Half an hour into my interview with Candace Bushnell it hits me that I’ve put myself where she’s supposed to be. There I sit, in her Upper East Side apartment, smack-dab in the middle of her sofa, upholstered in hot-pink velvet, and flanked by her two standard poodles, Pepper and Prancer, as she did on the cover of her latest book, Is There Still Sex in the City?, a sequel of sorts to 1996’s Sex and the City. True, I’m not wearing an electric-purple tulle minidress with a fitted bodice and a skirt like a cheerleader’s pom-pom, a costume that requires nerve, which she has, and a fashion model’s figure, which she also has, no mean feat at 60. Nor would I so much as attempt the perilously high heels with the crisscrossing straps. (If the dress suggests that the answer to the query posed in the title is Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, the shoes confirm that suggestion.) Nevertheless, uncanny.
I’m about to interrupt her, alert her to the act of pop-cultural blasphemy I’ve inadvertently committed, offer an abject apology, and insist we switch seats, when I come to my senses, bite my tongue, because: (A) she’s in the middle of a story, which means she’s on a roll; (B) there’s no seat for me to switch to (ever since she read somewhere that standing is better for your health than sitting, she’s become virulently anti-chair—she even writes standing); (C) her place in the pop-culture canon is assured, and she is, consequently, impervious to acts of pop-cultural blasphemy, regardless of how egregious; and (D) she seems to take herself very seriously without taking herself at all seriously, and I therefore cannot imagine her giving a shit where I park my body.
I nudge my tape recorder forward to ensure that it’s catching her every word. On the one hand, her voice is a decibel or two higher than strictly necessary, like she’s talking to me at a party and is struggling to make herself heard above the din, so I’m not concerned. On the other hand, her voice is also husky, the syllables slurring together, and so I’m very concerned.
“In the 80s, I was mostly writing features for women’s magazines because you go where they say yes. But I always wanted to be a columnist. There were these guys I knew, crazy guys, and they had this start-up magazine, and they wanted me to do a column called ‘Chicks with Dicks.’ So I was thinking that it would be about chicks who were with dicks—like, men who were dicks. Chicks who were dating assholes, basically. They wanted it to be about chicks with actual dicks, though. Or, you know, strap-on dildos.”
I point out how much smarter, funnier, hipper, better-in-every-way her idea was.
She rises from the edge of the mini-trampoline she’s been perched on, and heads to the kitchen. “I know,” she says, “that’s what I was contending with. But they were the ones with the money, and they said, ‘No way are we publishing what you want to do.’”
I follow her, though stop just short of the kitchen, too small to comfortably accommodate two adult bodies, and watch her make tea. This slim blonde with a chic haircut, looking more like an actress than a writer. This pioneer and iconoclast who, 25 years ago, created for women a new ethos of living in the world, and who now is attempting to create for women a new new ethos. This self-invention in mid-reinvention.
Could be you’ve already had it up to here with Candace Bushnell. Could be you’ve just seen her in one of the less fastidious rags (one of the local tabloids, say) in a bikini (canary yellow) making size-queen jokes about her new beau (“Mr. Bigger”) in the name of self-promotion (a Colonel Parker who’s her own Elvis). Could be you know all too well who she is and don’t want to know any more.
Except you very likely don’t know who she is because, chances are, you came to her, as I did, ass-backward, first through the show based on her book, then her book (if her book at all), which means your initial impression of her is, as mine was, as false as it is forceful. So let me say it loud and let me say it clear: before there was a show called Sex and the City, created by Darren Star (you might dimly recall it, the one that debuted in 1998 and turned HBO into a thing, also Manolo Blahnik shoes, the Meatpacking District, the phrase “He’s just not that into you,” and a garishly hued cocktail made up of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and lime juice), there was a book called Sex and the City, written by Candace Bushnell, a collection of her New York Observer columns. The show fused Star’s sensibility with Candace’s; the book was Candace’s alone; and the two properties are distinct. In brief, the show is not the book, and the book is not the show.
Making size-queen jokes about her new beau (“Mr. Bigger”) in the name of self-promotion (a Colonel Parker who’s her own Elvis).
Making it was Candace’s obsession—not with a naked guy, with the naked city. What really turned her on, the true object of her lust, was the isle of Manhattan, where the hustle meets the muscle, the vortex of the flash and the cash, a place which is and always has been as much a virtual reality as a real reality since it can never be seen clear, only through the eyes of its glamour-crazed or sex-crazed or money-crazed or power-crazed inhabitants; a mirage even as you’re standing in it, just beyond your reach even as you touch it; the great collective American Dream we have yet to wake from. Oh, and she wanted to be on top.
