He was a fashion photographer who worked in Manhattan and regularly went to Paris runway shows, yet he used duct tape to repair his own inexpensive clothes.
Bill Cunningham, who was responsible for both a street fashion and society spread in the New York Times Style section every Sunday, chose a life of simplicity. For years he slept on a cot in a cramped single room. No kitchen. He shared a bathroom with other tenants. He got around the city on a bicycle. He didn’t own a television and never went to the movies.
Seeing Miley Cyrus at an event, he asked his assistant if she was Madonna. After taking a photo of pop singer Katy Perry he asked him, “Is she one of those Kardashian kind of people?” It wasn’t just that he was indifferent to celebrity. To him, anyone who was dressed in an interesting way — old or young, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor — was a celebrity.
Said Father Kevin V. Madigan, pastor of Manhattan’s Church of Saint Thomas More, “When deciding which galas to cover for the Times, what mattered more to Bill was the nature of the charity, than the celebrity guest list. Bill would always be respectful and appreciative of the person whose picture he was taking, whether it was some street kid or a society grand-dame.”
Cunningham was, he said, “clean of heart.”
Since his death June 25 at the age of 87, there has been a constant stream of admirers who remember how hard he worked and what he accomplished. More importantly, they remember him for his kindness, modesty and integrity. But while most remember him taking photos at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, few comment on where he was every Sunday morning. At Mass.
Cunningham didn’t talk about it, either. In a 2010 documentary, he responds with a cheerful laugh, a joke or a story to every question, except one. When asked about his weekly Mass attendance, he falls quiet and looks at the floor for a long time before answering. Finally he recalls with a smile that as a child his main interest in church was looking at the hats women wore. Then, after another long pause, all he really says is that his religion is important to him.
But although he wasn’t articulate about his faith, he lived it. “Those closest to him would attest that he was a spiritual person,” said Father Madigan.
“From Sunday to Sunday Bill could be found in one of the rear pews, as unobtrusive here as he would be at some gala at the Met or the Pierre or at a fashion runway,” the priest said in his homily at the private funeral Mass he celebrated June 30.
“Bill’s Boston Irish upbringing might have inclined him to be reticent about announcing his religious beliefs, but no doubt it was that foundation in his faith that enabled him to be the unique individual we have known him to be,” he continued. And with his work, Father Madigan said, the photographer found his vocation.
“A ‘vocation’” he continued, “is seen as a kind of call from God, pairing a person’s interests, talents and passion in some noble pursuit, with the promise that following that path will be of service to others and bring to the one who answers that call genuine fulfillment and happiness. It was the mission of Bill Cunningham to capture and celebrate beauty wherever he found it. His whole life was dedicated to that single pursuit.
“Like any true artist,” he said, “he helped people see in a new way, see what might otherwise have gone unnoticed in the hurried pace of city life. And the delight, the pleasure, the joy Bill found in pursuing his ‘vocation’ was undeniable.”
Cunninghams’s death was announced on the front page of the Times, and the following week the paper devoted five pages of editorial space to his memory. Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s all took out full page ads in his honor.
Cunningham, it seems, not only managed to live a Christian life but to be loved and admired for it.
“He made a tremendous impression upon people who are easily jaded in the fashion industry,” Father Madigan said.
The priest quoted Dostoevsky’s belief that “beauty will save the world.” “But, in fact, it will be people like Bill Cunningham who will save the world. May the qualities he exhibited — his transparent goodness, his simplicity, his integrity, his sense of joy, his enthusiasm for his life’s work, his thoughtfulness — not be forgotten, but emulated to whatever degree in our own lives.”