Bill Cunningham’s Memoir

More info/purchase
Copyright 2018 by Bill Cunninghham Foundation LLC
Photos by Anthony Mack and Bill Cunningham

Diane Arbus once observed, “Photographing someone was a considerable amount of attention to pay a person.” So by all accounts, I had a very special, intimate relationship with Bill Cunningham. He photographed me over the course of five decades, beginning in the early 70’s (when he covered fashion for WWD) up until his passing on June 25th, 2016. I appeared in his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns about 100 times (yup, I actually attempted to count!) He devoted an entire 18 picture column to me in 2001. He has photographed me with my husband and with my sister and often sent me highly personal, complementary, handwritten notes scribbled on photos (some of which he took of me) and postcards praising me and thanking me for “bringing him joy” with my individual style. When my father was terminally ill, he made a point of writing a touching and heartfelt note. I felt as though he knew me; he sure as heck knew my clothes lol! But like everyone else (in his orbit or not), I actually knew very little about him because he was famously private and guarded and he wanted to keep it that way while he was alive.

Bill Cunningham
Photo: Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist
Click images for full-size views

Bill has now been gone for over two years but with the release of “Fashion Climbing, A Memoir with Photographs” (published by Penguin Press to be released on September 4th) he has come back to life. His memoirs were typewritten in the late 70’s according to John Kurdewan, a production artist at The New York Times and Bill’s assistant for 10 years, and locked away in a file cabinet. It covers the years he worked in fashion before becoming a photographer, beginning at the age of 4 and ending in this 30’s.

I always wondered what made Bill tick and this book has provided a window into his soul. It was interesting to see the way a wildly imaginative child who lived and breathed for fashion and glamour would morph into the most celebrated and iconic photographer and documentarian of fashion, style, and society of our time.  He admitted, “I could never remember a thing the priest said during Mass but I sure as hell remembered what the ladies, who wore the interesting fashion, had on.” Simply put, clothes were always everything to him. His inherent creativity and passion for fashion began at a very early age, and he was acutely aware of fashion’s potential to invent and transform. Bill understood the pleasure, and the importance, of being oneself. Individuality and uniqueness were always intoxicating to Bill, and he always sought out individuals who had their own individual unique approach.

By the way, the title is perfect because if anyone knew about fashion climbing, it was Bill, who has chronicled more than his share of fashion and social climbers in his life (he actually referred to himself as a “fashion climber” in the 50’s). In a chapter, “On Society,” he dishes about high society’s old and new guard and commented “85 perfect of the guests at those fabulous parties don’t go to enjoy themselves but to rub shoulders and climb and show off their wealth. These poor devils go out on the town not for relaxation and fun, but as a challenge known only to army generals in the heat of combat”. Actually, many went just so they could be photographed by Bill and indeed, at many of the soirees he covered, people not only hated being there, they hated each other. But everyone loved Bill. He was the great equalizer.

It had me at the introduction, with a preface superbly written by Hilton Als. The New Yorker writer and theater critic perfectly articulated what it was about Bill that made him so special and unique. He hit the nail on the head with his astute observations. Among them: “You wanted to aid Bill in his quest for exceptional surfaces, to be beautifully dressed and interesting for him, because of the deep pleasure it gave him to notice something he had never seen before.” “The Bill Cunningham exchange had to do with what he inspired in you, what you wanted to give him the minute you saw him on the street or in a gilded hall. His gift to the world was his delight in the possibility of you. And you wanted to pull yourself together – to gather together the existential mess and bright spots called your ”I” the minute you saw Bill’s skinny frame bent low near Bergdorf Goodman, his corner on 5th avenue and 57th street”.

I found it charming, honest and highly entertaining as Bill went into detail about wild costume parties, eccentric offbeat neighbors, and other colorful characters, society swells, and essential fashion figures he met along the way, reenacting important fashion moments of his life. He was honest about where he got his best education, and it sure wasn’t Harvard where he lasted for months and dropped out in 1948. And it wasn’t at NYU where Bill enrolled to take some classes. He admitted that he routinely played hooky and went to the opera on Monday night where he studied the gowns and jewels that the older women were wearing.

After school jobs at Jordan Marsh that made his school years livable and at the newly opened Bonwit Teller in Boston, where he was a stock boy for designer clothes, he learned about cut, fabric, and design. He considered selling to be a “lost art” that didn’t get enough respect. A stint at the New York Bonwit Teller sealed the deal about his desire to design and move to the city of his dreams permanently. He was also a fashion consultant for Chez Ninon, who he thought made the most “ravishing” yet rather simple, understated clothes (Jackie Kennedy was a loyal client). He formed a strong bond with Nona Parks and Sophie Shonnard, the two society women who ran it, took him under their wings and served as mentors.

