Born c. 1959, in Connecticut; daughter of Calvin (a scientist) and Camille (a travel–agency owner) Bushnell; married Charles Askegard (a ballet dancer), July 4, 2002. Education: Attended Rice University and New York University.
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Writer and journalist. Staff and freelance writer for Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Self, Mademoiselle, Cosmo Beauty and Fitness, Family Circle, GQ, and Vogue, 1980s–94; columnist, New York Observer, New York, NY, 1994–c. 1998; columns collected into 1996 book, Sex and the City, which was made into HBO series of the same name, 1998–2004; first novel published, 2003.
Author Candace Bushnell served as the whip–smart, amusing, and well–shod prototype for Carrie Bradshaw, the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker on the hit HBO series Sex and the City. Bushnell penned a much–read column about the travails of Manhattan single life that inspired the show and its premise, and then went on to author far lengthier exposés with Four Blondes, a collection of novellas published in 2000, and Trading Up, her first novel.
Trading Up, which appeared in 2003, earned Bushnell more than a few comparisons to both Jane Austen and Edith Wharton for her mordantly relentless dissection of the mysterious code phrases, barely concealed snubs, and restaurant–seating patterns that add up to the ever–shifting hierarchy of status among New York's media, fashion, and Wall Street elite. "Bushnell succeeds because she provides what readers and audiences have always craved," noted Stephanie Merritt in London's Observer, "from Molière down through Wilde and Mitford to Dynasty and the rash of current celebrity magazines—a window on to the stupidities and weaknesses of the rich and powerful, inspiring an addictive mix of envy and moral superiority."
Bushnell was born in the late 1950s and grew up in Glastonbury, a bedroom community in central Connecticut. Her family boasted impressive New England Yankee roots: the Bushnell brothers arrived in the 1630s and one of them married into a Mayflower family; a later ancestor invented the first submarine ever deployed in combat, the American Turtle, which scared off a British frigate near the Connecticut coastline during the Revolutionary War. Her own father was a scientist who invented the fuel cell used on the Apollo space missions of the 1960s. But Bushnell, the eldest of three daughters, was eager to leave quaint New England. "We used to call it Glastonboring," she explained to Times of London writer Joe Warwick. "It doesn't have a movie theatre and everybody likes horses. It's that sort of place."
Bushnell was an imaginative and savvy youngster who made up stories, recorded them on cassette, and then charged neighborhood kids a fee to hear them. After high school, she entered Rice University in Houston, Texas, but left before earning her degree in order to move to New York City. She had impressively ambitious plans at the time. "I thought I could make money as an actress and I'd be able to support myself as a novelist, which of course is incredibly stupid," she recalled in an Entertainment Weekly interview with Troy Patterson. Bushnell's closest claim to an entertainment–industry credit was a Burger King commercial that she almost landed. Instead, she went out a lot. It was the late 1970s and the heady discotheque era, and she landed her first success as a writer with an arch magazine piece that she titled, "How to Act in a Disco."
Over the next decade, Bushnell served time on the mastheads of magazines like Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Cosmo Beauty and Fitness, and Self. "I'd write about spastic colons, foot fungus, you name it," she told Minneapolis Star Tribune journalist Rick Nelson. "It was really good training, and great discipline. You have to write to a prescribed word length, and make whatever you're writing interesting, to keep the reader turning the page." Eventually she went solo, and got off to a good start in the early 1990s with pieces published in GQ, Mademoiselle, Health, and even Family Circle. But the freelance life proved tenuous, and Bushnell struggled financially. Behind in her rent, she was evicted from her apartment, which she told the Evening Standard 's Lydia Slater, "was my lowest point." In the Cinderella–type moment that she later skillfully deployed in her fiction, Bushnell was offered her own column in the New York Observer, the highbrow media and arts weekly, while still sleeping on her friend's couch.
