It’s an It Girl! The Birth of ‘Sex and the City’

Before six seasons of premium cable television, before endless reruns on basic cable, before a hit movie and a sequel, before Manolo Blahnik became a household name, before the fan bus tours to Carrie’s stoop, the rise and fall of Bleecker Street, and Cynthia Nixon’s surprise campaign for governor, before all of that, there was a newspaper column.

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It’s an It Girl! The Birth of ‘Sex and the City’
, New York Times

Before six seasons of premium cable television, before endless reruns on basic cable, before a hit movie and a sequel, before Manolo Blahnik became a household name, before the fan bus tours to Carrie’s stoop, the rise and fall of Bleecker Street, and Cynthia Nixon’s surprise campaign for governor, before all of that, there was a newspaper column.

“Sex and the City” first appeared in The New York Observer on Nov. 28, 1994. The column’s author and central character, Candace Bushnell, was then a 35-year-old freelance writer with talent and charm and just as much anxiety over whether it was ever going to happen for her.

“It” was a lot of things: a successful career as a writer, love, marriage, a closetful of Chanel or even money to pay the rent. One year, Bushnell said, she earned $14,000 and was thrown out of her sublet. But she also summered in the Hamptons, dated the publisher of Vogue (the real Mr. Big) and socialized with famous writers and rich people.

Things did work out. In 1996, the columns were collected in a book of the same name. Two years later came the HBO series starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, a cultural juggernaut that eclipsed both the book and the column.

On the 20th anniversary of the TV show’s debut, we caught up with Bushnell and friends and colleagues from those years to tell the back story of how Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte came to be. And to revisit New York in the mid-1990s, when few had cellphones, downtown could still be dangerous, and the print medium was king.

Throughout the 1980s, Bushnell, a native of Connecticut who attended Rice University and New York University, had written articles for women’s magazines — including “The Gold Diggers of 1989,” about professional girlfriends, for the now-defunct Mademoiselle. She also networked, dated and dreamed of publishing a book.
Morgan Entrekin, CEO and publisher of Grove Atlantic

I first met Candace through some friends. It was up on this very strange, wonderful place, Fishers Island, in the late ‘80s. She was a houseguest there with a boyfriend, Jeff Carpenter, an artist. As soon as I met her she said, “I’m a writer.”

Laura Yorke, former senior editor at Putnam’s Sons; currently a literary agent

Candace and I were very good friends then. She was just really fun. She really, really wanted to write. That was always, always her goal. It was not to be some socialite party girl.

Peter Stevenson, former editor of The New York Observer

We had several mutual friends. We dated for a while. It was lovely and I couldn’t keep up with her. At the time I met her, she was living in a studio or one-bedroom on the East Side. She was staying at a friend’s house. The friend, Anne something, had a magazine called Scene.

John Homans, former Observer editor
Candace was always like a character in fiction. She was wisecracking. She was brassy, funny, always smiling. If you called her home number, she’d say, “Hello, Scene.” There was no gap between her professional and personal life. Bushnell: I didn’t have a place to live. Anne and I made a deal. I had to answer the phone and pretend to be her secretary and I could live there. I slept on a foldout couch. I had no money. I probably made $2,000 a month. When you want to do something, who cares?
Yorke: I never visited her at her apartment. I always saw her at someone else’s house.
Stevenson: Whenever she was paid for a piece, she would be more likely to buy a pair of $800 shoes than go out and stock up the fridge. I remember one of her staples was sardines and crackers.
Bushnell: Anne and I really worked. It was the only thing that saved us, otherwise we would have gone crazy. But then at the end of the day, inevitably three or four girlfriends would end up coming over. We’d meet up, have some laughs, and then maybe we’d go out. It was a lot of talking, spilling of our lives: “Hey, this is what happened to me.” We were the “Sex and the City” women. We were in our mid-30s. We were supposed to be married. Married or CEOs. And somehow, we just hadn’t gotten there.
The Observer was then a small but influential weekly broadsheet, published on salmon-pink paper by Arthur Carter, an investment banker, and edited for 15 years by the late, great Peter Kaplan. When Bushnell began writing for the paper in the early ‘90s, and soon after got her own column, it was a “huge deal,” she said — not monetarily, but a high-profile opportunity to cover wealth and power in New York for a publication that was literary and irreverent. The editors ran “Sex and the City” on the cover, treating dating, gender roles and social change as front-page news.
Homans: Peter Stevenson, who I hired as a writer, said, “This person Candace has this idea.” She had a great story, which was that the Beavers brothers, these Upper East Side socialites who ran the Surf Club, had lived too hard and gone out to Hazelden in Minnesota to dry out. It was exactly what we wanted to do: human stories about glamorous people. It was a fantastic piece.
Stevenson: Candace obviously had a lot more to say than just features. Her point of view of New York City and dating and love and romance and money was so dead-on. Peter and I came up with this idea that she would report on sex and New York City and society and dating.
Bushnell: When I got the column, I felt, “I know what to do with this.” If I’d have gotten the column when I was 28, I just wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Stevenson: The very first column, she went to a sex club called La Trapeze. It was as awful as you would expect that experience to be. I can’t remember exactly how things clicked into Candace transcribing her own transgressions and the foibles of her friends.
Homans: If you knew Candace you thought, “This is her diary.”
Bushnell: There was constant angst. “What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to all of us whose lives aren’t following the script?” I can’t say it was bleak because, listen, we had a lot of girlfriends who were having a great time. But this wasn’t a group of women that people were saying, “You’re fabulous. You go, girls.” Instead, we were really considered pariahs.
Judy Hottensen, associate publisher, Grove Atlantic

