Cash and Carrie: Candace Bushnell sued by former friend
In 'Sex and the City', Carrie Bradshaw and Stanford Blatch were the ever-loyal friends steering each other through the shark-infested waters of New York's dating scene. Now their real-life counterparts are embroiled in a messy million-dollar legal battle. David Usborne reports
Saturday 27 August 2005
"Question: is it possible to rise to top of steaming Gotham heap and not be sued for millions of dollars by one-time best friends? And does it come with the territory for columnists - in fact writers of all kinds - that when you base your characters on pals and acquaintances, one of them, one day, will come back and bite you in the ass?"
It is not Carrie herself who needs to answer such grave conundrums as these - Sex and the City has, after all, been over and defunct, except for re-runs and syndication, since early last year - but rather the real-life columnist-turned-celebrity-author who created her, Candace Bushnell. Catch her in a quiet moment (with a new book coming out, she doesn't have many) and she will confirm the worst. There are big perils in what she does.
The source of her chagrin today is stodgy-flamboyant Stanford Blatch. If you were even a semi-regular watcher of Sex and the City you will remember Stanford - the balding, short and gay best friend of Carrie. Blatch cannot hurt Bushnell, of course, but there is the small matter of the man on whom he was based. That would be Clifford Streit. If Streit didn't much like how he was portrayed - "the most pathetic gay image ever shown on the screen," he says - that is one thing. But his gripe with Ms Bushnell goes deeper than that.
Streit was not only a friend of Ms Bushnell, he was also her manager until 1999, when apparently she fired him. Who knew that when The New York Observer asked her in 1994 to write a column exploring the demi-monde of high-society Manhattan night-life that her creation - starring the loves, liaisons and Prada excursions of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda - would become what it did? It was Streit, or so he says, who gave her the push to sell the column to the HBO television network. It was Streit, in other words, who made her rich and famous.
And Streit did not get his due. That at least is the clear gist of a lawsuit he has filed in court in Manhattan, claiming breach of contract. The suit says he received at least an oral promise from Ms Bushnell that he would get 10 per cent of whatever the television incarnation of Sex and the City would eventually generate. What he has allegedly received so far is only about $10,000 (£5,500) - not a lot for helping in the gestation of a show that, some would say, became a mirror of the Manhattan zeitgeist at the end of the last millennium.
How much Streit is owed depends on whom you ask. It could be as little as $6,000, if you believe Bushnell's version of how much she has actually earned from the television rights of SATC. But if Streit's accounting is to be trusted, he could be in for a very late payday of as much as $1m. But he has to win his case in court first and Bushnell intends to fight. She has called the charges against her "insane". With little charity, she added: "This is pathetic and pitiful." The lawyer for Streit necessarily sees things differently. "I think she's treated him very shabbily. She has basically forgotten who her friends were."
Two things are surprising about their summer spat. Why is Streit pursuing her only now? Maybe it is because the success that SATC delivered to his erstwhile friend and collaborator seems only to pile higher and higher for her. We are only two weeks away from the publication of her next book, for example. Lipstick Jungle - the hype of its imminent arrival grows by the day - sounds like SATC 10 years on. The characters are three ladies - new ones - in their forties, negotiating the pitfalls of pulsing Gotham. (The pulsing is more about careers, this time however, rather than about sex.)
A BBC report yesterday said Bushnell is within days of signing a new television deal for Lipstick Jungle with Darren Starr, who was also the steward of SATC for the American television channel HBO. Bushnell, now 46, is super-successful, definitely wealthy and by all accounts happy in her marriage to New York City Ballet dancer Charles Askegard. Maybe Streit just can't take it any more.
But what is also odd is this: you would think that Bushnell would have attracted the wrath of someone in New York long before now. Leaving questions of contract and money aside for an instant, probably there isn't a writer who has ever lived who did not at one time cause a friend to say: is that me you are writing about?
You could even have asked Charles Dickens. Dickens was so determined to avoid triggering suspicions of people he knew, he would choose the names of his characters from gravestones. And if he did draw on an acquaintance for inspiration, he would wildly exaggerate their personality quirks to make it quite impossible for anyone to claim that their personage had been stolen. J K Rowling could be found just last year insisting to the press that the narcissistic Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in her Harry Potter chronicles (played by Kenneth Branagh on screen) was not, repeat not, drawn in the image of her ex-husband, Jorge Arantes.
If writers are to fictionalise real people, best they disguise them as completely as possible. No point in causing unnecessary offence. (Orson Welles did not try very hard when writing Citizen Kane, a brutal portrayal of a newspaper baron who was really William Randolph Hearst. Hearst responded by trying to shut down the film as well as its director.)
But such advice would have been poison to Bushnell. The glory of her original column and, to some extent even of the television series, was that it was so real in its portrayals. Part of what created buzz for SATC was other columnists trying to discern whom she was writing about. For a certain section of New York society, reading and watching Sex and the City became a game. "I've been there." (The roof pool at the Soho Club). "I've had sex with him too." (Either the actor or the character in real life.) Bushnell's creation worked precisely because it was so intertwined with real people, places and trends.
Quite deliberately, therefore, she did little to keep the true identities of her characters secret. That Carrie was herself was never in debate. But quickly we found out that Mr Big was really Ron Galotti, one time Manhattan-Hamptons playboy and former publisher of Vogue and then Talk magazines. Gregory Roque, the badly behaved film director in the early days of the show, turned out to be Oliver Stone. The slightly crazed author was Brett Easton Ellis and Capote Duncan was Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City. Bushnell was not disguising who her friends were. In her column, in fact, she was doing the opposite - she was very nearly name-dropping. It was more like name-teasing and all her fans loved to play along. (We could, at this point, help you out with some true identities in the reborn Bridget Jones column in this newspaper, but we will leave that to Bridget herself.)
Lord knows Galotti, who once dated Bushnell, could have squealed, but, now happily married, he never did. Probably the Mr Big moniker did not much offend him. So if Streit is all that Bushnell has to deal with from her years pumping out Carrie's chronicles, then maybe she got off lightly.
Streit and his lawyers have not put a figure on the compensation they are seeking in court, but have estimatedthe money Bushnell earned from the translation of her column into television at £10m. (Ten per cent of that make the $1m he is apparently hoping for.) He also claims in the suit that Bushnell stole material from him when she wrote her last book, Four Blondes.
The bad news for Streit is Bushnell's slightly surprising assertion that she in fact sold off all the television rights to SATC all the way back in 1996 for a paltry $60,000 - to Darren Starr. That would give Streit only $6,000 if he were to win the court fight. Hardly worth it, you would think. He is not buying her claim, however, and recently suggested to reporters that the best remedy might therefore be to expand the suit to include Starr as one of the defendants. "Darren is a wonderful guy," Streit recently remarked (in fine, catty Stanford Blatch form) "but he's too rich to be as cheap as he is. He wouldn't spare you an ice cube if he was dismantling an igloo."
This falling out with Streit does not seem to have given Bushnell cause to exercise new restraint. Her fans will be most pleased to hear it. To that end, we can report that the rumours and speculation as to who the three women in Lipstick Jungle really are have already started. They are strong, rich and will stop at nothing to get what they want in Gotham. Who are they? Well, look out for the fashion designer Cynthia Rowley as well as Glenda Bailey, editor of Bazaar magazine in New York. As for the bad guy of the book, it just could be none other than Si Newhouse, the owner and publisher at Condé Nast. But don't sue me if I'm wrong.
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