It would be a long, hard climb.
Clubbing for Gold
Candace arrived in New York in 1978, at the age of 19. She came for a boy, 65-year-old Gordon Parks, director of the blaxploitation classic Shaft. The two met at a celebrity-tennis tournament in Houston. (Candace briefly attended Rice University.) “I realized it was pretty nutty. I didn’t care, though. I was in love. We lasted six months. I was this kid hanging out with his friends, these super-famous people, but it taught me a lot because I saw how hard they worked.” A more valuable lesson, no doubt, than any she was learning at N.Y.U., where she’d transferred.
She started out in Connecticut. Not Connecticut-as-an-extension-of-New-York Connecticut, that is, ritzy, la-di-da Connecticut, Darien, Connecticut, or Greenwich, Connecticut. No, she came from Glastonbury, Connecticut, just outside Hartford. (“It was a farm town when I was growing up.”) Her mother was a travel agent, her father an engineer, and she had a typical American suburban upbringing. At 18, her parents cut her off financially. So it was burning the candle at both ends—college by day, Studio 54 by night—and figuring out ways to make those ends meet in between. She considered children’s books. “I wrote a story about a girl who talked to her iguana. To me, though, writing for kids was really dull.” Journalism seemed a better fit. “I’d go out to the hottest clubs, and then I’d write about them for Night magazine. My first story was called ‘How to Act in a Disco.’ I gave 10 pieces of advice. The last one was ‘If someone dies, ignore them.’”
Hard-boiled words, but New York, during that period, was a hard-boiled town. Recalls Candace, “The city was smelly and dirty then. You’d see a homeless person defecating into a potted plant on Park Avenue. There was a transportation strike, which lasted for weeks. That summer I got around on roller skates. Nobody had kids here, unless they were in that really rarefied world of the Upper East Side and doorman apartment buildings. Otherwise New York was single people trying to get ahead or going out.”
Candace was doing both, the latter facilitating the former. And she was making her way as well as her reputation, which seems to have been equal parts Holly Golightly and Becky Sharp. Says Bret Easton Ellis, “Suddenly Candace was just around. There was a circle of us—Jay [McInerney, writer], Morgan [Entrekin, editor], whoever else—and we spent a lot of time at the Bowery Bar. Candace was there. I don’t know if this is a thing you can say anymore, but she was one of the guys. She could out-curse, out-smoke, out-drink, and definitely out-drug anyone. At the same time, she was very feminine. She looked good. She liked men. She was a hot little number. I wasn’t aware of her work then, though I did know she wanted to be a writer. And after a couple of drinks, she’d become very up front about what she didn’t like about your work. She did it to me, she did it to Jay. We both got sick of it. What she did admire about me was that I’d managed to become famous in my 20s. That was something she gravitated towards. I had a younger writer friend, and I remember her giving him advice—how to promote himself, get on local TV shows. She was extremely savvy. So, at first she seemed like this happy-go-lucky person and ‘Hey, let’s hit as many parties as we can.’ But then you’d see that she also had this steely-eyed side. I think she was frustrated that it was taking so long for her.”
“And after a couple of drinks, she’d become very up front about what she didn’t like about your work.”
That pre–Candace Bushnell Candace Bushnell was running around with Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, the hot celebrity writers when there was such a beast—regulars in “Page Six,” covered in Rolling Stone—signifies a certain level of social ambition and professional calculation. And if I were to attempt to chart Candace’s rake’s progress through beau monde New York (which, incidentally, I am attempting to chart), this set of conquests, evidence of pure, unadorned striving, would strike me as a significant milestone. How did she reach it? She didn’t have what it took at that point to make Ellis and McInerney pay attention to her, and yet Ellis and McInerney paid attention to her. Why? I struggle to ask Candace these questions indirectly, and then give up, ask directly.
She makes a vague hand gesture. “Well, you knew people and then those people knew people, and that’s how you ended up knowing everybody.”
I press: “O.K., but you specifically, and those people specifically. How did you know them?”
“There were these girls who hung out at Studio 54. They were friends with a couple, and this couple was friends with André Balazs [the hotelier] and André was friends with Jay who was friends with Bret.”
I press again: “That explains how you met Bret and Jay. But it was more than that, right? You all were tight, a little group?” This was the era of Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero. Didn’t everyone want in with them?
Candace, betraying the first hint of exasperation, says, “I was a character. You could be a character in New York then. And there was society in those days the way there was society in Edith Wharton’s day, with hierarchies and customs, and it was intricate, and there were ways in. This was before technology infiltrated and killed the reason for having society in the first place. Restaurants, clubs, parties—that’s where people connected, socially, sexually, and that’s where business was done, and deals were made. Going out was part of my job. It was information-gathering.”
