Cosmopolitan Nude Man, 1972
“I thought it was a hoot. A clever takeoff.” -- Hugh Hefner on
Burt Reynolds’s nude centerfold in Cosmo
It was a story made
for gossip columns: As early as 1970, Women’s Wear Daily caught a whiff of
the latest Cosmo happening, and it had all the makings of a scandal. “Helen
Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan magazine
reportedly has a collection of photos of celebrities posing in the nude,” WWD
announced in “Eye” that January. Shortly after the item appeared, Helen sent
off a letter to the editors, cutely correcting their report. “You really are so
naughty,” she began the note, which ran about a week later, typos and all. Besides,
where on earth would she go to find pictures of naked famous people? It wasn’t as
though actors went around with nude photos of themselves in their portfolios, showing
them off to magazine editors.
Three days later, “Eye” ran another item about “The Further Adventures
of Mother Brown and the Great Male Nude Fold-Out Caper,” after getting a phone call
from George Walsh, who set the record straight: Yes, it was true that Helen was
on the hunt for a suitable movie actor to be photographed in a “relatively coy pose”
for a full-color foldout in Cosmopolitan, but she still hadn’t found the
right man for the job. No, it was not true that she was “collecting pornography,”
as “Eye” had implied. It was no longer a secret that something was in the works,
but even Helen wasn’t yet sure what it was.
The idea first came to her a couple of years before. Men liked
to look at women’s bodies, and women liked to look at men’s bodies -- it just wasn’t
as commonly known. And no wonder: Men had been plastering nude pinup girls on their
walls ever since the dawn of Playboy, but women had no equivalent.
In December 1968, Helen wrote a memo to Dick Deems and John R.
Miller titled “COSMOPOLITAN NUDE MAN.” Hearst had been trying to deflect the constant
comparisons between Cosmo and Playboy, not encourage them, but Helen
had proved again and again that sex sells. Shortly after she raised the idea of
a male nude centerfold, she got the money she needed to catch her man -- this time,
on camera. The only question was: Which man?
She wanted a famous actor, a big Hollywood name, someone like
James Coburn, the magnetic tough guy who recently had starred as a suave secret
agent in the 1966 James Bond parody, Our Man Flint. Cosmo issued the
request, and Coburn agreed to pose on the condition that he could select the pictures.
Inspired by the Italian painter Caravaggio, the photographer Guy Webster was going
for a lush Renaissance feel when he showed up at Coburn’s Beverly Hills estate with
assorted Moroccan-style rugs, curtains, and velvet pillows in a palette of burgundy
As a beautiful woman taught a naked yoga class outside in the
backyard, Coburn stripped and stretched out on a rug, nude except for his beard
and a piece of embroidered maroon fabric draped over his crotch. He was clearly
a man who was comfortable with his sexuality, and his confidence translated to the
photos, but when Helen saw the slides, she was sorely disappointed. She wanted a
beefcake with a big smile, and they gave her Bacchus with a beard. “Apparently he
is in his mystical phase right now,”
Helen wrote to Deems and Miller. They had to get the concept
just right or else not do it at all.
Despite Helen’s best attempts, nobody wanted to be Cosmo’s
pinup boy. The rejections piled up: Paul Newman. Joe Namath. Robert Redford. Clint
Eastwood. Warren Beatty. Tony Curtis. Elliott Gould. Frank Langella. Dustin Hoffman.
Helen was discouraged, but she refused to settle. She wasn’t
interested in “Mr. Average household face,” she told her girls in her January 1971
editor’s letter. She wanted someone famous and fun to look at -- they deserved no
less. “You may or may not ever see a male nude centerfold in COSMO,”
she wrote, “but I hope you do.”
And then, one day when she was not looking, she found him. Burt
Reynolds hadn’t been on her list of Possibles. He wasn’t a star -- not yet -- but
he was sexy. All man and mustache and swagger. The fact that he liked older women
-- he was dating Dinah Shore, nineteen years his senior -- also intrigued her. And
he was clearly sharp. Sharp enough to guest-host The Tonight Show, where
Helen was a regular guest. She and Johnny had a rapport, but her chemistry with
Burt Reynolds was explosive. “Like fire and gas line,” Reynolds later recalled in
his 1994 memoir, My Life.
Under the hot studio lights, they sparred and put on a great
show into the commercial breaks. When Reynolds glibly suggested that men bought
Playboy for its articles, Helen scoffed, and he came back with a joke about
Cosmo’s inane love advice.
“Are you a sexist?” Helen asked accusingly.
“I bet in ten years that word will be very tired and so dated
that you’ll sound like a dipshit to ask,” he countered.
They swapped barbs to the delight of the audience, and when they
were off the air, Helen went for the kill and asked Reynolds to be Cosmo’s
first male nude centerfold. Reynolds was, for once, speechless.
“Why?” he finally asked.
“Because,” she cooed, “you’re the only one who could do it with
a twinkle in your eye.”
Reynolds deflected the offer with more jokes. But Helen wasn’t
joking. The next day, she called him at his hotel -- she wouldn’t take no for an
His agent and manager told him not to do it. After years of playing
cops on TV in shows like Hawk and Dan August, he was about to make
a name for himself as a serious film actor with his role as a macho Atlanta businessman
on a bad canoe trip in Deliverance, based on James Dickey’s novel. He was
thirty-six, and this performance could change his career. Why risk ruining it for
a dumb gag?
Reynolds ignored their advice. He thought it sounded like a good
send-up. “On the back of the foldout, I told them I wanted to underscore the Playboy
takeoff with a photograph of me pushing a grocery cart,” Reynolds later wrote.
“I’d list my favorite colors, hobbies, books, and be quoted saying, ‘I’m looking
forward to becoming an actress.’ But I got screwed.”
Helen learned her lesson after the Coburn shoot. This time she
didn’t mess around. Forget Caravaggio. She wanted Scavullo. He was her best man
-- or rather, her breast man. For seven years now he had been shooting Cosmo’s
cover girls in slips and body stockings, push-up and padded bras, using masking
tape, Vaseline, bobby socks, baseballs, and whatever else he needed to create the
illusion of deeper, duskier cleavage. Women had always been sex objects. It was
time for a man to have a turn, but the photo shouldn’t be too serious, she told
Scavullo, nothing soulful. It should be fun.
The day of the shoot, Reynolds’s PR rep drove him to Scavullo’s
studio. On the way over, they stopped at a liquor store so that Reynolds could buy a few bottles of vodka. He finished one bottle
before they even got to the studio, which was colder than an ice bucket. Reynolds
tried not to shiver. Or shrivel. After meeting Scavullo and a couple of his assistants,
he asked for a glass, went to his dressing room, and cracked open his second fifth
He would need the liquid courage soon enough. In the main studio,
Scavullo and his assistants made some last-minute adjustments to the set they had
created. Somewhat inoculated against the cold, Reynolds took off his clothes and
stretched out on a bear-skin rug. After letting it all hang out for a moment, he
slung a hairy arm over his main attraction, and smiled with just enough teeth to
hang on to his cigarillo.
“Fabulous! Fabulous like that!” Scavullo said from behind his
Reynolds knew the exact moment when Scavullo got his shot. “I
always know,” he later wrote. “I don’t have to do forty takes to know when I’ve
got the take I want. I’ve caught the butterfly. It can feel it flapping around on
my finger. I don’t have to open my hand to see if it’s there.”
Still, the session lasted for another hour. Boredom and vodka
made him bold. At one point he pretended to hump the bearskin rug. Why not mess
around a little and make people laugh? No one would ever see the outtakes of him
totally nude and rude. He had been told he’d be getting all the negatives.
The April 1972 issue sold out instantly. Among the stories advertised
on the cover was a profile of Bella Abzug, but that’s not the one that stopped thousands
of women in their tracks as they shopped for groceries at the supermarket or walked
past the newsstand on the way to the subway. They were too busy reading a bright-orange
banner slashed across the bottom right corner:Cosmo
’s Famous Extra Bonus Takeoff!
AT LAST A MALE
The Naked Truth About Guess Who!!
Helen said who in her editor’s letter, but the centerfold needed
an introduction all its own, and she assigned features editor Barbara Creaturo to
prepare readers for the pages to come. Why was it, Creaturo wondered in her preface,
that men had been ogling naked women in magazines forever, but if a girl wanted
to catch a glimpse of a nude man, her best bet was to find a copy of National
Geographic? Naturally, the double standard existed because the men controlling
those publications catered to their fellow men, but social mores were changing.
Women were becoming bolder in their sexuality, which was not to say they were becoming
more promiscuous; they were “just lusty and honest in their appetite for
an appreciation of attractive men,” Creaturo wrote. Fortunately, the modern man
was willing, even eager, to show off his body and be a sex object. “As for you (that
COSMOPOLITAN girl), we know you don’t need any instruction on how to appreciate
the look of a beautiful man ... and now (if you have not already done so), you
probably want to flip the page...”
