Once upon a time, Burt Reynolds posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine. In fact, it was in the April 1972 issue, during Helen Gurley Brown’s era at the magazine.
As editor-in-chief of Cosmo for 32 years, Brown was pivotal in transforming the magazine from a women’s publication written by men to an international outlet for women by women. She helped ladies own their sexual desires, and most famously focused the female gaze on Reynolds.
The issue, which sold out at the time, helped make the actor an international icon -- and gave women their own pinup to admire.
Now 80, Reynolds regrets posing nude, telling an audience at SXSW, where he was promoting the new documentary, The Bandit: "It was really stupid.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Reynolds added. “Probably, knowing me, it was like, ‘You won’t do that, you chicken,’ or something and I went, ‘Well, that’s all I had to hear,’ of course. I said, ‘Yeah, I will.’”
But as author Brooke Hauser reveals in the new book, Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, Reynolds wasn’t even Brown’s first choice. Or her second. Or her fifth. It wasn’t until after a succession of noes from Hollywood’s leading men at the time did she turn her attention to Reynolds, an up-and-coming actor, about to get his big break in film with Deliverance.
To find out exactly what happened behind the scenes, read an excerpt -- chapter 47 to be exact -- from the book below:
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 and gold.
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 answer.
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 of vodka.
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 Hasselblad camera.
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:
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:
He looked jolly and trim and as dear as an elf
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.