Bushnell's New York Observer column, "Sex and the City," debuted in 1994. It cynically examined the dating scene among Manhattan's upper echelon of strivers, and was based simply on Bushnell's own experiences and those of her friends. Her acerbic, witty tone struck a chord with readers, who easily recognized many of her newly named archetypes. There was the "modelizer," or man who dated only models, who was a subspecies of the "toxic bachelor," but Bushnell was an equal–opportunity satirist: there were also women who selected boyfriends based on real estate holdings. "The idea of the desperate single woman is somewhat true," she told Warwick in the Times of London about her subject matter. "New York is a city where men don't want relationships." It was a theme she often discussed in interviews when a collection of her columns became her first book, Sex and the City, in 1996. "Because of how men are raised, they're ill–equipped to provide love and support," she said of the anti–heroes who populated her column in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service interview with Jennifer Weiner. "They're raised to be self–centered, to be entitled."
Bushnell herself was romantically linked with Alfonse D'Amato—a former Republican senator from New York—and Vogue magazine publisher Ron Galotti, widely believed to have been the inspiration for the elusive "Mr. Big," the chauffeur–driven exec who occasionally romanced her column's alter ego, Carrie. Independent journalist Deborah Ross asked Bushnell about what was New York's most obvious secret for a time in the mid–1990s. "I don't think he took it very seriously," she said of Galotti's reaction. "It was obviously fictionalised, but he was the big inspiration for the character. I was in love with him. When I saw him I would get so excited. My heart would flip–flop, which was great, except I don't think he had the same feelings about me."
Galotti allegedly broke up with Bushnell on the day the galley proofs arrived for her book. It earned mixed reviews, and those who came to it after the subsequent HBO series may have been surprised to find a tone that was far bleaker than the small–screen version. The 25 essays, wrote Ginia Bellafante in Time, "should serve to dissuade any single person in America from ever moving to Manhattan." A Times of London review from Amanda Craig deemed it "riveting, trivial and completely vile," but commended Bushnell's talent for observation and the minutiae of class–demarcation detail. "Sharp, gritty, and so hard you could use it to bore holes in granite, Bushnell's wit is like an industrial diamond," Craig declared.
Bushnell's book was optioned by Darren Star, the Melrose Place creator, and the series debuted on HBO in 1998. Her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw, was joined by a trio of best friends that had either been characters or composite characters in the original column: cynical corporate attorney Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), art dealer and aspiring Connecticut housewife Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and publicist Samantha (Kim Cattrall), a commitment–phobe. The series quickly generated a buzz, lured new HBO subscribers by the thousands, and was nominated for numerous Emmy awards. Nation critic Alyssa Katz asserted that "one of its pleasures is that it lampoons its glossy Manhattan universe as much as it tries to sell it to the tourists."
In the meantime, Bushnell carried on with her anthropological field work. Journalists almost always asked her about her personal life. She admitted to having been engaged once, but claimed that she was simply not marriage material—a famous line from the TV series that Big delivers when Carrie gloats about her impending nuptials. Later, Carrie suffers a panic attack when she tries on a wedding dress in a bridal salon. Bushnell recalled in the Independent interview with Ross that she "had an engagement ring and everything, but it didn't feel right. I called it off. I literally felt as if I was suffocating. I felt like I was drowning. It felt like an ending, not a beginning.…"
Bushnell also began working on the novellas that would become Four Blondes, her 2000 best–seller. The last story of the quartet chronicled an American woman's romance with a well–heeled English aristocrat, mirroring Bushnell's own romance with a British–born venture capitalist. The other stories skewer a paranoid, drug–addled model who is married to an Italian prince, and the marriage of a pair of well–connected Manhattan journalists whose female half loathes her mate and pines for a more ambitious one. The first of the four blondes, however, was Janey Wilcox—an aging, shrewd, but not very bright model who endures a near–comical level of emotional abuse from the viper–like men she insists upon dating. Desperate to parlay her looks into an advantageous marriage, Janey summers at various Hamptons houses and trips herself up at every turn. Just when she is forced to contemplate selling real estate as a career, she wins a lucrative modeling contract for Victoria's Secret. A Publishers Weekly contributor asserted that Bushnell's characters seemed to be driven by "their fear of mortality.… Mercilessly satirical, Bushnell's scathing insights and razor wit are laced with an understanding of this universal human fear, and they inspire fear and pity in the reader."
