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As I was reading Candace Bushnell’s new book, Sex and the City, every so often I would look up from a chapter like “Party Girl’s Tale of Sex and Woe: He Was Rich, Doting…and Ugly,” and think to myself, “Thank God I don’t live in Manhattan.” Never has Washington looked as good as it did after a few doses of Sex. A regular on the New York party circuit, Bushnell has been chronicling the sex lives of the city’s glitterati for the New York Observer for the past two years; Sex in the City is a collection of 25 of her columns.
Lined up side by side, the pieces do a fine job of reminding us that the ’80s are alive and well in New York. As her jet-set characters suck up my annual salary in coke, hang out in titty bars, and worry about how they’ll decorate their private jets, you expect Ivan Boesky to stroll into the Bowery Bar any minute and have a drink. Everyone in Bushnell’s world, it seems, wears Donna Karan, Manolo Blahnik, and cell phones. They speak a loaded social dialect that keeps out the uncool: Knowing the doorman carries a particular cachet, whereas claiming that Jim Carrey is a genius gets one the boot. Bushnell’s targets resemble those folks in the pages of Vogue who wear lime-green leather pants and see-through shirts. You can’t help thinking that while these people must be vapid and vain, they’re much cooler than you could ever dream of being.
The most striking thing about Sex in the City, though, is that all the single women in it carry bitterness on their shoulders like Louis Vuitton bags. Of course, that’s because all the men in Bushnell’s New York are creeps. As a result, while the players in the book may be New York’s cultural elite, the pages and pages of banter about smart, successful, attractive women who have not married—and probably never will—read like a lowbrow women’s mag. Chapter titles like “How to Marry a Man in Manhattan—My Way” only add to the sense that some of this material reflects the writer’s own angst as a single babe.
From the glam photos that have run with early reviews of the book, it’s hard to be sure Bushnell isn’t one of the models she mocks. At 37, though, she’s more like the desperate, soon-to-be-barren women who haunt most of her stories. There’s the “rollerblade ingenue,” a washed up old maid who breaks her ankle Rollerblading drunk in her basement at 4 a.m. with some lithe young man. Bushnell writes of her, “[W]hat is Sarah supposed to do? She’s 38 and she’s not married, and she’d like to be with someone. And men, as we know from this column, are attracted to youth.” The women rationalize their singleness by blaming the city for the men as they shudder over in vitro jokes at suburban bridal showers.
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While you’d think this kind of stuff wouldn’t have much appeal beyond the readers of Mirabella, Bushnell has garnered a fair amount of ink since the book’s publication. However, she seems to get more attention for being hot than for being a great writer. Bushnell has not been afraid to pose scantily clad for People or teeter around the New York Times Styles section with Melrose Place producer Darren Star (who, God help us, has bought the TV rights to her book). She’s also gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that she’s part of the smart set she writes about. She makes up names to disguise the identities of the real-life famous people who appear in her stories, and some of the made-up names are actually the best thing about the book. You get a male model who looks suspiciously like Marky Mark dubbed “the Bone,” Stanford Blatch, “screenwriter and the next Joe Eszterhas,” Rock Gibraltar, and others, most of whom I am far too pedestrian to be able to identify.
Bushnell even puts herself in the columns, as “Carrie” the journalist, and refers to her now ex-boyfriend, Vogue publisher Ron Galotti, as Mr. Big. She devoted many of her columns to her relationship with the cigar-chomping rich guy, musing on whether or not he’d ever marry her. When Galotti dumped Bushnell, the breakup made the New York gossip sheets.
According to the ink, though, Bushnell fancies herself a ’90s Edith Wharton, not another Liz Smith. And in some ways, Wharton does spring to mind reading some of Sex’s tales. Bushnell details the boredom of people with too much money and too much time on their hands—their affairs, their minks, and their trips to Nantucket, the Hamptons, and Aspen ski lodges. Their society circles are updated with an occasional menage a trois. Like Wharton, though, these New Yorkers are always serving up some kind of reproach to those who break the rules of their circle.
Fortunately, Bushnell sees the humor in their petty spats. In a chapter about flings in the Hamptons, she writes, “Robert Morriskin finally arrives by seaplane. Stanford is a little pissed he didn’t come the day before, so he sends the chauffeur in the old Ford station wagon to pick him up instead of the Mercedes.”
There is surprisingly little sex in Bushnell’s book. Oh sure, there’s lots of plotting and conspiring to get laid. A few trysts in the bushes at the Hamptons. But really, Bushnell’s observations are about mating rituals, not the act itself. The sex is confined to one-liners like, “Stephen suddenly popped a woody.”
Most of the book is devoted to categorizing the types of people who frequent Bushnell’s set. While she claims these folks are a breed unique to New York, her observations prove surprisingly universal.
For instance, Washington has had a smattering of what Bushnell coins the “toxic bachelor”—the Mort Zuckerman type of rich and powerful men who leave a permanent blot on the reputation of the women who date them. For example, there was Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker. For a while, he trotted around Washington social circuits with the likes of The Hill columnist Jamie Stiehm. Eventually he gave that up, though, and went back to New York, married a model he’d known for about six weeks, and proceeded to write a column for the New Republic about what a nice ass she had. If you believe Bushnell, Lewis fit the form of a particular kind of New Yorker known as a “modelizer.” She writes, “They’re a step beyond womanizers, who will sleep with just about anything in a skirt. Modelizers are obsessed not with women but with models. They love them for their beauty and hate them for everything else.”
While Bushnell does have such moments of clarity and wit, and she can cast a finely turned phrase (“He grinned, and you could tell his teeth needed to be rebonded”), somehow her book just turns out kind of depressing. Perhaps I’m just far too frumpy, too much of a romantic, and too much of a Washingtonian to fully appreciate Bushnell’s observations. I don’t own any Manolo Blahnik shoes, and I never did get around to reading Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney—although I did hear that McInerney and his over-35 wife hired someone to have their baby. (Both writers make disguised appearances in Bushnell’s essays.)
But ultimately, even good writing about vapid and shallow people is never all that interesting. In the end, if you want pithy social commentary, you’re better off picking up Wharton and calling it a night.