If a party is thrown in New York City and Bill Cunningham isn’t there to shoot it, did it really happen? First off, such a scenario would never arise as the intrepid 80-something photographer manages to hit more events in one evening—on a low-tech bike, no less—than most active socialites attend in one week. But on the off chance it did, the answer would be a resounding, No. Cunningham is as integral to New York’s charity circuit (and street fashion) scene as the dressed up denizens that frequent it, no gala is complete without his beaming face and ninja-worthy footwork.
Long overdue, then, was the Medal of Excellence that Carnegie Hall bestowed on him at their annual gala Monday evening, held at the Waldorf=Astoria and sponsored by—take a guess—The New York Times. The invitation read “Come Dressed for Bill” and come they did, in all their gowned and feathered glory. Cocktails proved a cramped scene full of ideal people-watching, if you didn’t mind being shoved around a bit in what was essentially a very high-end mosh pit, surrounded by adorable cut outs of Cunningham in his signature blue smock and newsboy cap.
“This is a fire hazard,” remarked one observer who wisely stayed on the stairs overlooking the scene.
It probably was, but well worth it. Where else would you see a woman in a red and pink ball gown so voluminous it prohibited all movement, causing her to remain in one spot for all of cocktails while her date fetched her drinks? Or a mix that had Mary MacFadden sharing breathing space with co-chair Mercedes Bass, Francisco Costa, Gayle King, gala chair Sarah Jessica Parker, Linda Fargo, honorary chair Sanford Weill (his wife Joan was under the weather) and Andre Leon Talley? But the real sight was Cunningham himself, who traded his blue smock for a full tux and bow tie, accessorized with his omnipresent Nikon camera. He was so besotted with well-wishers, he barely had time to take any shots, though when he did, he gave those hoping to catch him a runaround.
“It’s very meta,” observed a New York Times photographer of covering the event.
“I keep trying to get him, but he’s moving so quickly,” lamented Trevor Born, as his wife Lisa Airan looked on.
Yes, even the men in attendance were well-acquainted with his legend.
“He told me, it’s all about color and shape, ” said one man of Cunningham’s preferred subjects, his spouse being one of them. “My wife goes fishing for Bill Cunningham. It’s her sport.”
Well, she had her chance as she made her way into dinner: Cunningham stood right by the door snapping away as long trains trailed past him.
Inside, the meal of salad and lamb was speedy, all the more so for two of my table mates who were on the Master Cleanse (I didn’t realize raspberries, whipped cream and champagne were approved substitutes, but whatever). And then it was time for the ceremony.
The normally publicity-shy Annette de la Renta gave a charming ode to the man of the evening. “I think I can safely say that my beloved friend Bill Cunningham is the only man who could get me up on a stage in front of you,” she said, adding, “He and his bicycle flourish in adversity.”
Cunningham then gave a long, moving acceptance speech (accompanied by nine pages of notes, to which he briefly referred), punctuated with a few pauses to collect his overwhelming emotions.
“What can one possibly say? For Annette de la Renta to get up to speak, do you know what that means? Nobody got her out and Brooke Astor tried for years. She wanted to stay under the radar,” he said to much laughter. “Mercedes Bass, I’ve been annoying her for thirty years…Oh forget it!” he exclaimed, tossing his notes aside.
“People always say it was better back then. Well, I was around. And it wasn’t much better. It’s better now, a hundred thousand times,” he said firmly, before adding to much approval, “I’m not fond of photographing parties where women borrow dresses.”
Sarah Jessica Parker (a woman who wears many of her own clothes, thank you very much) took the stage next and was charmingly nervous.
“Could anything be more terrifying than following Bill Cunningham?” she queried before introducing the night’s performer, 35 year-old wunderkind tenor Vittorio Grigolo. “Vittorio Grigolo, is that correct?” she asked of her pronunciation (to her credit, the actress had a lot of long foreign names to work her way through).
Grigolo proved as winning as Cunningham, telling him, “Bill, I just googled you.”
He also won over Parker, surprising her (and the audience) by kicking off his performance with his guitarist and pianist playing the theme to Sex and the City. Twice. Then it was onto more traditional fare like “Maria” and “Tosca,” though there was nothing old fashioned about his request to remove his jacket and tie.
“Okay if I take it off?” he asked the crowd.
“Take it off!” yelled almost every woman in the room.
Most of said women didn’t make it to the junior committee’s dance across the hall afterwards. But Bill did. Would you expect any less?
Photos: © Julie Skarratt