Though they were both on Broadway in the early eighties—Broderick in Neil Simon’s memoir trilogy and Parker in Annie (where the 15-year-old rose from ensemble to star)—they never met. “Which I’m happy about,” Parker says. “He was in a stage of his life where he was dating the obvious girl, like he should have been, like it’s a developmental stage.” (Later, she adds, she “dabbled in my own textbook scenarios”—by which I imagine she must mean Robert Downey, Jr., with whom she lived for seven years, moving in when she was 19.)
That Sarah Jessica was, despite her newcomer status, a very New York type: the ethnic girl nerd with crazy hair, a schnoz, big eighties glasses. She regarded herself as “an outsider,” recalls Pip. “Not popular, she didn’t perceive herself as in the most popular clique. And she was working a lot.” On Square Pegs, she struck many viewers as a potential role model—a cuddlier variant of Barbra Streisand, a smart chick who was appealing in a way that it was hard to imagine as a mainstream taste. The fate of Square Pegs seemed to prove it: The show was canceled after one season.
But even then she had the future in mind. “She’ll tell you she’s shy, but she also has a very clear image of what she wants,” notes her brother Timothy Britten Parker, an actor. “I think once she moved to New York, Sarah realized what was available to her in her life: the possibilities. She saw that she could break out of—we certainly didn’t have a lot when we moved to New York! It enabled her to meet people from all over the world, in all different professions. It propelled her.”
So I go home and read New Grub Street. I can see why Parker recommended it: It’s a nasty little fable about a culture in which art is so reflexively commodified that it kills artists, a lament for the fact that in a market-based economy, fear of poverty turns everyone into a deal-maker. “Art must be practiced as a trade, at all events in one’s time,” states the girl who wants finer things, Amy, to the tortured one-hit novelist she married, who can’t bring himself to write another book because he can’t compromise. “This is the age of trade. Of course if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness?”
“I feel very ashamed,” says Parker. “I feel like I’m the town trollop. And I feel cheapened, like I’m cheapening the school, like I’m bringing dirt, like I’m bad for the neighborhood.”
It reminded me of my first reaction to Sex and the City, which I hated on sight: Those women seemed so brittle and scary, batting their eyelashes at the finance hounds I thought were such bores. That was before I watched a few more episodes, perhaps three. And suddenly I was hooked, enthralled! With each season, I loved the show more; the scariness I’d sensed, the anxiety and the anger, was still there, but so was a sweet fantasy of female friendship. The characters were archetypes and real people at once, a neat trick. As a single woman in my thirties, I was grateful for it all: Wouldn’t you rather have your family fear for your life as a glamour-grotesque than pity it as a Cathy cartoon?
The series’ glossy surfaces were deeply romantic about New York, but its staying power was its ability to tolerate ambiguity; Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha got knocked down as often as they triumphed. (King describes this as the cream-pie factor: “The minute Miranda said, ‘Blah blah blah, I’m so smart’—cream pie.”) And despite the gobbling consumerism of its characters, the show had unsettling insights into women and money: the way bodies function as currency, the degree to which a woman alone can be truly autonomous or free, the marriage hunt as negotiation disguised as romance. The value of a single woman, in other words: something that degrades or stays steady.
But if the original Carrie, avatar of Observer writer Candace Bushnell, was a cold-eyed urban anthropologist, a modern sister to New Grub Street’s bitchy observer Jasper Milvain, Parker transformed her. She made Carrie both likable and maddening, funny in a screwball way. She was also more than a little flaky, a bit self-centered, but in a way that surely rings true for many women in New York. Her friends owned; she rented. Her credit cards ran out, and she was astonished to find that a man she slept with left $100 bills on her bedside. She had the self-image of a freewheeling bohemian, but she lived like a wealthy woman, gliding along on fashionable freebies, rent control, and a not-always-appealing faith in soul mates. It was precisely the kind of thing that in a different kind of narrative might be a tragedy.