“Bill Cunningham Was There”

Photo collage by interviewmagazine.com

Bill Cunningham passed away on June 25th, 2016. Four years later, Bill’s memory and legacy are being kept alive through films and books. Mark Bozek’s marvelous documentary, “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” had its New York premiere last February. “Bill Cunningham: On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography,” a comprehensive record of Bill’s work, compiled by the editors of The New York Times, was released in September. But when it comes to this legendary and much-beloved photographer there is always more of a story to tell.

Steven Stolman and John Kurdewan
Photo: courtesy John Kurdewan

“Bill Cunningham Was There,” published by Rizzoli, is due out early in 2021. The 144 page 9 X12 inch all color tome is a celebration and discussion of the iconic New York Times photojournalist. It is co-authored by Bill’s longtime wingman at The Times, John Kurdewan, and author and designer Steven Stolman with a foreword by artist and fashion insider Ruben Toledo.

“How many times did we say, “Bill Cunningham was there!” when describing a marvelous party?”- Steven Stolman

Last week, I spoke with Steven. He is the one who came up with the title for the book. His rationale was, “How many times did we say, “Bill Cunningham was there!” when describing a marvelous party. There was a validation when Bill photographed people, and Bill single-handedly validated the importance of an event. Steven said that he met Bill around 1990 while designing under his own label on 7th Avenue. Through the years, Bill has featured many of Steven’s designs in his Evening Hours columns.

Evening Hours Summer Fireworks Celebrating Independence Day, 2017
Photo: nytimes.com

Steven describes this book as “a very loving but modest and personal tribute to Bill. It’s the point of view of John Kurdewan, who worked by Bill’s side 24/7.” As Steven explained it, “The Times book is an extraordinary, encyclopedic showcase of Bill’s body of work. We’re telling a much smaller, more intimate story. But because of John’s unique relationship with Bill, as a shoulder to shoulder, day in, day out colleague and friend, it has a different point of view that we hope will delight and inform the reader.”.

Bill Cunningham and John Kurdewan
Photo: courtesy John Kurdewan

John was the designer and layout artist for both Bill’s “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns. They had an extraordinary relationship outside of the job, and John really became Bill’s helper through so many of the rigors of age. Included in the book is a treasure trove of John’s own photographs, letters, Post-it notes, memorabilia, and Bill’s archives from The New York Times.

Alexandra Lebenthal introduces John Kurdewan and Steven Stolman at their lecture in Bellport
Photo: nysocialdiary.com

Steven was initially connected with John in 2019 through Alexandra Lebenthal, in the hopes of fulfilling John’s dream to honor Bill with a book. They began the process by doing lectures about “Working for Bill.” It was a test drive to see how much interest there was. Doing the talks in New York, Chicago, Southampton, and Newport helped build their support.

The lectures turned out to be cathartic for John and enlightening for Stolman. The audiences really responded to Bill’s joie de vivre, the unique way he looked at life, clothes, people, and flowers. John and Steven spoke to several publishers and were thrilled when Rizzoli offered them a contract. They are putting the finishing touches on their book.

John Kurdewan and Bill Cunningham at work
Photo: courtesy John Kurdewan

I spoke with John Kurdewan several weeks ago. He joined The New York Times in 1997 and worked with Bill exclusively beginning around 2000-2001 until his passing in 2016. Like many employees at the NY Times, John is working from home. He said that production is better than ever. Not having to commute has worked out well for John, who had to travel two hours back and forth to get to the Times offices from his home in New Jersey. FYI, John has Bill’s ashes. He keeps them in an olive green porcelain egg.

John believes that if Bill were alive, he would be devastated by the desecration of historic buildings and monuments. Bill believed in preserving history so that you learn from the past. But of course, Bill also had a remarkable social conscience. He would have been out in front of the hospitals, photographing the medical personnel, the essential workers, and all the people wearing their different masks.

Bill’s parents lived at the time of Spanish Flu, and John theorizes that Bill might have reminisced about the 1918 pandemic. Bill would have undoubtedly aligned himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps Bill would have gone into his archives and featured some of the photographs he took in Paris at The Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973. Bill often raved about the brilliant, modern designs of African-American designer Stephen Burrows and how the African-American models (Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison among them) took total control of the runway and owned the night.

Ruben Toledo
Photo: dcwdesign.wordpress.com

I recently spoke with noted fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo who admitted that since the death of Isabel in September, he has been “spiritually isolating” in the light-filled loft the artistic couple shared. Ruben is working on several projects, and several Isabel Toledo exhibitions are being planned for 2021. In the forward, he has written for “Bill Cunningham Was There,” Ruben showcases John Kurdewan’s working relationship with Bill and Bill’s remarkable relationship with the city.

“Bill was a little social archaeologist in New York. We were all Bill’s subjects, and the city was his subject and what turned him on. It’s a global city but a small town. Bill turned New York into a magical experience”- Ruben Toledo

As Ruben noted, Bill was very private about his work, so it’s fascinating to see how he constructed this patchwork of the goings-on of New York. It was always a mystery, so it’s nice to have a front-row seat with both John and Steven “driving the car.” Bill’s thinking and work are so fascinating from every perspective that each book brings insight into how Bill thought.

Bill with Ruben Toledo and Iris Apfel
Photo: papermag.com

Ruben and Isabel were part of Bill’s “extended New York creative family tree” in Ruben’s words. They met Bill as teenagers in the mid-1970’s, first at the Enchanted Gardens roller disco in Queens and then later at Xenon and Studio 54. Ruben recalls that Bill was taken with Isabel’s homemade looks — he had such an eye and instinct for such things. That was part of his unique and exceptional talent.

Bill loved architecture. “Bill Cunningham: Facades” was a 2014 exhibition that ran in the New York Historical Society. Ruben believes that if Bill were alive today, he would be investigating the empty streets, looking at the shadows, and recording how buildings and clothing relate to one another. Bill would be photographing storefronts covered in plywood. Ruben remarked that during WW2, there were little couture suits made with gas masks and bags. “Bill would have probably been ahead of reality, looking for that moment when the gas mask crosses over from a sad necessity to a must-have item of beauty and vanity.”

The pandemic has changed everything. Right now, there is no reason to get dressed up and show off in high style, as Bill inspired so many to do. We don’t know if or when we will ever gather in large groups. As Steven Stolman noted, “So many people look back at those moments Bill captured with such affection. Memory Lane is not such a bad place to go, after all, for a little break from all the bad news.”

I could not agree more!

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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