Professional women not marrying at the very earliest age, holding out and having careers, getting married and getting divorced — there was a lot of that going on. For women in New York, it was a turning point. That was the column’s gravitational pull, and why people related to it.

Stevenson: With any editor, your job is to fix the stuff that’s broken, and if you have the luxury of time, to make the writer sound like who they are. That’s why I miss the telephone so much because you can talk to a writer and they reveal things about themselves they don’t even realize. With Candace, you just light the fuse and step away. She has a novelist’s heart and a reporter’s brain.
Bushnell: I changed people’s names. I love those characters. Like the two 25-year-old girls? The one I call Cici, I won’t say who she is today, but she’s very successful. Every time I see her, we’re laughing our heads off about those stories.
Lara Shriftman, public relations executive and author

I’m not Cici. And I wasn’t 25 at the time. I was probably 20. What happened was one night we were telling her a bunch of stories of our friends dating in New York in your 20s. We sat down and gave her lots of, “Oh, this happened and that happened.” But even the material that we gave her for the column was completely fictionalized.

Stevenson: I remember being at a party after the first two columns came out, and this girl was telling everyone she was Samantha.
Shriftman: Marina Rust — she was Charlotte, maybe? I think Samantha was made up. I can’t remember, it was 20 years ago.
Bushnell: There were quite a few women who thought they were Samantha. A lot of that is due to the TV show. There’s a Carrie in every town and there’s a Samantha in every town — and I’ve met them all.
Like many young, ambitious New Yorkers in the era before social media, Bushnell viewed going out as part of her job. On any night of the week, she might attend a book party, a fashion event or go to the Bowery Bar, a downtown watering hole in a converted gas station that appeared frequently in her column.
Bushnell: It would be pretty usual to have six to 10 invitations a night. Of course, they’d come in the mail. Because people still sent invitations by mail, not email. And people made schedules. You’d make a schedule of the parties you were going to and in what order. Bret Easton Ellis had a big white board. He’d put all of his events and engagements that he had to go to on it.
Homans: The Bowery Bar was at that point the hippest place in New York. It was downtown when downtown was being transformed. The Bowery still had this frisson of being a scary place. I remember the party when James Truman replaced Alexander Liberman as creative director at Condé Nast. Bryan Ferry was there. A nightclub in a former gas station was cool. Now there are no gas stations.
Eric Goode, owner, Bowery Bar

If I had to characterize who was there, I’d say everybody. Because it was the place of the moment. It was Russell Simmons at one booth, Naomi Campbell at another, Ian Schrager at another. And Candace was part of that posse with Jay McInerney and Morgan.

Bushnell: Everybody was from the same world. It was a social world, and it was a world of people who went out a lot. But, really, people talked and talked and talked — in person — all the time. The talk and the conversation were the entertainment, as I suppose Twitter is entertainment now.
Goode: Going out was more relevant than today. Going out was the only way you could meet people and could have sex. It was right before cellphones. I remember in Bowery Bar there was one person with a cellphone. That was Russell Simmons. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this will never catch on.’ They were so obnoxious. Darren Star, creator and executive producer of “Sex and the City” (the show)

I came to New York to do this CBS series, “Central Park West,” which was ultimately not successful. It was an exciting time to be in New York. The city was coming to life again. I met Candace when she interviewed me for Vogue. I remember Candace and Ron going to dinner at Le Cirque, and Ron was wearing a tuxedo. Old New York still felt like it was there.

