The Beatrice Interview

Candace Bushnell

The Art of Sex as Social Climbing Technique

interviewed by Siobhan Reagan

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I went to visit Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City (Atlantic Monthly Press), at a time when president Clinton, with thinly veiled pre-election gladhanding, has approved the citizenship of a record number of immigrants to the US. I saw a picture of small congregations of them, hands over hearts, being sworn in, or reprogrammed or initiated, and I felt infinitely sad about people who believe in America and people who want to belong because I don't believe in America, nor do I want to belong, ever.

The connection between the new citizens and the rail-thin, electric- eyed, blond-maned, Merit Ultra Light smoking, patent- leather- ankle-boot-with-a-heel-this-high wearing Bushnell appears tenuous at first. I catch her in the lobby of the Upper East Side building which houses her office; mail spills out of her hands as she sweeps into the elevator and starts discussing the difficulty of getting a cab outside of the Plaza. "There was a fight," Candace tells me with grim emphasis. Candace has been at the Plaza meeting her new agent speicalizing in television appearances by non-actors, she explains, as we enter a cluttered, ambiguously appointed "office" which also seems to be a potential residence. The phone is ringing as we come in, and we are suddenly pitched into a burlesque of attentiveness to the setting, as in an acting class: Perfecting the Entrance. Candace whips up the receiver but the line is dead. "Fuck it," she says loudly and dismissively, then begins to explain away the clutter. "I want to put in a lightbulb," she tells me, and I am mystified -- what does she mean? -- until she returns with an actual lightbulb which she screws into a lamp next to the couch. There is suddenly a lot of not entirely pleasant light.

Sex and the City is a collection of Bushnell's near-monthly column for The New York Observer, which follows the exploits, trials, humiliations, chance encounters and affairs of a group of New Yorkers who inhabit a rarified, oxygenless social clime of billionaires, millionaires, movie moguls, men who date models, art people and others who are rich, beautiful and deeply socially connected. Central to the column's ongoing narrative is Carrie, a character who is dating a certain Mr. Big. If you are in the know (which you could be without even being close to being in the circle), you know that Mr. Big is based on Vogue publisher Ron Galotti. Most of the parties, lunches at Le Cirque, sex-club going, and hanging out at Bowery Bar is done by Carrie, who is a little too self-aware to be as hapless as she appears. The column, Bushnell says, was a way of solving different little writing problems, problems with style, with dialogue, with pacing.

"It's really about people being part of a tribe," she says, swinging her feet up onto a table. "And what you find is that you are really more like the people in the tribe than you are like the people outside of it." I tell her that one of my favorite parts of the book is a scene where two international beauties who hate each other, Ray and Amalita, run into each other at lunch at Harry Cipirani's. "They hate each other but it's not cut and dried," I tell Candace, "they capitulate to each other, they acknowledge the power the other wields." Candace is nodding vigorously. "Man survives best in small groups," she says. "In New York, so many people are broken down into these groups --" "Broken down?" I jump in quickly, searching for a dark interiority. "Are you in some way suggesting ground down?" Candace looks genuinely puzzled. "Nooo,' she says, "there really are these sub groups. Like for instance, there are about two thousand people in this group I write about. Peggy Siegel [the Ur-publicist] talks about having five thousand people in her Rolodex. Of those, probably about two thousand 'go out' and of those people .." her voice trails off. "Sort of like Dantean circles of hell?" I pose helpfully, which gets a chuckle (deeply serrated) from Candace. "Sort of like Dantean circles, but it's more like the constant question is: 'what are you going to buy into?'"

"Pod people," Candace tells me, "are the people you read about in gossip columns. When you meet them, they're soulless, there's nothing inside. These types operate well in New York. They're able to endure humiliations most of us can't. Not being able to get into a party, for example. One survival mechanism in New York is a deliberate unselfawareness which leads to an inability to be ashamed, or embarrassed, or humiliated. It's a lot of millionaires and billionaires," she adds thoughtfully. I realize that I am afraid to ask in what kind of world millionaires and billionaires are ever in danger of being socially humiliated. "The thing I have a problem with," she continues, "is that the methods these rich and powerful men use to get into certain circles don't work in actual relationships."

There's not an explicitly feminist tone to the book, I point out, but there is a concern for other women which emerges as a motif. Does she think women need a lot of help in navigating the city? "I don't like to think there are inherent differences between women and men," Candace answers. "I think gender-based differences are actually differences based on the money/status/power dynamic. What's disappointing for women, what's disappointing for me, is the way that men use women to feel 'bigger.'"

We are interrupted by a phone call. "Babes!" Candace shrieks, "Hi! I'm doing an interview!(a pause) I'm not going (pause)I wasn't invited." She's off the phone two seconds later. "What women may not realize is that men really do think the way women are afraid they think." I made a silent note to myself that she's referring to men's investment in trophy women. "The "bad" masculine traits," Candace tells me, "like posturing, using the opposite sex as an object, are actually done because they're pleasurable, but nobody wants to admit this. Men are afraid that women will start doing this too. I'm not someone who thinks men are awful," she continues. "In a war between the sexes I'd like to see women come out on top, because I'm a woman. As a child I had fantasies of being the rescuer, the swashbuckler, like that film with Geena Davis and Matthew Modine? The one where she rescues the guy and gets the treasure?"

I mention a scene in Sex and the City, where Carrie has just smoked some pot. Walking home she sees a woman and "suddenly Carrie feels like a shark smelling blood. She fantasizes about killing the woman and eating her. It's terrifying how much she's enjoying the fantasy." I say that this passage gives us a new impossible angle on Carrie, who, as Candace describes her, is "self-sacrificing with a brain." Candace agrees. "This was based on an actual party," she says, "and this is typical of New York. You go and hang out with people and you feel like you know them, even though you don't." I nod in silent agreement, remembering all the times I've found myself comfortably hanging out with a group of strangers I may never see again. "Seeing this woman after this experience -- she seemed just like a sheep that had wandered out of the fold, just kind of jiggling along. I thought it would be easy to catch and kill her -- and anyway, you have to eat!" she exclaims feverishly.

"The New York cocktail party will never become obsolete," Candace tells me. "It's psychologically healthy for people to interact with lots of other people. We're social animals." I am still mulling this over as I leave the Upper East Side and board the poky, provincial F train into Brooklyn. I am thinking hard about the concept of a tribe and why it scares me, why I think of Lord of the Flies instead of lovely communality and conviviality. Next to me, a woman, a new citizen perhaps, is reading from a text book, a chapter entitled "Introduction and Address Systems, unit 2." The subheadings include Apologizing, Thanking, and Giving Compliments and Replying to Compliments. It's such a long road, I realize, to the tribe, and it requires so much mastery of detail. The F train rising above Brooklyn and Manhattan explicitly sunders the tribal worlds where a wealthy predator lies in wait on every corner for an earnest immigrant who has recently mastered Giving Compliments.< P>

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
The Erotica Project

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan