NEW YORK — A fixture known for his signature blue jacket, camera in hand while riding throughout the city on a bicycle, photographer Bill Cunningham was the center of attention at Wednesday night’s “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” series at the 92nd Street Y.
“We’re still trying to get you a helmet, Bill,” Mallis started out saying.
“That won’t happen until it becomes a law,” Cunningham replied.
During the two-hour conversation, Cunningham related anecdotes about his career, which began as a milliner for public figures (such as Jackie Kennedy); his short stint at Women’s Wear Daily, where, he recalled, some of his former co-workers wanted to “put poison in my coffee”; his working relationship with former Vogue editor in chief Diane Vreeland, and, later, going on to become a staffer at The New York Times. Cunningham was often funny and candid, weeping three separate times as he recalled past friends and experiences.
One such memory was the 1979 party he attended with reporter Suzanne Slesin at Fire Island Pines for a sunrise-to-sunset fund-raiser. The photograph he took was the first-ever gay party featured in The New York Times.
“It was the last party before the AIDS epidemic,” he said, while choking back tears.
“I didn’t think of it as a gay party,” he said. “But it was the most magnificent party I’ve been to, with white banners plastered everywhere. Even the black inner tubes were covered in white gauze.”
Before his journalistic career, the 85-year-old grew up in Boston to a “strict mother” and “an outgoing” father who were both very religious.
“If they didn’t like what you did, you got kicked around,” he said.
Growing up with two sisters and an older brother who was very interested in sports, Cunningham said he felt like the black sheep of the family for his deep love affair with fashion: “They thought I was so strange.”
After a short stint at Harvard, “where they were, like, ‘What the heck is this kid doing here?’” Cunningham came to New York City and moved in with his aunt and uncle on Park Avenue. Odd jobs here and there led him to meet a few socialites, who introduced him to exotic fashions he hadn’t been exposed to. During that time, he befriended Jackie Kennedy, who became a close friend and confidante throughout the years — so close, in fact, that, after President Kennedy was assassinated, she asked Cunningham if he could turn her red ensemble black in a matter of a single night.
“After the president was assassinated, we dyed that red dress. It was Balenciaga or something. No, it was Dior. People always tell me, ‘Bill, that’s an amazing story,’ and I reply, ‘No, just practical.’”
“People were always like ‘Oh, [Jackie] is a spendthrift,’ but she wasn’t. She was very cautious how she spent her money because she didn’t have it.”
After being drafted into the Army and serving in the Korean War, Cunningham made his way back to New York City and opened up his millinery business. His first store opened in the Fifties on 57th Street and Lexington Avenue. A South Hamptons location followed.
It was also a time when Cunningham purchased his first Rolls-Royce, which he used to take weekend trips to the Hamptons with his female friends, he said.
“I purchased it for $500. It was a 1934 custom-made car,” he said. “But I sold it because it was either that or sleeping inside the car.”
It was during that time that Cunningham worked with Vreeland, whom he described as “wonderful,” though a “piece of work.”
“She would pump those things to repel mosquitoes with Chanel No. 5 and spray it all over,” he said.
Others he worked with were Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn, who came to his apartment at Carnegie Hall to try on his many hats and play dress up.
“Women have always been a good influence on me,” he said.
It was then that John B. Fairchild, the editorial director of Fairchild Publications, hired Cunningham to work for WWD after being convinced by socialite friends that he would be an asset. “They thought that a man being in fashion wasn’t appropriate, so being a journalist was more fitting,” recalled Cunningham. “[Fairchild] thought that, by hiring me, I’d tell him all about what Jackie bought. But there’s a thing about us: We never spoke about the clients.”
That said, Cunningham recalled Fairchild as being “really exciting.”
“People hate it, but he made things move. He was wonderful and full of ideas. I remember that, when we came back from lunch, he’d tear the pages already laid out and was like, ‘Bill saw something last night. Tell us about it.’ Of course, the art department and everyone went crazy. I was the villain,” he said.
After WWD, Cunningham made his way to Details magazine but refused to be paid.
“I had too much fun doing it. If they pay you, they own you.”
After Condé Nast purchased the publication, the former Details owners explained that Cunningham had a stake in the brand.
“[S.I. Newhouse] was like, ‘Take this money. You don’t know when you’ll need it to retire,” Cunningham said.
“I later took it, but I don’t know — I’m not good with money.”
Of his passion for photography and people, he said he is still every bit inspired today as he was years ago.
“I let the streets talk to me. The streets speak to you — how you find out what’s new, what people are wearing, what people aren’t wearing.”
Today, with so many of his photographs now piled in filing cabinets inside his apartment facing Central Park South, Cunningham said he now has to figure out what to do with them.
When Mallis suggested he donate them to a museum, Cunningham disagreed, saying, “I have a fear of other people getting them and using a photograph that might offend or be unflattering to someone. I would hate to know if that happens.”
When WWD asked Cunningham backstage what he thought would be his legacy, the photographer replied with a hearty laugh.
“I’m a zero. I’m a worker in the factory. I’m like you and everybody else. I’m still enjoying what I do.”
And will he soon retire?
“Child, age doesn’t mean a thing!”