She had arrived in New York City from Connecticut in at age nineteen, but after a decade and a half of trying to make it there, she barely had anything in her bank account to show for it.
She did, however, have several friends. And some of them did have money. One kept two apartments, using one as a home and the other as an office, the latter in a charming art deco building at East 79th Street. The friend kept her own office in the bedroom, while Bushnell slept on a fold-out sofa and worked in the other room. Bushnell was still sleeping on the pull-out couch when she started freelance writing for the New York Observer, a publication distinguished by its pinkish paper and upscale readership.
She was thirty-five and single, a status that was still shocking in certain segments of society, even in New York City in Several of her friends had also made it past thirty without getting married, and they would make great sources and characters.
Like many in the media, Bushnell lived an in-between-classes life: She scrounged for sustenance, attending book parties for the free food and drinks. It was the model for the absurd lifestyle that her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw, would make famous, balancing small paychecks with major access to glamour and wealth. In fact, she lived in almost twelve different apartments during her first year in New York City, or at least it felt that way. Candy, as her family called her—honey-blond and Marcia Brady—pretty—had come to Manhattan to make it as an actress after she dropped out of Rice University.
Then she found out she was a terrible actress, so she decided to make it as a writer instead. In one apartment, on East 49th Street, which was something of a red-light district at the time, she lived with three other girls. All three wanted to be on Broadway, and, even worse, one of them was.
Worse still, the women who lived above them on the third and fourth floors were hookers with a steady string of patrons clomping through. Bushnell did her best to ignore the chaos and focus on her career. At a club one evening, she met the owner of a small publication called Night, where she landed her first entry-level gig. The magazine had just launched in to chronicle legendary nightclubs like Studio 54 and Danceteria.
But her work reflected the times and spoke to the millions of young women who poured into big cities to seek career success and independence instead of matrimony and family life.
To pursue her own big-city dreams, Bushnell braved New York at its lowest point, when the AIDS crisis ravaged lives, graffiti covered buildings and subway cars inside and out, beefy vigilantes called the Guardian Angels roamed the streets to discourage criminals, and Times Square was populated with prostitutes and peep shows.
Bushnell and Kaplan got down to practicalities. This, plus her Vogue checks and perks like flights to Los Angeles for assignments, added up to a decent New York lifestyle for the time, particularly given her frugal living quarters. The column was headed by an illustration of a shoe, based on a strappy pair of Calvin Klein sandals Bushnell had purchased for herself on sale.
But first things first: Well, there was that sex club everyone was talking about. As it turned out, Le Trapeze was, like most sexual escapades, neither as good nor as bad as imagined.
It cost eighty-five dollars to enter, cash, no receipt. Her expense reports were about to get interesting. The presence of a hot-and-cold buffet took her aback. If they could find their souls.
As Bushnell wrote in that first piece: It can be annoying; it can be unsatisfying; most important, sex in New York is only rarely about sex. She smoked and looked out on an air shaft from the dark three-bedroom apartment as she pondered the lives and loves of those she knew and tapped away on her Dell laptop keyboard. The words she wrote would turn her from a midlevel writer into a New York celebrity. Her column gained such notoriety, in fact, that it affected her love life.
She never would have believed, at the time, that it would turn into a TV hit that all of America—much less the world—embraced. She only hoped to hook the select, in-the-know audience the Observer was known for, the upper echelons of high society.
The result resembles a female version of Bright Lights, Big City and, in fact, the author of that book was her friend and frequent party mate Jay McInerney, whose wavy crest of dark hair, thick eyebrows, and natty style made him look more like a matinee idol than a novelist.
It was the day when restaurants were theater. Nobody cared about the food. You just saw who was coming in, who talked to who. Society was important, the idea of wanting to be in society.
She got her material from dating, and she could use her profession to meet potential dates. They made their living as retail clerks, but more important they were single girls whose jobs gave them access to wealthy men: The Invention of Dating.
