On a recent afternoon, Candace Bushnell and I were sitting at the poolside bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel. It had been 25 years since she had submitted her first “Sex and the City” column to the New York Observer, the weekly broadsheet where I was an editor. In that quarter century, during which Candace and I remained close friends, the column became a book, which became the wildly popular HBO series (running from 1998 to 2004 and winning several Emmys for its stars), which was followed by two movies, “Sex and the City” in 2008 (worldwide box office $415 million) and “Sex and the City 2” in 2010 ($294 million).
Candace was wearing a gray pinstriped, men’s-style vintage Tuleh jacket, flowered linen shirt, white silk trousers and leather Gucci slippers lined with lambswool. She ordered scrambled eggs and a pink Frosé cocktail. Tan, whippet-thin and preternaturally optimistic, Candace swivels between impish and WASPish — the “New England stiff upper lip” she was raised with in Connecticut sharing time with the crooked smile that made her a Meg Ryan doppelgänger and It-Girl of demimonde Manhattan in the 1990s.
This summer, Grove Press published Candace’s most recent book, her eighth, “Is There Still Sex in the City?” — part memoir, part dating guide for women over 50. Candace is developing the book into a TV series with Paramount Television and Anonymous Content; she is cowriting the pilot and will serve as executive producer. If she was a sensation in her 30s, Candace has become a franchise at 60.
“When I first got the column, the first thing I thought was, ‘This will be my big break,’” she said of her 34-year-old self. “I felt like I had been practicing for that moment for years. And when something like that happens to a woman, people tend to think, ‘Oh, it’s a random thing, and you just kind of got lucky.’ No. I’d been working professionally in journalism since I was 19. And one of the continual frustrations of being me at that time was the incredible sexism. Those were real #MeToo times. I find out now there are men out there who actively tried to sabotage my career. One even told me so. That’s one of the things that I really remember, is how the men behaved, and how as a woman you had to negotiate all of this. You’re trying to make a living against a backdrop where the negotiations are not straightforward. They’re always muddied by sexism.”
Candace’s initial title for her new book had been “Middle-Aged Madness.” In 2011 her husband, former New York City Ballet principal ballet dancer Charles Askegard, asked her for a divorce. (They had married in 2002, in a union chronicled in the “Vows” column of the New York Times.) “I felt like the system had defeated me,” she writes in the book. “Not only could I lose my home but I was about to become one more of the millions of middle-aged women who would get divorced that year. Who would have to get back out there, to once again look for a man who doesn’t exist.”
Candace wrote most of the book in her home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. (She also has an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) Over those two years, her father died and her best friend, publicist Jeanine Pepler, committed suicide. During that time she also started dating Jim Coleman, a tall and strapping real estate advisor whom she met the old-fashioned way, at a party, and to whom she dedicates her new book. They were introduced by Chris Noth, the actor who played Mr. Big on “Sex and the City.”
“We live in a time when it seems like people have to keep starting over and over again,” Candace said. “The reality is that there are losses. It’s also a time when people feel like, ‘It’s now or never to change my life.’ In your 50s, you start to run out of steam. You’ve been doing everything and going so hard, and you get numb, because you’ve got this routine and you’re doing it over and over again. But then these losses hit you; there’s divorce, death. They make you sad and they do change your idea of who you are in the world. They can set off a bout of middle-aged madness, where the core of it is, you’re trying to figure out what to do to feel better about your life.
“One of the things that also happens to people is feeling like you are 12 again,” she continued. “Women aren’t menopausal forever. According to research I’ve done, you technically can only be menopausal for one year. And then you’re postmenopausal. Some women have said — and I had this experience too, when the hormones kind of go all of a sudden — you feel like you’re 12 again, the way you felt before you even had any damn hormones! Now I know it sounds kind of kooky. People do go a little bit crazy — like there’s a desire for running, a desire for dancing, for movement. The person may start hanging out with people who are much younger. If somebody is in the middle of this middle-aged madness — for instance, they’re dancing or they’re drinking too much and they’re behaving in a way that’s not themselves — don’t try to stop them, because they also could be very angry, and they will no doubt yell at you.”
If “Sex and the City” served as a blissfully unreliable narrator for women in their 20s and 30s, Bushnell’s gimlet eye has swiveled toward women in their 50s and 60s who are grappling with a “hazy future.”
“You end up getting divorced and you haven’t been in the job market in a serious way for 20 years. You have no income and you’re trying to get a job you had 30 years ago,” she said. “It’s really a feeling, ‘Well, I came full circle.’ It’s not the fairy tale ending that women are promised.
“What’s interesting is that doesn’t seem to really matter, what choices you’ve made,” she continued. “Although what ends up mattering the most is not love, but money. And, you know, that’s very, very harsh.”
Candace said she loves what she’s seeing in the work of younger women writers. “I’m very impressed,” she said. “I think women writers right now are really at the forefront. There is a serious level of thinking and analysis that women weren’t really allowed to do when I was in my 20s. I look at all these young women — many of them seem to have gone to Ivy League schools and had quite a bit of education. They’re not off-the-cuff, cowboy researchers like me.”
She took a sip of her pink drink and laughed. “That’s an edible flower,” she said.