Flashing back on Ellis’s words, I say, “And you were probably always fun.”
“Well.” She pauses delicately. “Yeah.”
Information-gathering is what Candace did for years, for all of her 20s and the first half of her 30s, until it became indistinguishable from time-wasting. When she finally began freelancing at the Observer, the gleefully impish weekly that covered the New York media world—“snarky before everybody was doing snarky,” says former Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott—and printed on paper an insouciant shade of pink, in 1993, she was closing in on 35, and with little to show for it. Her career was going nowhere. (“None of my pieces worked and I was getting kill fees.”) She was between guys. And apartments. Says Susan Morrison, now an editor at The New Yorker, then the editor in chief of the Observer, “Candace was brought to me by John Homans [Observer editor] and Peter Stevenson [Observer editor; an ex of Candace’s]. They just saw something in her. This is going to sound crazy, but I think she was working as the receptionist at one of those Upper East Side magazines, Avenue or something, and sleeping on a couch there.”
Homans remembers it slightly differently: “The magazine wasn’t Avenue, it was Scene. And Candace wasn’t the receptionist. Scene was run by Candace’s friend Anne, and Anne let Candace live in her apartment in exchange for answering the home phone like it was the office phone. So you’d call the number Candace had given you—her number, you thought—and she’d say, ‘Scene.’ It was ridiculous and hilarious, like so much else about Candace. There was no gap between her personal life and her professional life. She was this completely New York creature.”
It turns out that Candace was gathering information for that decade and a half, that she hadn’t been wasting her time. Morrison again: “I thought Candace was remarkable. Immediately she was a very good profile writer—funny, fizzy, penetrating. She was particularly great on high-powered men. We were a tweedy group at the Observer, and Candace wasn’t. She’d come in wearing a white mink coat a guy had given her. In a way, she was a throwback to a more glamorous era. That type had all but disappeared by then—the reporter who was also a girl-about-town.”
Yet if Candace was a girl-about-town, girl-about-town was, too, a mask she was wearing, through which she looked out at the world with her real eyes. It gave her access. Also, illegitimacy (she wasn’t a wife, after all, or a co-worker), and that illegitimacy concealed the seriousness of her intentions. What man is going to be afraid of the ditzed-out cutie in the short skirt, watch what he says, how he behaves? Sure, she’d dress up and flit around with gaudy people, do the whole demimonde bit—drinks would be imbibed, drugs passed around, strangers seduced—but a good time wasn’t an end in and of itself. No, a good time was her way of exploring her moment and milieu. Cultivating her artistry and imagination, as well. Says Homans, “Candace was her own work of art. She was a person, of course, yet she was performing herself.” And turning herself into a character.
When Peter Kaplan succeeded Susan Morrison in 1994, he and Peter Stevenson decided to focus Candace’s beat. Morrison: “Candace used to sit around the office and tell these great stories about her dating life, the dating life of other women she knew. It was the genius of the two Peters to see that those stories could make a column.” And so, “Sex and the City,” to be lived and written by Candace, honed and edited by Stevenson, titled and promoted by Kaplan, was born. Homans: “Candace’s nickname in college was ‘Bed-check,’ because she knew where everyone was sleeping. She had boyfriends, had sex, obviously, but I always thought she was more interested in who other people were having sex with.”
A preoccupation shared by the city at large, as luck would have it. Says Wolcott, “Everyone in New York wanted to know what everyone else in New York was up to. What’s happening in bars? Are other people having more sex than I am? How come I don’t have a time-share in the Hamptons? So ‘Sex and the City’ was this great conversation starter. Plus, you were getting a woman’s perspective on the dating scene. And Candace’s style was urbane and conversational, very feisty, nothing pretentious in it.” Ellis sees the power of the column as deriving from the keenness of its perceptions, a by-product of personal pain. “Those columns had an intensity, and an insight. And the way Candace wrote about relationships between men and women—it was clear-eyed but also dark. Only somebody who’s been wounded by society could write about it so penetratingly.”
Bright Lights, Mr. Big City
In 1995, Candace met Ron Galotti, publisher of Vogue and former squeeze of supermodel Janice Dickinson. Stevenson: “I remember Candace calling me from Ron’s apartment. ‘Baby,’ she said, ‘he doesn’t have any books, just bottles of cologne.’” The two had a contentious on-again, off-again relationship, rough on her nerves, great for her copy. Wolcott: “The addition of Mr. Big was really ingenious. Who was he? An actual person? A composite? Because unless you were a true insider, you didn’t know he was Ron Galotti. So he was this mystery figure. And it turned the column into a serialized drama—a soap opera or an odyssey. You had to tune in next week to find out what happened.”