Editta Sherman photographed by Bill Cunningham

That was also the time he became entranced with hats. He gatecrashed the big balls and made fancy masks and headdresses in feathers and flowers for the society women to wear with their ball gowns. This was the beginning of “William J.” his delightfully whimsical hat line that took inspiration from everything around him including art, nature, and history. Unsurprisingly much is written about his millinery days designing under his eponymous label (his last name was left off because he didn’t want to “shame” his family, who were less than supportive).

Whimsical hat by Bill Cunningham

His first shop was in a brownstone on West 54th Street in 1954, and he showed his first formal collection at that time. The chapter devoted to his Southampton store ends with him having to close up shop because hats have fallen out of fashion. At the same time, he got a fateful call from a woman at Women’s Wear Daily. She was trying to set up a lunch with Bill and John Fairchild, the irascible publisher and editor of the ‘fashion bible.’ John explained he wanted Bill to write about fashion but Bill insisted that he was no writer and could hardly spell his name (he once received an award for “The Century’s Worst Speller”). He proceeded to tell Mr. Fairchild about a fabulous party filled with superbly dressed women he attended the night before and his descriptions were so captivating, John ran back to his office and immediately substituted what had meant to be the next day’s cover story with Bill’s exuberant party coverage.

A trip around the country proved an eye-opening experience, and it was then that he got the bug to capture how real women dressed. Eventually, he began to work full time for WWD, writing about the fabulous events he went to and chronicling what the best-dressed women were wearing. He had a few strict rules, however. He said he was only interested in women who appeared elegantly dressed because of their fashion and not WHO they were. “I always picked a woman for her appearance first and then asked her name. I felt my job was fashion, not discovering someone’s background.”

As a writer, he was completely honest regardless of the consequences, and he was afraid that he would be forced to give a bad review to a designer if they copied Paris or if the collection was not up to par. And that was the case with one particular Marc Bohan for Christian Dior collection that was disappointing, and an inferior collection of Pierre Cardin reproductions reinterpreted by Bonwit Teller for their junior department which led to Bill getting punched in the eye by Bonwit’s president, Mr. Smith when he showed up for another show at the store.

When Bill got an invite to attend a Norman Norell black tie showing, he was so nervous about having to give it a bad review that he walked from his Carnegie Hall studio to Norell’s 7th Avenue showroom clutching rosary beads and saying Hail Mary’s praying that he wouldn’t see copies. Thankfully, he didn’t, and he was not disappointed with the fabulous show of this iconic American designer. Bill also hailed the designs of James Galanos as being “the most creative and most beautifully made in America for some time.” He goes into delicious detail about the torture and discomfort of attending a Courreges show in Paris, even though he considered Andre to be “the most daring and creative designer at the time.” I laughed with glee reading his description of the “grand Mademoiselle Coco Chanel (“the delicious eighty-year-plus Witch of the West” whose collection “looked a bit tarnished, and seemed to squeak for the need of new oil.”

Bill was a keen observer and noticed everything. At one Chanel show he attended, he said there were so many editors in the front row wearing a “uniform” of the Chanel suit (with the cap toe pumps and gold chains) he chided, “there were so many original Chanel suits I wondered if they would be the eternal robe for the hereafter.” OMG!

Yes, the book is often laughing out loud funny. I could not contain myself when Bill talked about the time in the late 40’s when he was just starting his hat business and was looking for a space to set up shop. He went to the chic midtown Hattie Carnegie store and presumptuously asked the snooty shop clerk if he could rent the two top floors which he thought were empty. She told him that Hattie would be happy to meet him and gave him a card with an address but when he arrived, much to his surprise, it was Bellevue’s insane asylum!  That hardly deterred him.

Bill dressed in a fanciful costume

I laughed when he described his first trip to the European collections in 1963, taking a deluxe train from Rome to Florence which was delayed in the mountains of central Italy because of a blizzard. He went into hilarious detail about the Rome editor of Harper’s Bazaar screaming her head off and frantically waving as the train left for parts unknown. She was leaning out of the train window hollering back and forth, “her body wrapped in a black alligator coat lined in thick white Mongolian lamb with a foot tall black chiffon turban towering on her head passing her case of jewels out the window to the porter as her train unexpectedly pulled away from the station”. And then there was the time he dressed up as an enormous lobster to attend the Beaux Arts Costume gala in Paris. The head was so big, he couldn’t fit into a cab, and he caused quite a scene at the elegant Parisian hotel where he was staying.