Shriftman: Candace was the belle of the ball. She was a real “It Girl.” She was dating Ron Galotti, and he was running Vogue. She was just Carrie.
One night in 1995, Bushnell, Entrekin and Hottensen, among others, wound up at the Bowery Bar, where talk turned to her column. It was a life-changing evening.
Entrekin: How the book happened is we were sitting at a table and I said, “Candace, those columns are very clever. Are you going to write enough of them to make a book?” She said, “If you give me a contract, I will.”
Hottensen: Candace was her usual irreverent self. She never minced words, never shied away from asking for what she wanted. All of a sudden, Morgan turned to me: “Judy, should I make Candace an offer?” I said, “Yes. It would be fantastic.”
Entrekin: We slid down at the end of the table and negotiated the contract right there. Ron negotiated for Candace at the table. I said a number. He said a higher number. We settled in between and did the deal.
Bushnell: Ron is the publisher of Vogue magazine for a reason. The man knows how to make a deal. I don’t know what he said, but the next thing I know, Judy is saying, “Yes, Morgan, we should do this as a book,” and Morgan’s like, “OK, I’ll offer you $20,000.” And Mr. Big, Ron Galotti, said, “Oh, come on. Make it 25.” Entrekin: People might think, “Gosh, that’s so reckless to sign up a book deal at midnight in a restaurant.” But I’d been following her for five years. She captured a single woman’s point of view that was empowering and definitely amusing.

I remember meeting some skepticism as I presented the book to people in my sales organization. “What is Morgan thinking, that he’s going to publish this book about people he knows in Manhattan, and there will be an audience for it outside of Manhattan?”

Sandra Tsing Loh, author; reviewed “Sex and the City” for The Los Angeles Times

What one forgets going back after “Sex and the City” became this zeitgeist-y television series is it is a really well-written book. It’s so good, and it’s not just about sex. The character descriptions are so incredibly spot on. The crazy international girl, Amalita Amalfi. The way Candace talks about 19-year-old models and how your life will never be like them, so let’s see what their life is like. And it’s so boring and deadening. I definitely saw those girls in L.A.

Bushnell: It’s about relationships and power and status and pecking order — which is something that everybody in New York understands because you live it every day. Everybody lives these little indignities. Somebody at the very top of the heap talks to you, you’re like a little bird: “I’m going to take this crumb back to my nest, and I’m going to survive on this crumb for the next three days.”
Tsing Loh: It didn’t get the same attention as Bret Easton Ellis because it wasn’t as dark. Sometimes these books are dismissed as chick lit. I think it’s a great piece of literature.
Bushnell: There’s a lot of pressure to depict men in a way that fits the Cinderella narrative of love and relationships and that a man is going to come through in the end. And “Sex and the City” was an opportunity to show a truth about men and relationships that I was not allowed to do in women’s magazines, and to a certain extent, in women’s publishing.
Star, looking for another New York-based project after the cancellation of “Central Park West,” optioned Bushnell’s column. The show made many people famous and wealthy, including Bushnell. But what seems now like a sure thing was then only a vague idea.
Star: I was looking for a container to do sex and relationships in a frank, R-rated way. I loved the title “Sex and the City.” I was thinking of it as a noncommercial show, like something that would run on Channel 4 in Britain. The stakes were so low, it’s hard to remember now.
Stevenson: Back then, HBO was still somewhat of an outlier in terms of bombshell TV shows. It wasn’t like ABC was going to do it. And nobody really knew anybody who’d had a column turned into a TV show.
Star: When we did the pilot, Candace took me on a trip to the Four Seasons Nevis. I remember her saying, “They’re going to teach this show at universities.” I was, like, “What are you talking about? I hope this show gets on the air.” She was very gung-ho from the beginning. I was thinking, “Am I going to work again? Are people going to misinterpret this and think it’s pornographic?”
Bushnell: The premiere took place at Lot 61. Sweetie, we sat on folding chairs, and they had one of those screens that you pull up. No one was, like, “It’s going to be a big hit.” But it was fun because it was such a New York thing.
Stevenson: Even though the TV show after the first season had a whole room of writers, you could still make the point that Candace was the root of the whole thing. The whole thing grew out of her point of view.
Star: I knew other single women in their 30s who weren’t married who were focused on their careers. But with Candace, especially, not letting a relationship define her, but at the same time wanting to be in love, was such a big part of her. Same with Carrie: She has a tough exterior, but inside she’s a romantic.
Bushnell: That’s all I wanted to do, write books. When I moved to New York, I thought that I was just going to start writing novels and they would be published. And I was 35 and I was really facing, “Am I ever going to write a book?” I put everything in my life on the line so that I can publish a book and somehow make it. You know, that’s the thing about “Sex and the City.” It’s written by somebody who is desperate for a roof over their head, really.

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