Bushnell and her friends had become the modern version of Edith Wharton heroines and those shopgirls, stuck between dependence on men and modern dating practices that lacked manners and rules. She envisioned herself writing for this select subculture, whispering their secrets to others like them, and perhaps even to the men who pursued them. A Bushnell pseudonym became a status symbol of the time. Soon everyone in town knew that Mr.
Big was Galotti, the magazine publisher who drove a Ferrari and had dated supermodel Janice Dickinson. In the column, Bushnell, as a first-person narrator, introduces Mr. Readers took in every word. They read it on the subway and on the way out to the Hamptons. Being twenty-five, single, and female in New York.
One character sums it up: No fear of disease, psychopaths, or stalkers. Why not just be with your friends? The title of the column, in fact, referenced the most famous of them all: While women have never been published with the same frequency as their white male counterparts, they have proven throughout history that there was a surefire way to get attention: How on earth did they survive without men? Was it as awful as it sounded? Was it as fun? I was going to New York to earn my own bread and butter and to live alone.
She offered a juicier version of the age-old society pages. Given this winning combination, the book publishing world inevitably pursued Bushnell. As she toured college campuses to promote the book, she noticed something unexpected: The column resonated far beyond Manhattan, far beyond its outer boroughs.
Women in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities throughout the nation saw their own lives in Sex and the City.
They had their own Mr. Bigs; they were their own Carrie Bradshaws. She had chased exactly this kind of fantasy from the Connecticut suburbs to New York City in with no connections, no Ivy League degree, and no money, then worked her way up the media ladder. Reviews for the book, however, ran lukewarm.
But Bridget and Carrie did not belong together in any sense, even though they kept getting stuck together in trend pieces. Carrie, on the other hand, knew how attractive and thin she was, dated and drank with the upper echelons of Manhattan society, and was still moody and cynical.
Where Bridget was sweet and well-adjusted underneath her snark and borderline alcoholism, Carrie suffered mood swings and self-sabotaging behavior. In short, they sat at opposite ends of the single-woman character spectrum: Bridget an updated version of the single woman who knows her place, and thus is quite likable; Carrie an unsympathetic character, a true antiheroine at a time when unlikable lead female characters were rare.
Even before the collection of columns came out in book form, Bushnell began to get calls from producers eager to buy the rights for film. The thirty-two-year-old had just become the youngest person to run a network entertainment division at the time; she was also the first female network president ever.
Industry observers were waiting for her to fail. Her new network lagged in third place of the Big Three. Like many of the female characters, she was in her early thirties and trying to balance dating with a high-powered career. The popularity of the column and subsequent book gave the title a recognizability that made it perfect for TV. And it appealed to the female audience ABC most wanted at the time. Bushnell was Rollerblading when the couple pulled up next to her, as she remembers it, in a cherry-red Mercedes convertible.
The series took on issues well ahead of its time for TV, with extramarital affairs, sex, several gay love affairs, and a major transgender character. It also highlighted a different kind of love affair that Sex and the City would also emphasize: Such a risky proposition meant a miniscule budget, with costumes even for its wealthiest characters coming from secondhand shops.
It became the highest-rated broadcast to date on PBS at the time, but also sparked controversy as one of the few US programs to show kissing between male lovers. This was the landscape into which any Sex and the City television show would take its first steps. In fact, without this one routine assignment, the Sex and the City we know would never have come to pass. Star was branching out on his own without Spelling, and the critics would be watching to see if Star was the real deal.
Soon after the two met for the piece, Star moved to Manhattan, and Bushnell swept him into her orbit to show him around the area—for Central Park West research, of course.
He had never met anyone more fun. They commemorated their friendship in ultimate Hollywood fashion: Star—a handsome gay man with brown, spiky hair—connected with Bushnell as a fellow suburban kid made good. He spent his childhood in Potomac, Maryland, a middle- to upper-class DC suburb full of politicians, ambassadors, and their families.