Bill on ice skates

It was also quite poignant, particularly that he mentions the time (it was in 1933, and he was 4) when he wore his sister’s prettiest dresses and his mother “beat the hell” out of him. She “threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls” clothes again,” he said. He spoke about the difficulty he had growing up in a middle-class Irish Catholic household with parents that hoped Bill would be a priest — although his attraction to feminine fashion did nothing to help their hope as he put it. They did their best to thwart his creativity, “cure him of his artistic, fashionable life,” and “straighten” him out. He was very outspoken about how important he felt it was for parents to nurture their children’s natural gifts and talents and not fear that their artistic sons would be perceived as “sissies.”

Bill was a paradox and a contradiction in terms. He loved the high life and could be a snob, but he was also humble. “Wallowing in luxury gives me the shame of overindulgence, and as much as I am drawn to all of it, I have the strongest desire to escape to the discomforts of the poor.” While he loved wild flights of fancy he was very grounded and most interested in how real women wore clothes for their everyday lives. Bill was self-effacing yet highly confident. He was nobody’s fool and could be quite critical. He had some choice words for designers who created unwearable fantasies or were simply copycats. He took issues with stores and manufacturers who had minimal ethics in business. He poked fun at members of the fashion press (he hated the “phoniness” and “puffed-up egos”) and called out fashion editors of elite magazines who were dictating what women should wear. And he berated his customers claiming many had no imagination and only wanted safe, boring designs that would be deemed acceptable by society.

Bill tackled the issue of anti-Semitism, which he was staunchly opposed to, In the 1960’s he noted, “sometimes all the anti-Semitic talk that filled my salon made me wonder if another Hitler could rise. Since my earliest days in fashion, all this damned side-of-the-mouth talk has made me ashamed of what high fashion is used for”. He hated discrimination of any kind, and he said his shop was always open to everyone. He made a point of saying that if he were to open a shop again, it would be in Harlem where the women really had style and knew how to wear hats!

He wrote the way he spoke with boundless enthusiasm, animation, and passion. I could almost hear his voice, tinged with that proper Bostonian accent, and I could see the gleam in his blue eyes as he talked with delight about his lifelong passions that could never be dampened. He was eternally optimistic, preternaturally cheerful, and knew how to turn lemons into lemonade. Nothing fazed him, nothing could bring him down, and he was always resourceful.

Bill’s army days in Paris
When he was drafted into the army during the Korean War, just at a time when his hat line was taking off, instead of seeing it as a setback, he viewed it as a great way to get to Paris. During his stint at basic training, he covered his helmet with a “dazzling gardens of flowers and grass”. And by a sheer force of will, he used his tour of duty in Europe as a way to further refine his eye and get his couture education by finagling his way to Paris as a tour guide for groups of soldiers. It was at this time that he first visited the couture houses (Schiaparelli, Jacques Fath, Dior, Givenchy). Bill even managed to find a little factory near where he was stationed where he could make hats which he brought to Paris to sell. Only Bill!
Bill as a young man

While most of us only saw Bill in his signature uniform and an occasional jacket and tie for a formal occasion, he was quite the clothes horse — pictures of him as a young, very good looking young man dressed in fabulous costumes and well-tailored suits fill the book. He admits that his early jobs were a way to make money so that he could buy clothes. He mentioned a period when he “covered himself in outrageous bright shirts and ties” and bought the first fake-fur lined trench coat with the “biggest fur collar he could find.” It nearly “drove the family crazy with shame” when he wore it on the first cool day of September. As he admitted, “Clothes were everything to me, and I think I spent seven days a week deciding what I’d wear the next week.”

The Bill we knew at 87 was the boy we read about at the age of 4 and vice versa. He never lost that unbridled enthusiasm, enormous energy, passion, and childlike wonderment. The life he fantasized about in New York, a city he referred to as the most glamorous city in the world, filled with beauty, elegance, chic, and constant visual stimulus, was a dream that came true and he never took any of it for granted. He was never jaded, and he appreciated it all, and that is precisely what came through loud and clear, not only in his memoirs but in his weekly columns for The New York Times.

Reading the book made me reminisce about Bill and inspired me to look over the pictures he took of me through the years which I have been fortunate to save. They brought back fond memories of my wonderful encounters with Bill through the decades, and it was like taking a walk down memory lane and seeing my life flash before my eyes. I could not only trace the way styles have changed, (my style included), but I could see myself age. When our paths first crossed, he would always call me “child” as he was known to do. I was in my early 20’s, and he was old enough to be my father, so that was not a stretch. But he continued to refer to me like that decades later, even though he knew my name. At some point, when I realized he stopped calling me “child,” I laughed to myself, “Boy, I must REALLY be getting old.”

