Candace Bushnell Is Back in the City

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In the nineteen-nineties, Candace Bushnell, the Connecticut-born daughter of a research engineer who worked on the Apollo spacecraft and a travel agent who became a banker and businesswoman, began writing a column in the New York Observer called “Sex and the City,” which she filled with spiky, confessional, lightly disguised stories about herself, her friends, and their hothouse jungle of striving and ennui. An inveterate party girl who’d mastered the art of filing while hungover, Bushnell became a celebrity, described in the Times as the “Sharon Stone of journalism” and the “Holly Golightly of Bowery Bar.” She was instinctively funny, iconically blonde, and possessed the kind of charisma that generates its own spotlight—she would end up walking the runway in Oscar de la Renta during Fashion Week and seeing her love life splashed across the tabloids. When her column was adapted as an HBO show, in 1998, it made a household name of Bushnell’s shoe-hoarding, laptop-musing alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw.

Bushnell has written ten books, the best of which—“Sex and the City,” adapted from the column, and “4 Blondes,” a quartet of character-study novellas—are at once luxurious and unromantic, cut to a minimalist cadence and punitive in their sociological accuracy. In 2019, she published “Is There Still Sex in the City?,” a collection about her tumultuous fifties. Last year, she starred in a one-woman Off Broadway show of the same name, which closed, unexpectedly, in December, after Bushnell came down with COVID. I met up with her on a freezing afternoon in January, at the Carlyle, a favored haunt close to her Upper East Side apartment. Now sixty-three, she wore a plaid Dolce & Gabbana jacket over a yellow sweater, and extended her velveted leg to show me how a stiletto enthusiast works with fifteen-degree weather: heeled leopard-print booties, trimmed with black fur. Later, we spoke again, on the phone. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

You’re associated with a world of glitz and champagne lunches, but that’s not the world you grew up in.

I grew up in New England, in a country town where people never talked about money—they talked about discipline, manners, character. There was much less income disparity. The way a lot of people lived, they’d be upper middle class, but they had one and a half baths. We didn’t have a lot of money, but I had kind of an idyllic childhood. I rode horses. They were back-yard horses, but it was, like, I was going to take that little back-yard pony and beat the fancier kids with more money. That kind of plucky thing.

When did you feel your instinct for glamour kick in?

When I was a kid, probably. My mother was so glamorous—she was Italian, she had a baby-blue Cadillac. She never came downstairs unless she had all her makeup on and was dressed.

And what about your desire to live in New York City?

It was just something that I knew. I was very aware as a kid. I was hyperaware of sexism, how women were supposed to wear girdles and be mothers. As a kid, I was, like, “I don’t like babies.” I understood that once they had you it was over. If you were good with babies, then you were a babysitter, then you were co-opted into being a caretaker your whole life. A secondary personality. From a young age, I knew I did not want to do that. And I just had a feeling that I was going to live in New York.

Your parents cut you off financially when you were eighteen, and you spent a year at Rice University, in Houston. I lived a block away from campus for a little bit in my twenties—it’s very hard for me to picture you there.

Well, when I was there, first of all, I was a legend in my own time. I was considered the most beautiful woman on campus. I was attractive back then.

“Back then.”

What I really remember was that in Houston I spent a lot of time at this place called the Old Plantation. It was like an underground club, all gay guys, drag shows. And then, when I was nineteen, I decided it was time to come to New York.

I read that you fell in love with Gordon Parks—the legendary photographer, director of “Shaft,” co-founder of Essence—at an event in Houston, and got on a bus across the country to where he was.

I didn’t come to New York because I fell in love with anyone. It was more that I had gotten a 1.0 at Rice and said, “It’s time to begin my real life.” I had two or three numbers I could call, and his was one of them. I didn’t think, necessarily, that we were going to have a relationship. But I called him up and went to dinner and then we did have a relationship. And a big lesson I began to learn was that being around famous people is very different from being famous. Being around accomplished people will not make you accomplished yourself, or make anyone take you seriously. You have to do the work.

But I was very ballsy. I would go to Studio 54 and tell everybody, “I’m a writer. I’m going to be a writer.”

Did you feel that people took that seriously?

Well, I took myself seriously. I mean, if a guy didn’t understand how real my work was to me, I couldn’t be with him.

One of your characters, Janey Wilcox, who’s in “4 Blondes” and “Trading Up,” is a model who believes she’s a writer, and goes around telling people that she’s a writer. But it’s funny—in her case, she’s really not.

Janey is a total narcissist. She’s a kind of character that’s always in a place like New York or L.A., a beautiful and destructive woman who uses her beauty to get really famous guys. But she meets her match in the Harvey Weinstein character, Comstock Dibble.

Right, the head of “Parador Pictures,” who screams at people, berates them, and is caught out for pressuring women into sex. Were you surprised that it took so long for the Weinstein story to break into the open?

There are some people who you just look into their eyes and think, You’re not a good person. The thing is, Harvey was super charming, which was part of that predatory personality. I always said, “Don’t shake hands with the devil.” I didn’t know about the extent of his behavior, but I suspected.

It’s funny, Tina Brown told Harvey that he was Comstock Dibble. He called me up and said, “I’ve read it, and I don’t see any resemblance.” I said, “Neither do I!”

You spent about a decade in New York trying to make it—for a while, you lived at your friend’s place in exchange for answering her phone as if it were an office. You’ve said that at one point you were in an apartment with moss on the walls, sleeping on foam rubber.

I was really broke before I wrote “Sex and the City.” Even in my early thirties, I was living uptown in one of those buildings where old people would die and we would sneak into their apartments and find a grease spot on the wall where their head had laid for fifty years.

And you were freelancing, writing service-y articles for women’s magazines.

At one point, I literally wrote about microwaves. I just figured that I had to make a living at this. Writing for women’s magazines was great training: you had deadlines, word counts. You had to be efficient and know how to structure things, and you could not make anything up. But the only place I could get work was at Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping. I was not going to work for The New Yorker. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. It wasn’t even a possibility.

I don’t think I would have been able to get this job in any era earlier than this one.

It was a totally different time. There were no stars in their twenties, except for Tina Brown and a few exceptions. But my attitude was: whatever your work is, you have to make yourself interested. You have to learn how to make anything interesting.

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