Side note: New York has always seen itself as the only there there. (Think of that Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, the one that depicts America beyond 10th Avenue as a single giant bland blob of a wheat square.) Its taste is not the rest of the country’s taste. And thank God for that because who’d want the rest of the country’s taste? The rest of the country didn’t live in New York, which meant the rest of the country had no taste. Point being, Candace’s column, popular as it was, was very much a local rather than national sensation. A New York thing—albeit a tacky version.
“I remember Candace calling me from Ron’s apartment. ‘Baby,’ she said, ‘he doesn’t have any books, just bottles of cologne.’”
One night, Candace and Galotti were out with Morgan Entrekin, now the publisher of Grove Atlantic. Says Entrekin, “We were at Bowery Bar, after a party for Will Self. It was 12:30 in the morning. I said, ‘Candace, are you going to write enough columns to make a book?’ She said, ‘I will if you give me a contract.’ Ron and I slid down to the end of the table and started negotiating.” The final agreed-upon figure was $25,000—$5,000 of which Candace handed over to Stevenson, her way of thanking him for his sharp editor’s eye. Galotti broke up with her the day she received the galleys.
Darren Star, creator of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, another of Candace’s professional contacts/personal friends—a daytime interview with Star for Vogue had morphed into a night out at Bowery Bar a few years before—optioned the column. Says Homans, “Candace didn’t make a big score on the show. Not in terms of money.” An understatement. (She was reportedly paid $60,000.) Says Candace, “The night the show aired, Darren was at my house in Connecticut. We watched it and we loved it. But nobody called us—not even our parents. We had no idea it was a hit.”
The show quickly became more than that, became a cultural phenomenon. Stevenson: “I was on a first date with a woman. I was sitting across from her at a restaurant, and she described herself to me as a Miranda, and I thought, Oh my God, we’ve created these monsters. That’s when I knew it was going to be huge.”
Back, for a moment, to the book/show compare/contrast:
Nobody in her right mind would call Sex and the City literature—how can it be? It’s just a bunch of newspaper pieces slapped together and written in a kind of column-ese, lots of cutesy wordplay and puns, girl talk that won’t shut up—and yet it is literature. What’s more, it’s liberating, exhilarating. You read it and you feel like Candace is telling your secrets, the truly shameful ones. She makes a woman’s private humiliations public. She also makes them funny. (Comedy, black, is her particular gift.) And though the book is unabashed, as bold and brassy and vulgar as the boldest and brassiest and most vulgar scarlet woman imaginable—e.g., Samantha—it is, too, strangely delicate, its perceptions subtle and containing an underlying melancholy or wistfulness.
The book is a transgressive fairy tale, ending, as fairy tales often do, with Prince Charming, that is, Mr. Right, that is, Mr. Big, and the wedding knot, only that knot also had a twist because it wasn’t Cinderella, that is, Carrie, that is, Candace, with whom he’s knotted up. No, Carrie slipped the knot. At the story’s conclusion, she’s single, and is as pleased to be so as Big is to be coupled. (To a golf pro in the book; to a ski champion in life.)
And then there’s the book’s idée fixe. It’s not interested in women in their 20s, ingénues. It looks at their smooth, unmarked skin, their mushy, baby-fat faces, and then looks away in bored impatience. Women in their 30s and 40s, who’ve been through the ringer and around the block, who have lines and angles, hard eyes and harder edges, are the ones that cause it to sit up, snap to. It starts taking notice of women at the precise moment the culture stops.
The show borrows this attitude from the book. (What made the show fresh, startling, original.) Where the show diverges from the book is in the pride of place given to female friendships. Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha do appear in the book, but Charlotte, a British journalist with a yen for voyeurism, and Miranda, a cable-TV executive who’s wild for cocaine, are barely recognizable and are mentioned only a handful of times. It’s not that the book is skeptical of female friendship. It’s that the New York in which these women exist is too brutal to sustain any kind of lasting human connection, romantic or platonic. And while they occasionally meet up for drinks, compare battle scars, exchange tips on how to live another day—“‘I tell every guy they have the biggest thing I’ve ever seen,’ said Kitty … [She] slurped up the last bit of her margarita through a straw. ‘It’s survival’”—finally it’s every woman for herself. Emotional resources are simply too scarce to share.
It starts taking notice of women at the precise moment the culture stops.