Bushnell took the Janey Wilcox story and turned it into her 2003 novel, Trading Up. The plot centers around Janey's marriage to entertainment executive Selden Rose. Janey finally possesses all the wealth and status she craved, but now wants more. She is envious of her even more well–married best friend's affair with a handsome polo player, worries about the abusive former beau who seems to be trying to blackmail her, and once again besmirches her reputation by her own shallow–minded decisions. Some of it, many critics noted, seemed to be lifted from the classic Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth, but Janey fails to meet the doomed end that befell Wharton's more delicate Lily Bart.
Indeed, Bushnell's protagonist was far more amoral than the delicate Lily, many reviewers noted. "Selfish, fickle, and occasionally outright deluded," noted Entertainment Weekly 's Laura Miller, "Janey makes an unlikely heroine: Her chief claim on our sympathy is her indomitable will, though she can never quite settle on what she really wants." Miller dismissed previous critical comparisons to Lily Bart. "Unlike Wharton's tragic characters," Miller pointed out, "Janey isn't trapped by anything bigger than her own laziness, pretensions, and greed." The London Observer review from Merritt assessed comparisons to the other literary figure with whom Bushnell was often mentioned—Jane Austen—finding "flashes of the same viper wit, the same piercing observation of detail, the same joyfully bitchy spotlight turned on the posturing and insincerity of society."
Penelope Mesic, writing in Book, called Janey "doubly gratifying as a heroine, since readers can fantasize about being her and then congratulate themselves that they're not." That dichotomy was what helped propel the book to the New York Times best–seller list and land its author another television deal. In August of 2003, ABC and Touchstone Television acquired the rights to Trading Up for what would likely become a weekly prime–time series. Bushnell was also slated to write another Janey Wilcox book, according to her contract with Hyperion. Meanwhile, HBO's Sex and the City series was coming to a close, slated for a 2004 grand finale. In it, Carrie finally finds love with the most unlikely of suitors: a Russian–born, world–renowned painter.
The fictional paramour was played by actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose previous career was as ballet's most appealing male dancer of the twentieth century. The show had a neatly symmetrical parallel with Bushnell's own life, for in 2002 she wed a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Charles Askegard. The two were married on a Nantucket beach after just a seven–week courtship. "I wasn't ready to get married until I was 43," she told D. Parvaz of the Seattle Post–Intelligencer.
Times had changed, Bushnell believed, and the ruthless scene chronicled in her original column was now a bygone era. Her new husband was ten years her junior, and she told Slater in the Evening Standard interview, "in the past five years, relationships between the sexes have really changed. There's a whole group of men born in the Seventies who tend not to be as sexist, because they grew up with the idea of women working.… There seem to be more and more people who will take a partner as a person, as opposed to someone who will fit into a box."
Sex and the City (essays), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York City), 1996.
Four Blondes (short stories), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York City), 2000.
Trading Up (novel), Hyperion (New York City), 2003.
Atlantic Monthly, October 2000, p. 138.
Book, July–August 2003, p. 72.
Daily Variety, August 12, 2003, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, August 23, 1996, p. 116; June 6, 2003, p. 36; June 27, 2003, p. 140.
Evening Standard (London, England), September 12, 2003, p. 20.
Independent (London, England), February 5, 2001, p. 1.
Independent Sunday (London, England), August 31, 2003, p. 3.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, October 6, 2000.
Nation, August 24, 1998, p. 36.
New York Post, June 22, 2003, p. 50.
New York Times, July 13, 2003, p. 4.
Observer (London, England), July 28, 2002, p. 4; August 3, 2003, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 2000, p. 46.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 7, 2003, p. E1.
Seattle Post–Intelligencer, August 2, 2003, p. E1.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 26, 2003, p. 1E.
Time, August 12, 1996, p. 66.
Times (London, England), February 22, 1997, p. 11; July 10, 1999, p. 6.
"Candace Bushnell," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.
— Carol Brennan