It was a direct invitation. How could a girl resist?
More to the point: Now that Cosmo said it was okay to
look and even important (in the name of equality!), why would she resist?
That thatch of dark hair. Those halfback shoulders. Those straight
white teeth, balancing the tip of a tiny cigar ... Open the rest of the gatefold,
and there he was: a man in three sec- tions, from his hairpiece and perfect teeth
down to his splenectomy scar and nest of curly pubes. All in full color. Man on
bear. Pelt on pelt.
As it turned out, Reynolds was more surprised than anybody when he saw the photo that ran in Cosmo. Helen had invited
Reynolds and Dinah Shore to the Cosmo offices to look over the pictures with
her and about a dozen female editors, who had been running magnifying glasses up
and down his furry body ever since the images arrived.
He had liked a shot where he was laughing with a who-gives-a-
shit smile on his face, like he was in on the joke. That’s the shot that was supposed
to have run, but mysteriously, it disappeared. “The original slide was lost,” says
Mallen De Santis. “It had been on the light box, and it was the first choice. Everyone
turned the whole art department inside out, trying to find it. It never turned up.”
Reynolds wasn’t a fan of their second choice. He thought he looked
smug. “Apparently the people at Cosmo took this thing more seriously than
I did,” he told a reporter after the issue came out. “I preferred the shot where
I was laughing at myself.”
He expected to be in on the joke; he didn’t expect to be the
joke. Reynolds was starring onstage in The Rainmaker in Chicago when the
new issue came out. The next day, the audience started cat-calling. He couldn’t
go anywhere without being heckled by some smart-ass shouting, “Hey, I didn’t recognize
you with your clothes on.” After shows, screaming women mobbed him with their April
issues in hand, opened to “That Cosmopolitan Man.”
After years of playing bit parts on TV, he was getting offered
movie roles -- at up to $150,000 per picture. “And a major factor in his ascendancy
into the big time is the Cosmopolitan photograph as Playmate of the Year,”
Mary Alice Kellogg wrote for Newsweek Feature Service. But Reynolds worried that
he was getting attention for all the wrong reasons. “Face it, these women wouldn’t
be going crazy over me at the theater if it wasn’t for Cosmo,” he said. “Now
when I walk on stage I feel like I’m nude.”
Across the country, housewives taped the centerfold to their refrigerators and above their bathtubs. College girls displayed
it on the walls of their dorms, and in Huntsville, Alabama, members of the English
department at Grissom High School pinned the centerfold to a wall, with a fig leaf
covering Reynolds’s discreetly placed arm, to see how many teachers would lift it.
After the issue came out, Reynolds received hundreds of Polaroids
of naked women, and some of naked men. One fan in Nova Scotia regularly sent her
pubic hair encased in wax paper to the actor for the next three years. Once, when
Reynolds checked into a hotel, he pulled back the bedcover only to see his own hirsute
body printed on the sheets.
The image was reproduced on key chains, coasters, wallpaper,
and women’s underwear. Every time he stepped onto a plane, women whistled at him.
Months later in Denmark, where he was promoting Deliverance on its world
tour, a woman showed him a porn magazine. Reynolds was surprised to see a photograph
of himself on the cover -- somehow, someone had gotten an outtake of him humping
the bearskin rug.
Back in the States, the Catholic Church issued a critical statement
in response to the centerfold. In the South and the Midwest, store clerks hid the
issue behind the counter or refused to sell it altogether. Finally, Helen Gurley
Brown had gone too far, people said. What was next, a private jet and a Cosmo
key club for girls?
Meanwhile, high above the hullabaloo, in her office on West Fifty-Seventh
Street, Helen watched it all play out, as letters poured in. Writing from a laid-back
engineering firm in San Fran- cisco, a group of office girls thanked Cosmopolitan
for giving them a centerfold to put on their section of the wall -- why
should the guys have all the fun? One male reader accused the magazine of exploiting
men, while a married woman from Cupertino, California, lamented ever seeing such
an example of poor taste and prayed it would soon be erased from her memory. Donna Visione from Peru,
Illinois, was so inspired she wrote a poem:While leafing through COSMO, what did I behold But a beautiful
male in the centerfold.By a twist of moustache, and with eyes that did flirt I knew
in a moment, it must be -- BURT!He was naked and hairy from head to his feet Took off his
clothes to give us girls a treat
jolly and trim and as dear as an elfAnd when I saw him, I ogled -- in spite of myself!
From Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and
the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, copyright (c) 2016 by Brooke Hauser.
Reprinted by permission of Harper, Inc.