The women in the show are warmer, cozier. They have pluck and one another’s backs. And the makeshift family they form is a viable alternative to marriage, as it is in, say, Friends. (What made the show familiar, and therefore, in contrast to the column, broadly appealing.) In the book, there is no viable alternative, unless it’s fame, the love of millions compensating for the failure to extract love from the one, as Carrie suggests during a fight with Big: he asks her what she plans to do with herself, and she replies, “I’m going to become famous.”
The New York in the show is, likewise, warmer, cozier. (Book New York is a profoundly negative space, but that negativity is seething with vitality, raw and unabating. It’s the New York you see in the 1957 noir Sweet Smell of Success, the one to which J. J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, a New York columnist, same as Candace, makes the rapturously perverse declaration: “I love this dirty town.”) Pretty, bright, clean, neurotic but not crazy, intimidating but not scary—this is the New York found only in rom-coms, a possible reason that that’s what the show became, Big rescuing Carrie from a snooty Russian artiste in the finale, telling her, “Carrie, you’re the one.”
Earlier, I referred to Is There Still Sex in the City? as a sequel “of sorts.” The “of sorts” is because it’s less a sequel to Sex and the City the book than to Sex and the City the show. (By the way, it’s not that I’m unaware of Sex and the City the movies, it’s that they’re such grotesque self-parodies, I’m choosing to pretend they never happened.) Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda are nowhere to be found in its pages. Still, it’s about a group of women friends who depend primarily on one another for emotional sustenance. And the protagonist, Candace, is picking up closer to where Carrie of the show left off—united with Big—than Carrie of the book—defiantly unattached—since Candace did indeed get married, to Charles Askegard, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, in 2002. (In the intervening years, she also published seven novels, six of which were best-sellers, two of which were adapted for television.) Is There Still Sex in the City? opens with the death of first her dog, then her marriage.
The women in the book are in their 50s, and, like Candace, have recently split with their husbands or long-term partners. They must figure out their next steps, and decide to do so together. It’s a brave and freaky new world they’re entering: Mona Lisa treatments (vaginal restorative surgery), Tinder dating (beware of musicians from Brooklyn), Cubs (millennial men who prefer Gen X or even boomer women), Middle-Aged Madness (self-explanatory), etc. Candace takes the measure of that world.
The dark side of defining a moment is that the moment also defines you, and when the moment passes, you likely pass along with it. My sense is that with this new book Candace, though explicitly returning to the original, is, at the same time, trying to distance herself from it, or at least from its ideology. The book, for the most part, is not set in the city but in a place referred to as “The Village” (obviously Sag Harbor, yet Candace is reluctant to admit this to me, insisting that “it could be any seaside town”), and carefully deglamorized. She eats dinner early and indulges in nightlife activity sparingly. And while she does end up mated, she not only doesn’t name the mate—she calls him “MNB,” short for My New Boyfriend—she barely describes him, to emphasize, I think, that landing a guy so isn’t the point.
I understand Candace’s impulse to separate herself from her creation since the moment we’re in now, the moment of #MeToo and Time’s Up and the Women’s March and pussy hats, reviles so much of what Sex and the City exalted: designer clothes, high-end real estate, parties with guest lists, men who work on Wall Street, women who work in P.R., excess and scandal, power and privilege, a world so white that the inclusion of a brunette constitutes a concession to diversity. Fourth-wave feminism came along and washed that stuff out to sea. Austerity is the new decadence. But Candace is, without a doubt, a feminist, right? If for no other reason than because book Carrie, and by extension Candace, chose personal independence over romantic love, a radical and subversive preference in the 90s, a radical and subversive preference even in 2019.
Maybe, though, I’m making a false assumption. Maybe she doesn’t see herself that way at all. I ask her.
Her nod is immediate and vigorous. “Of course I’m a feminist. I mean, I was always a Ulysses to the patriarchy.”
“What was that?” I cup my ear. “Ulysses? Like, the book?” That Candace would allude to James Joyce’s novel, that least accessible of masterpieces, doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility. Over the course of the morning, she’s referenced, in addition to Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, and Jacqueline Susann, twice.
Candace makes a sound like “Huh?”
“I think I misheard you,” I say. “‘I was always a Ulysses to the patriarchy’? Is that what you said?”
She shakes her head. “No, I said”—leaning forward, enunciating carefully—“a wiseass to the patriarchy. Like, ever since I was a kid, that’s what I was.”
“Oh.” I frown thoughtfully. “A wiseass to the patriarchy. That actually makes more sense.”
“Yeah,” she says.
“Yeah,” I agree.
We look at each other, then simultaneously reach for our mugs of tea.
Lili Anolik is the author of Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.