Candace Bushnell, who wrote the “Sex and the City” column that became a book and then a popular HBO series, rarely gets the credit or name recognition she deserves.
When I spoke to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, TV historian and author of “Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love,” she noted that most media coverage of “Sex and the City” — which premiered 20 years ago last week — barely delves into Bushnell’s role in creating the cultural phenomenon. So in writing her book, Armstrong wanted to know: Was Candace Bushnell’s life really like Carrie Bradshaw’s?
The answer is: Yes.
“People don’t really understand that she was this scrappy, working journalist for a long time,” Armstrong told me. “I really was interested in that whole thing — her single life at that time, how she was with her Mr. Big, and it turned out to be that it did check out. It was largely true. She had a very similar existence to Carrie.”
In her book, Armstrong notes that Bushnell came to New York in 1978 to pursue an acting career. When that didn’t work out, she took up freelance writing and was barely eking out a living. When Bushnell’s editor at the New York Observer offered her a column in 1994, she came up with the idea of writing about being a 30-something single woman in New York. The title, “Sex and the City,” was a play off Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 advice book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” and Bushnell was part of a long line of women writing columns explaining what it’s like to be single in a world of couples.
Bushnell lived an “in-between-classes life,” Armstrong writes, “scroung[ing] for sustenance, attending book parties for the free food and drinks. But she also ran with the highest of the high class, big-name designers and authors, moguls who hired interior designers for their jets, and Upper East Side moms who pioneered ‘nanny cams’ to spy on their expensive childcare providers.”
Part of Bushnell’s scrounging included living in her wealthy friend’s office space while writing her column. Bushnell’s lifestyle, of “balancing small paychecks with access to glamour and wealth,” Armstrong writes, was the model for her alter-ego Carrie Bradshaw, a pseudonym that Bushnell created so that her parents wouldn’t know they were reading about their daughter’s sex life. In her columns, Carrie Bradshaw is introduced as Bushnell’s “friend.”
In the mid-1990s, Bushnell was paid $1,000 per column, $250 more than other columnists at the New York Observer were paid, Armstrong notes. While writing her column, Bushnell also freelanced for Vogue, as Bradshaw also does on the show. Even though “Sex and the City” is often criticized as portraying a lifestyle well beyond the means of a freelance writer, Bushnell did actually make a “decent” living for New York at the time, Armstrong notes.
One of Bushnell’s Vogue assignments was to fly to Los Angeles and profile Darren Star, who at that point had created “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place” with Aaron Spelling and was starting on “Central Park West.” Soon after Bushnell wrote about Star, he moved to Manhattan and the two became friends. Together, they hung with Bushnell’s real-life Mr. Big (Vogue’s then-publisher Ron Galotti) and novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who also appeared in Bushnell’s columns under the pseudonym River Wilde. When Bushnell would show Galotti one of her columns, Armstrong writes, he would often respond with: “Cute, baby, cute.” A line that sounds like classic Big.
While writing the column, Bushnell went out nearly every night, Armstrong writes, similar to Bradshaw. And people would buy the Observer just to read her column: “A Bushnell pseudonym became a status symbol of the time,” Bushnell writes.
Around the time that Bushnell’s columns were published as a book in 1996, she and Star were hanging out in the Hamptons, debating where they’d like to see a televisions series based on the column: ABC was interested; so was HBO. They ended up with the premium subscription network, where they’d have more freedom to tackle the subject matter.
“At the beginning it was a ‘them-against-the-world’ kind of feeling,” Armstrong says of Bushnell and Star’s friendship. “She saw that first cut of the pilot before anyone else. She was giving notes on an early scripts and then I think eventually, I don’t think for any nefarious reason, she and the show parted ways.”
Gradually the show moved away from its original source material and Bushnell moved on to writing novels. But for a few years in the 1990s, Candace Bushnell really did live the Carrie Bradshaw life.