Fans of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York will know that its subject, the late fashion and society photographer for The New York Times, was an extremely private man. Which is why it might surprise some that Bill Cunningham, who passed away in 2016, apparently wrote a memoir before his death that was only just discovered by his family. According to The New York Times, which likens the find to a “major archaeological revelation,” the Cunningham family found among his archives a clean copy of the book, which Cunningham entitled Fashion Climbing, and sold it to Penguin Press at auction.
The title is reportedly a reference to his early years “ascending a fashion ladder invisible and disreputable to his stern Catholic family.” On one page of the manuscript, he drew a little doodle of a young Bill ascending a ladder, and added a line attributed in the book to his mother: “What will the neighbors say?” Though it’s unclear exactly when the book was written, it reportedly details his childhood, his service in the Korean War, his move to New York, and the beginning of his career as a journalist. The book also details Cunningham’s clashes with his family, who were seemingly at odds with his chosen profession. “It’s a crime families don’t understand how their children are oriented, and point them along their natural way,” Cunningham reportedly writes in an early chapter. “My poor family was probably scared to death by all these crazy ideas I had, and so they fought my direction every inch of the way.”
In the book, Cunningham also discusses his early inclination toward fashion. “There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress,” he reportedly writes in the second sentence. “Women’s clothes were always much more stimulating to my imagination. That summer day, in 1933, as my back was pinned to the dining room wall, my eyes spattering tears all over the pink organdy full-skirted dress, my mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.” He would later famously resolve himself to wearing a French sanitation worker’s blue jacket and khakis as his uniform while he pedaled around New York on his bike, capturing the city’s most stylish events and people.
The book is expected to hit shelves in September, just in time for New York Fashion Week, one of Cunningham’s favorite times of the year. “For me, this book is really for those of us who came to New York with a dream and saw New York City as a real oasis of creativity and freedom, a place to be who we want to be,” Christopher Richards, an editor at Penguin, tells the Times. “It’s a really beautiful story about a young, artistic man finding his way in the city, in a particular kind of bohemian world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.”