celebrating bill cunningham at carnegie hall

New York paid its respects to the legendary photographer today, with moving speeches, swing dance, and a poetry reading by Anna Wintour.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
18 October 2016, 12:40am

"I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I'd be concentrating on women's hats," Bill Cunningham once wrote in an autobiographical column for his employer, The New York Times. The piece reappeared, 14 years later, in the program today at Carnegie Hall, where the Times had gathered the fashion world — Bill's admirers and admired — to commemorate the iconic New York photographer following his passing on June 25. It felt like fashion church.

Shoes not hats caused a distraction, though. A parade of interesting examples made their way down the aisles as the auditorium lights dimmed. A man in leopard-print wedges. Pink fluffy slippers. Tavi Gevinson's pastel satin kitten heels. The towering stilettos of a mysterious woman engulfed in a billowing gauze kimono and face-obscuring sunhat.

The invitation had instructed "dress for Bill," and while New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. quipped that "Bill would have been, quite frankly, embarrassed" by the idea of an event all about him, the audience would have given him plenty to photograph.

After Sulzberger's tribute to his "dear departed friend" and colleague ("he was a first-rate photographer but a better man"), Anna Wintour gave a moving reading of Lord Byron's poem "So We'll Go No More A-Roving." "It reminds me," she said, "of the joy I always felt seeing Bill out on his bike doing his rounds." She wasn't the only speaker who sounded like she was holding back tears.

Bill's joy — which he found in fashion, his friends, and his freedom — was a common theme in the afternoon's speeches. Joanna Nikas and John Kurdewan, who worked with Bill at the Times Style Section, recalled his antics at his office birthday parties. "He was a ham!" Kurdewan laughed; "last year he hid in the elevator," remembered Nikas. They also described the glee with which he captured New Yorkers, who refuse to wear snow shoes, executing balletic leaps over sidewalk sludge puddles in winter.

"Few people have captured the spirit of this city as beautifully as Bill Cunningham," echoed former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took the stage next. He praised the bounty of images (Bill apparently sent Kurdewan 2000 a week, and never took a day off) that the photographer has left for future generations, an archive of New York glamor and grit.

But it was Bill's friends' personal tributes and anecdotes that defined the celebration. Philanthropist Diana DiMenna confirmed that "yes, he really did sleep on a piece of plywood on four milk crates" — a nod to Bill's monastic lifestyle, as captured in the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Later, she described Bill's last days in hospital, during which time the sight of her vintage Bakelite handbag still caused his eyes to light up. "He had no use for the mundane," she said.

Minutes later, a 1930s dance troupe performed the Charleston on stage in boater hats and brilliant yellow slacks. It was a dance that Bill had enjoyed at summer parties on Governors Island, and it was about as far from mundane as the Louis XVI-esque millinery creation worn by a person in the row in front of me.

"Bill lived his life to the fullest," his cousin said towards the end of the afternoon. The event was a true celebration of a man in full: both everywhere and elusive, friendly and fiery, and above all enormously talented and much missed.

Related: 1,200 people wear blue to screening in honor of Bill Cunningham


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Paul Stein via Flickr

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