Marilyn Kirschner on the left photographed by Bill in 1972

They say you always remember your first time. And I certainly remember the first time Bill took my picture. I was a young assistant fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and was walking into Henri Bendel on West 57th Street. A small, thin man in a blue French workman’s jacket pointed his camera at me, and I had no idea who he was or why he was photographing me. Shortly after that, on Thursday, February 17th, 1972, my picture appeared in WWD. The caption read, “On the Streets of America” and there were images of women in Denver, Miami, Dallas, and New York. I was among 8 women photographed in New York by Bill wearing fur trimmed and fur coats.

Marilyn’s full-page spread “The Color of Money” circa 2001
by Bill Cunningham for his column

I especially remember the time he devoted an entire column to me in his “On the Street” section. There are only a handful of people (Anna Wintour, Anna Piaggi, Iris Apfel, Patrick McDonald among them), who had that honor which made it particularly special. It was on Sunday February 11, 2001 (the first day of New York Fashion Week for fall/winter), and it was called, “The Color of Money (In the Bank)”. There were 18 pictures of me, all in color. 17 years later my style has certainly evolved but yet when I look at the pictorial, I still marvel at how Bill so adeptly captured my “essence” with his selection of outfits that were very representational of who I was at that time: the colorful Puccis, the chic black and white, the tweeds, the graphic furs, the fur trims, the snakeskin, the leopard, the trenches; all of them timeless classics.  He was not only a great photographer, but a superb editor.

At that time, I was religiously collecting vintage and shopping at the 26th Street flea market and at vintage and thrift stores. Bill was especially taken with the fact that some of the great things I scored were unbelievably low priced. I am an equal opportunity shopper, not a label snob, I love to mix high and low, and I did it long before it was mainstream or popular. And Bill was the original high/low guy. While he loved and appreciated fashion at its highest, most indulgent level, he was quite pragmatic, respected the value of a dollar, and he absolutely loved when women could “outsmart” the system. As he was fond of saying, style and taste had nothing to do with how much money one spent. In fact, in a chapter called “On Taste” in his memoirs, he remarked, “It’s a ridiculous belief that money brings taste; it definitely doesn’t. As a matter of fact, it often merely allows one to enjoy bad taste with louder vulgarity”. Brilliant.

Marilyn posing in riding gear (top left and right)  for article photographed by Bill Cunningham

Not long after, I saw him at a Costume Institute press preview, and he approached me and asked if I had anything that was equestrian. I described a few things in my closet that I thought were outstanding (including a Ralph Lauren riding jacket and a Yohji Yamamoto tan jacket with a fantastic back, from his ‘Dior’ inspired collection). Bill emphasized that he never did this kind of thing but was working on a spread and needed a few more great shots and asked if he could photograph me in my ensembles. He arranged to meet me at my building the next day, and he took some pictures outside. Both outfits subsequently appeared in his “To Horse, or Not” spread, December 9th, 2001.

Marilyn’s 2002 “Masters of Fashion” video interview with Bill Cunningham

Bill was highly professional, and he knew how to return a favor. One way he did so was by giving interviews (a real rarity). 12 years before Fern Mallis interviewed him for her 92 Y Street series in 2014 ( he was doing her a favor, after spilling red wine all over her dress), Bill agreed to sit down with me in 2002 for a highly personal 50 minute video streamed interview for our “Masters of Fashion” series: see video interview above.

It was one-on-one; he was very forthcoming and informative. My questions were mainly geared to the present and future, but I did ask Bill what initially fueled his passion for fashion. He really didn’t remember except he always had an enormous interest. In the 30’s, he was always saving money and buying dresses for his mother, whose clothes he didn’t like. “I always thought it was a lovely art form to see beautifully dressed people. I’m interested in people who look great and have style.”

Anna Wintour may have said, “We all dress for Bill” but actually, I would say that we all dress for ourselves, but it was an added bonus when you caught the eye of the revered, highly regarded and iconic figure who had such a discerning eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion. And it was very cool when he recorded it for posterity. And that is what we all miss because yes, there is and will never be another one like him.

Upon Bill’s passing Hilton Als wrote an article in The New Yorker, and made the observation, “I think that the sadness some people feel over his passing will center on what they find missing from their lives —Cunningham observing their lives, like a couturier who knew every line and counter of his clients’ bodies, and what those lines and shapes said about his clients’ lives. What the world will miss, of course, are all the missed opportunities that might have stayed that way if he hadn’t gone out there, day after day, to find them.”

Bill’s relationship with the street was an exceptional one –  he hit the streets with his camera, as an “Rx” for the blues. Of course, that worked both ways. I dare say that it was impossible to have an encounter with Bill where I did not leave more knowledgeable, with a smile on my face, feeling somehow better about myself and about the world.

– Marilyn Kirschner

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.

1 Comment
  1. Thank you so much for this. I have linked in my blog; your perspective on him and the book is wonderful. He will not be replaced any time soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.