, yet in the days after his death the same few words appeared again and again: "Stanford graduate" ('36); "Hollywood mogul" (Jaws, The Sting, Driving Miss Daisy); "bon vivant" (husband of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown).

But the descriptor used most often—particularly if the writer was lucky enough to have known him—was the simple, sadly out-of-fashion "gentleman."

Brown, who died on February 1 at age 93, had many careers and hobnobbed with a who's who of American entertainers. He produced movies, backed Broadway shows and played a surprising role in the sexual revolution. But what was most remarkable about his life was the graceful way he lived it.

Born in 1916, Brown grew up in a middle-class family on Long Island, N.Y. When it came time to choose a university, Brown told STANFORD in 1999, he wanted one as far from home as possible.

Stanford seemed congenial—although Brown's intended major, physics, turned out to be harder than he'd expected. "So I decided on the softest discipline I could think of, which was journalism."

After graduation and a brief stint as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, Brown went back east, eventually jumping into Manhattan's busy magazine world. He was a drama critic; he made up horoscopes; he edited long-gone magazines such as Liberty and a then-struggling Cosmopolitan.

In 1951 he moved to Los Angeles to work as a story editor for 20th-Century Fox and eventually rose to the studio's No. 2 job. He knew Marilyn Monroe, helped launch Elvis Presley in the movies and took his seat at a decade-long dinner party of beautiful profiles and massive egos.

"He was a giant, and he landed in the land of giants and pygmies," recalled long-time business partner Richard Zanuck, '56, at Brown's funeral service. "Most of those guys, including my father, thought they could distinguish themselves by using a middle initial—Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick. . . . But David Brown came into town as David Brown."

While in L.A., Brown met Helen Gurley, one of the few female copywriters in a real Mad Men world. She was 37, never married; he was 43, twice divorced. By Eisenhower-era standards, the match looked desperate.

In 2009, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Brown encouraged Helen to write Sex and the Single Girl, which became a bestseller and positioned her, at Brown's urging, to persuade Hearst Corporation to relaunch the failing Cosmopolitan as a magazine for young single women.

"I owe him everything," Gurley Brown told Success magazine in 2008. (More than most knew; David wrote the magazine's "Fun! Flirty! Fabulous!" cover lines.) It was an early example of David Brown's special skill: finding talented people and helping them succeed.

While filming Jaws in 1974, the budget doubled, the mechanical shark sank and the studio told him to fire that Spielberg kid he had hired to direct the film. Brown said no. He'd backed Spielberg's first feature, Sugarland Express, and was confident the young director could do this, too. The film became a monster hit and begat a new cultural force: the summer blockbuster.

When he and Zanuck were forced out of Fox—by Zanuck's imperious father—Brown stuck with the exiled heir while they reinvented themselves as producers, and turned out hits like The Verdict and Cocoon. And when Zanuck left him in the late '80s to start producing pictures with his wife and son, Brown wished him well and went on—backing movies such as A Few Good Men and musicals like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Later, in his "anecdotage," he was a fixture at first-night parties, with his rakish hat and walrus moustache. He loved new projects, fine restaurants and harmless flirting. And he genuinely enjoyed that his wife still got most of the media attention.

On February 4, though, it was David Brown's turn. Among those who attended his memorial service was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Spielberg was there, as was Zanuck. And again the same words came up, repeatedly—although this time they were Brown's.

Quoting from Brown's 1989 book Brown's Guide to Going Gray, the eulogists found the perfect depiction of their departed friend: " 'Success is a man who dies at home, asleep, after a good life.'"

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.