In the 1990s, Candace Bushnell, the Connecticut-born daughter of a research engineer who worked on the Apollo spacecraft and a travel agent turned banker and businesswoman, began writing a column in New York Observer called “Sex and the City,” which she filled with thorny, confessional, and thinly disguised stories about herself, her friends, and their hothouse jungle of toil and boredom. An inveterate party girl who had mastered the art of filing with a hangover, Bushnell became a celebrity, portrayed in the Time as the “Sharon Stone of journalism” and the “Holly Golightly of the Bowery Bar”. She was instinctively funny, iconic blonde, and possessed the kind of charisma that generates its own spotlight — she would eventually walk Oscar de la Renta’s runway during Fashion Week and see her love life splashed across the tabloids. When her column was adapted as an HBO show in 1998, she introduced Carrie Bradshaw, Bushnell’s alter ego who hoarded shoes and dreamed of a laptop computer.
Bushnell has written ten books, including the best…”sex and the city“, adapted from the column, and”4 blond”, a quartet of character study novels – are both luxurious and unromantic, cut to a minimalist cadence and punitive in their sociological accuracy. In 2019, she released “Is there still sex in town?», a collection on his tumultuous fifties. Last year, she starred in a solo Off Broadway show of the same name, which unexpectedly ended in December, after Bushnell had covid. I met her on a freezing January afternoon at the Carlyle, a favorite spot near her Upper East Side apartment. Now sixty-three, she wore a Dolce & Gabbana check jacket over a yellow sweater and stretched out her velvet leg to show me how a stiletto enthusiast works in fifteen-degree weather: heeled ankle boots leopard print, 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 would be upper middle class, but they had a bath and a half. We didn’t have much money, but I had an idyllic childhood. I was riding a horse. They were barnyard horses, but it felt like I was going to take this little barnyard pony and beat the smarter kids with more money. This kind of brave thing.
When did you feel your instinct for glamour?
When I was a kid, probably. My mom was so glamorous – she was Italian, she had a baby blue Cadillac. She never came down unless fully made up and dressed.
And what about your desire to live in New York?
It was just something I knew. I was very aware as a child. I was hyper aware of sexism, of the fact that women were supposed to wear girdles and be mothers. When I was a child, I said to myself: “I don’t like babies”. I understood that once they got you, it was over. If you were good with babies, then you were a babysitter, then you were co-opted to be a babysitter all your life. A secondary personality. From an early age, I knew I didn’t want to do this. And I just felt like I was going to live in New York.
Your parents cut you off when you were eighteen, and you spent a year at Rice University in Houston. I lived a little over a block from campus for about 20 years – it’s very hard for me to imagine you there.
Well, when I was there, first of all, I was a legend in my time. I was considered the most beautiful woman on campus. I was attractive back then.
What I really remember is that in Houston I spent a lot of time in this place called the old plantation. It was like an underground club, all gay, 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 Gasoline— at an event in Houston, and rode a bus across the country to where he was.
I didn’t come to New York because I fell in love with someone. It was more that I had given Rice a 1.0 and said, “It’s time to start my real life.” I had two or three numbers I could call, and hers was one of them. I didn’t necessarily think we were going to have a relationship. But I called him and went to dinner, and then we had a relationship. And a big lesson that I started to learn was that being around famous people is very different from being famous. Being around accomplished people won’t make you accomplished yourself, or make anyone take you seriously. You have to do the work.
But I was very cheeky. I would go to Studio 54 and tell everyone, “I’m a writer. I will become a writer.
Did you get the impression that people took it seriously?
Well, I took myself seriously. I mean, if a guy didn’t understand how real my job was to me, I couldn’t be with him.
One of your characters, Janey Wilcox, who is in “4 Blondes” and “Speculate”, is a model who believes herself to be a writer and tells people that she is a writer. But it’s funny, in her case, she really isn’t.
Janey is a total narcissist. She’s a kind of character who’s always in a place like New York or LA, a beautiful, destructive woman who uses her beauty to get really famous guys. But she meets her match in Harvey Weinstein’s character, Comstock Dibble.
On the right is the head of ‘Parador Pictures’, who yells at people, berates them and gets caught for pushing women into having sex. Were you surprised it took so long for the Weinstein story to come to light?
There are people you look into their eyes and think, you’re not a good person. Thing is, Harvey was super charming, which was part of that predatory personality. I’ve always said, “Don’t shake hands with the devil.” I didn’t know the extent of his behavior, but I suspected it.
Funny, Tina Brown told Harvey he was Comstock Dibble. He called me and said, “I read it, and I don’t see any resemblance. I said, “Me neither!”
You spent about a decade in New York trying to make it. For a while, you lived at your friend’s house in exchange for answering her phone as if it were an office. You 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 lived uptown in one of those buildings where old people died and we would sneak into their apartments and find a grease stain on the wall where their heads had rested for fifty years.
And you were freelancing, writing service articles for women’s magazines.
At one point I literally wrote about microwaves. I just told myself that I had to make a living with it. Writing for women’s magazines was great training: you had deadlines, a word count. You had to be efficient and know how to structure things, and you didn’t have to invent anything. But the only place I could find work was at miss 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 could have gotten this job any time before this.
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 job, you have to be interested. You have to learn how to make something interesting.