Candace Bushnell on How 'Sex and the City' Really Began
The former New York Observer writer recounts the "good old days" when people faxed her column to Hollywood and she was the paper's "secret weapon" amid open "locker room talk."
I got my start at the New York Observer in 1993 when an editor I had met, Peter Stevenson, went to work there — this is back when Susan Morrison was the editor — and he said, "Come in for a meeting, maybe you can write for us." Of course I had to pitch some story ideas, and I pitched a "Manhattan Transfers" column about all of these kids from the '80s who'd ended up in rehab in the '90s, but every time they came back to New York they relapsed, so they all had to go and live in Minneapolis. They wanted it.
John Homans was my editor, and he said, "There's only one problem: We don't have any money, and we don't have any money for expenses." So I think I literally took my last $300 — I mean, I was really broke — and I went and reported it. At this point I was 33 or 34 — and I had been writing for women's magazines. They had more money for expenses and that sort of thing, but no one took writers who worked for women's magazines seriously. So for me, the Observer was really a big break in that sense of getting my work into a publication that was taken more seriously — and they loved the piece. I'd really been doing similar pieces for years, but no one was really paying attention because they were in women's magazines. The difference is that being in the Observer meant that your work was going to be talked about by the so-called intelligentsia because they all read it.
I'm going to say this in the nicest way, but the Observer was openly sexist. Not in a malicious, Trump way — but very ribald. They were a bunch of boys being boys. They used to bully Alex Kuczynski, who's gone on to do great things at the New York Times, and me. Of course neither one of us cared because we just thought they were all a bunch of idiots and we would give it right back to them. It's funny — I wasn't allowed to work in the office because I was too loud, and too intimidating to some of the other writers. But let me put it this way: You didn't want to be there. It wasn't just a cramped space — there was only one bathroom. They had an endless assortment of bathroom jokes. I didn't understand this frat boy life. I think it was only later that I realized so many of the people who worked there went to Ivy League schools and actually came from wealthy families, which in a way was one of the few ways you could work there, because the salaries were so small. But there was definitely a frat boy atmosphere. It was openly full of locker room talk and frat boy humor. You've got to remember, it was the '90s — more than 20 years ago — and there were men who were executives, who threw phones. It was a very different time.
Soon, I was doing lots of pieces under Susan. She used to call me the Observer's secret weapon, because people would tell me everything, and I'd be like, "Please, don't tell me that. You know I'm a reporter, right?" It was a very exciting time. There was no internet. And that was really what the publications, in a sense, did: Go out and capture the pulse of the city.
The way Sex and the City happened was that Peter Kaplan, who'd actually just started as editor-in-chief, came up to me and said, "I want to give you your own column."
I said "Great!" I knew it was my big break. I don't know if there was another woman at the Observer who had her own column, but I was pretty much the only one, and I was really going to make it work.
Then Peter said, "What do you think it should be about?" I thought about it, and I realized if it was going to be something that I was going to write all the time, I had to be able to do it really well. So I said, "I think it should be about me and my friends, who are all single and crazy." This was also kind of the same thing that I'd been covering in my 20s — dating and mating rituals.
Peter thought it was a great idea. He said, "Let me think about it, and I'll come up with a title." And I went in the next morning and he was like, "I got the title. We'll call it 'Sex and the City.' One foot in sex and one foot in society." And we all said "yes!" So for the first column we weren't exactly sure what to do. They made me go to a sex club. I did that story and quickly realized that that could not be the column — that's a one-off. It really had to be about dating and mating rituals, and sexual practices.
For the next week's issue, I just made a list of four more columns that I was going to do, all about dating and my friends, and I said, "These are what I'm going to do." And they said, "Fine." After that, I don't think they suggested any things. Maybe once or twice at deadline there was, "What are you going to write about?" I remember dealing with staying up all Monday night trying to get my copy in.
But then everybody was reading it. People were buying the Observer for my column. They were reading it on the Hamptons Jitney, they were reading it to each other, they were faxing it. I'd been doing the column for maybe four months when I started to get inquiries from Hollywood. People in New York who worked in film and media were faxing it to their friends who worked in film in Los Angeles. I flew out to L.A. and had meetings. I was like, "What the hell?"
There was no breakup, no dramatic moment — I just evolved out of writing for the New York Observer. I think I just said, "Look, I'm probably going to do one more column about Carrie and Mr. Big." The other thing that happens when you're writing a column is, the pressure of that deadline, at a certain point you're like, "I just don't want to stay up all night." You get a little older and you don't want to pull all-nighters. What can I say?
In all, the column lasted two years. It absolutely could have gone on longer, but for me, I'd never seen myself as a journalist. Everything I was writing at that time was just a way to give me an entrée into writing fiction, which the column certainly did.
There was always a lot of competition at the Observer. Let me put it this way: When my novel Trading Up came out, my old editor John Homans reviewed it for New York magazine and, in a rage, gave it a total pan. I was furious at him. Years later, he apologized and said, "I'm so sorry, I don't know why I did that to you. I did not mean to do that to you, but I just get so jealous! I just get so jealous when my colleagues go on to write books, I can't help myself!" I see John, I love John, I'm still friends with him. He still apologizes. That's the kind of thing that happened a lot at the Observer. You know what, it's New York. I mean you've got to think back to the '50s, '60s, '70s — what writers would do to each other. I suppose it's really just part of the grand New York tradition, right?
Of course, so is the Observer. This is going to sound so wrong, but I look at the Observer like it was our school newspaper. It was the school newspaper for about 50,000 people who lived in a certain New York. When I was working there, it could be whatever the owner, Arthur Carter, wanted it to be because he wasn't trying to make money. And while they were wanting to get more subscribers, obviously, the paper wasn't going to live or die on another 5,000 subscriptions. There was a freedom. It wasn't corporate. There weren't email chains, and everybody's got to approve this and that.
I mean, of course people had to answer to Arthur. You'd go to Arthur's office and you'd just look around and think, "He's so rich, he's so rich." And then a couple of editors would just be sitting there thinking, "Why can't he just give me $10,000? He's so rich you won't even notice it." I mean everyone was making, probably, $20,000 a year.
There were parties and they were always good. This was a media world filled with people who'd known each other for years. Everyone stayed friends.
Despite everything, the sexist joking and the hazing, it was really, really fun — although I know that's the kind of thing that one will get in to big trouble for saying. But it was. People were excited to be at the Observer. There was still that newspaper feeling of "We've got to get the deadline." And that invigorating feeling where you've got to go out and get the story, you've got to dial the phone and work your connections. I would call one person to ask for another, you call somebody: "Do you know anybody who can help me? What's their number?" And then you call and call. The good old days.