Monday, June 27, 2016

Remembering Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham at Carnegie Hall's Medal of Excellence Gala where they awarded Bill with its fifth Medal of Excellence in 2012.
Monday, June 27, 2016. Another beautiful early summer weekend in New York; bright and sunny and warm but not humid; cooling into the low 60s at night.

Just in as I write this: 12:28 a.m. Author and philanthropist Barbara Goldsmith died yesterday afternoon. She was 85 on her last birthday, May 18th.

New Yorkers woke up Sunday morning to learn that Bill Cunningham, the ubiquitous New York Times Social and Fashion Photographer who became an institution in his own right, died on Saturday afternoon here in New York. He was 87 last March 14th.

Bonnie Strauss had emailed me last Wednesday, inquiring if I had heard anything about him because he wasn't in last Sunday's Style section. I hadn't heard anything. Then on Friday, Ellin Saltzman sent us a message that Bill had had a stroke and was not expected to survive; call had gone out for Last Rites.

However long he had been down – in the past few weeks, he had also been up and out there working. I fecently saw him at the Hat Lunch for the Central Park Conservancy. He was there in his uniform of the blue cotton jacket and khaki pants and he was his characteristic smiling self.

Bill and I never knew each other. There was never the opportunity for me to get to know him, and I never had the impression he was interested in getting to know me anyway. Frankly, we were both wherever we were in the same room together for the same reason: to cover it.

And so I learned about him by watching. Much was obvious. Bill had a self-effacing manner, gracious, polite, centered with his work, but perhaps shy. This was a man who was totally a professional, and a very hard worker. He was also a fashion designer in his heart, or part of his heart.

A number of years ago there was an award ceremony for the designer Arnold Scaasi at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. I can't remember the occasion for the award except that it was about Arnold, and Arnold enjoyed that kind of attention so he invited a number of his friends. Bill Cunningham was one of the guests, and the main speaker. He was not there to photograph and he was wearing a black jacket and tie, a professional speaking about professional matters.

Having only seen him hundreds, maybe thousands of times, with his camera working, I had no sense of the man's personality except for his impish and wide bright smile and his somewhat modest presence. At this evening for Arnold, he spoke about attending Arnold's first major runway collection. Arnold was a friend, a friend-friend, not just a social or business acquaintance.

Arnold's first show was back in the 1950s when Bill was a young man, new in New York, and pursuing a career as a milliner. All of this was new information to me at the time. That evening, at the podium, he proceeded to describe the different numbers in the show. This moment revealed a man who was not only very knowledgeable about the creative side of fashion but could describe Arnold Scaasi's first major collection /fashion show a half century before in detail. And it was all to explain why Arnold was so good at his work.

I wasn't really surprised to learn how knowledgeable he was, for it was knowledge, almost scholarly in reference. Having observed him through the years, very often at the same place where we were working, I knew he was deadly serious.

One of our first experiences of him was shortly after JH and I launched the NYSD. In those early days, we'd go out as a team. JH would photograph, and I'd interview/talk/make notes about the event in my head.
Nan Kempner talking to Bill at the PEN dinner at Metropolitan Club in 1987. Photos: Mary Hilliard.
We were at a small reception at A La Vieille Russie and Bill was there photographing also. At one moment when there was a shot that all the photographers in the room wanted to get, JH was in there with his camera getting his, when suddenly he was sharply elbowed out of the way by a man 50 years older and 40 pounds lighter — none other than Mr. Cunningham. Ouch!

This kind of aggressiveness from the aforementioned personality came as an unpleasant surprise to both JH and me. And we were rather put out by such an action -- although years later it made me laugh to think about it. What we learned about the man was to stay out of his sight of lens. Or else! He was in his own mind the photographer in the room. Not necessarily because he felt that way about himself but because he knew what he wanted in a shot. And he'd been doing it for forty years.
In later years he and I were often the only people photographing at a party or an event. I do not regard myself a photographer, incidentally, although I take a lot of pictures so that we'll have them on the NYSD. Bill Cunningham was A Photographer, of the first order. He was an excellent reporter with a very sharp eye. He had a very charming public manner. He also was friendly with some people, at these events, but he was always working. When you saw him in conversation with someone, often someone prominent and/or famous who was on the same scene, he always looked delighted and smiling broadly, listening or conversing. But at the same time, his two hands were always on his camera which he was holding close to his chest. Ready to shoot. And when his work was over, he left. He didn't stick around for dinner or schmoozing or drinking. He had work to do.
He was a New England boy. A Baah-stin boy from Marblehead. The second in a Roman Catholic family of four. The term Roman Catholic in those days in that part of the world had a special meaning both pro and con, depending on your religion. He grew up in a Puritan world of the WASP, but in the time of the rise of Joe Kennedy when all Massachusetts Roman Catholics, and especially the Irish, were in awe however great or slight of an Irish Catholic boy making it in the world of New York.

He must have been a creative kid because as soon as he was old enough to leave home he came to New York and pursued a career as a milliner, an interest he had as a boy. He was good with his hands; an artist in bloom. When hats went out of fashion, Bill's career in millinery dwindled. Nevertheless, his interest in the business of fashion was his calling. I don't know how or why he decided to go the photographic route except that it was his victory. The boy back in Marblehead who took up millinery or rather making hats for his mother – who evidently wasn't wild about them – was still that man who took up the camera.
The child in him remained operative all his life. He was an artist. You could see it in his bearing, in his carriage. He was a small man, reedy and slightly hunched over, probably from years of doing that to get a shot. He transported himself around town economically and quickly on a bike when well into his 80s. No limousines (he could easily have demanded that); he had a New England frugality about his person, and evidently in the way he lived, which was very simply, surrounded by his work.

He was a lone man as far as I know although he had real friends aside from the legions of men and women who liked him and admired him. His life was his work, and his work was his life. That archive he leaves behind is a major document of the American 20th century and New York. His eye on that time, on that era, caught it in all of its glory. And now it has passed, and Bill has left too.

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