Hunting Birds of Paradise
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: April 5, 2011
You know those moments when You Just Want to Die?
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
I had one at a big New York Times party a decade ago. As the publisher, editors, writers and celebrities mingled at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, a famous fashion designer suddenly glared at me from across the room.
“You!” he yelled, pointing at me in a sartorial “J’accuse” moment, “are wearing the wrong stockings with that dress!”
The earth, unfortunately, didn’t swallow me. I had to stay at the party in my offensive black outfit and burning red face. But as I was hanging my head at the bar, something wonderful happened. The legendary Times fashion photographer and Gotham sprite Bill Cunningham was wandering through the crowd, snapping pictures. We’d never met, but he paused briefly, looked approvingly at my lace sheath and took a picture.
“Early Suzy Parker,” he murmured about the dress, before melting back into the crowd.
I still have not formally met Bill Cunningham, now 82 and still going strong. I wave at him when I see him around Manhattan, a slight, gray-haired man in a tweed cap turned backward, standing sentry outside Barney’s, pedaling on his red Schwinn through Times Square or darting around taking pictures at the opera.
As on that first night, he always looks happy and busy and kind, a Boston Irish priest of street fashion, an aesthetic meritocrat who moves through New York’s seductive trellis of money, power and status and stays pure somehow.
He admires anybody who looks good, the obscure as well as the famous, the old stylish gals as well as the young, women elegantly draping garbage bags against the storm as well as women in couture. The streets interest him more than the salons. Fashion photography without snobbery: a small miracle.
This is a disturbing moment in American culture when financing for public art is under siege and when audiences are ponying up money to boo Charlie Sheen as he talks about throwing away a $2 million-a-week TV job, taking crack and cavorting with porn stars.
A new documentary about Cunningham offers a tonic of simplicity and a paean to women after Sheen’s excesses and contempt for women.
Richard Press, the documentary’s director, wrote in New York magazine that he worked on the project for 10 years — eight spent begging “the reluctant fashion deity” to cooperate.
He calls Cunningham “a celebration of self-invention” — a contrast with Sheen’s carnival of self-destruction.
In a world where conflicts of interest are quaint, Cunningham has a profound sense of ethics. He will not even accept a glass of water at the galas he covers.
“I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible to be honest and straight,” he says in the film. “That’s like Don Quixote fighting windmills.” The ascetic anthropologist of New York’s streets calls fashion “the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” But he doesn’t give a fig about his own clothes; he wears a simple uniform, a blue Paris street-sweeper’s shirt with pockets for his gear. He kept it on even as he was presented with the highest award of French culture. He also has a plastic poncho for rainy days that he patches up with duct tape.
Cunningham started as a milliner with a shop in Carnegie Hall. “Ginger Rogers used to come and Joan Crawford,” he recalls. “Marilyn Monroe was one. And I had no interest because they weren’t stylish.”
He only cares about “birds of paradise” with daring styles as opposed to “cookie-cutter sameness.”
Before he was evicted by the coldhearted brass at Carnegie Hall, who wanted more office space, he had a tiny apartment filled with file cabinets and a cot, with a bathroom in the hallway.
He goes to church every Sunday to “repent,” but he seems oblivious to celebrity, money, sex, food and cars. He’s on his 29th bicycle, cheerfully noting, “I’ve had 28 stolen.” He’s never owned a TV. He says he could not be one of the paparazzi who “torture” people.
Talking about the time he refused to take money for his work at Details after Si Newhouse bought the magazine, Cunningham says: “You see, if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid. ... Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”
He left Women’s Wear Daily when they wrote mocking captions for his pictures of women on the street.
There’s a poignant moment in the film when Cunningham is asked if he has ever had a romantic relationship in his life.
“Now do you want to know if I’m gay?” he says, smiling uneasily. “Isn’t that a riot? Well, that’s probably why the family wanted to keep me out of the fashion world.” Then he answers simply, “I haven’t,” adding, “I suppose you can’t be in love with your work, but I enjoyed it so much.”
Talking about his Catholic faith as “a good guidance in your life,” he gets choked up for a few seconds before grinning and confiding: “As a kid, I went to church and all I did was look at women’s hats.”