What does living out the Gospels look like as an attraction? To whom could we point a contemporary seeker, convinced that the Church is rigid, constraining, bloodless? To me, Bill Cunningham (of whom I’ve written here before) is a modern-day saint: in his understated way, a man who was utterly faithful to the teachings of Christ, utterly a servant, and utterly unique.
Cunningham (1929-2016), the subject of the 2010 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” was a fashion photographer — or, as he preferred, “fashion historian” — who for decades was a fixture in The New York Times.
“Evening Hours” covered New York City’s social, philanthropic, and political glitterati. “On the Street” celebrated the whole glorious spectrum of his beloved Manhattan. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street. … It’s always the hope that you’ll see some marvelous exotic bird-of-paradise.”
Cunningham was raised Catholic in the Boston area.
As an adult in New York, he rode around on a series of battered bikes, shot his pictures on secondhand Nikons, and had his film developed at a mom-and-pop joint called Photo King. He slept on a single cot in the same tiny studio above Carnegie Hall, where he would live for 50 years: no kitchen, shared bathroom.
He cared nothing for celebrity (spotting Miley Cyrus at a music gala, he once asked his assistant, “Is that Madonna?”) He cared for style — putting together an outfit with verve and dash — whether worn by Brooke Astor, a young mother pushing a stroller, or a club kid.
As for his own wardrobe: “People give me clothes their dead husbands wore,” he guffawed. He flew coach to the Paris fashion shows, his belongings stuffed into plastic deli bags, and stayed in a cheap hotel.
It was in Paris that he at last found his signature uniform: a sturdy, peacock-blue smock worn by French street sweepers.
But Manhattan, not Paris, was his realm — “Travel? Why would I want to travel? It’s all here! Every day you have the whole world before you!”
While he was in the world, though, he was never quite of it. “I think [the work] has to be done discreetly, quietly. Invisible to the world.”
When asked if he’d ever had a romantic relationship, he cackled, “Are you asking if I’m gay? But no, I haven’t. … It never occurred to me. There was no time. I was working night and day. … In my family, such things were never discussed. So it wasn’t even in my head or my mind.”
If he was same-sex attracted, in other words, his identity did not lie there. To the question, “Is religion an important component in your life?” — by all accounts, he unobtrusively attended Mass each Sunday — he bowed his head for several moments and choked up, unable to speak.
He had a similar reaction in a newer documentary, “The Times of Bill Cunningham” (2018), based on a 1996 interview conducted by the film’s director and writer Mark Bozek. The celebration of all things human: yes. But were there sad things in his work as well? Bozek asked.
Cunningham responded, weeping: “AIDS has been so … tearing apart. You try to carry on where some of these extraordinary talents have been lost. You try to carry on for [those who have died]. I think that’s our job.”
With all that, Cunningham’s whole being, his essence, sang with exuberant, childlike joy.
That’s not to say he was an innocent, nor a stranger to suffering. Rather, it was simply not in him to play the grievance card. “I had mahvelous parents,” he said, again and again in his patrician Boston accent, “very conservative, very private. Catholic. Mahvelous people.”
They also, we gather, were less than thrilled with the thought of their son’s entry into the fashion world. “They probably didn’t think it was a job for a man,” he said when pressed, then moved on.
And if he didn’t view his seven-day-a-week schedule as work — “It’s really the greatest luxury, to be free to do what you want” — that doesn’t mean his job was easy. “I’m actually quite shy,” he admitted at one point, and again choked up. “Sometimes it’s very hard for me to go out on the street.”
Such was his journalistic integrity that he was notorious for refusing so much as a glass of water if it was offered at one of the thousands of events he covered.
In October 1994, he was hit by a truck while riding his bike and dragged 20 feet. “All I could think was, ‘Oh no, you dope, you don’t have health insurance!’ But I also thought, ‘Well thank God I have enough pictures in at the Times to fill my two pages this weekend.’ ”
Now that’s a servant.
At his funeral Mass at Manhattan’s Church of St. Thomas More, Father Kevin Madigan observed: “A vocation is seen as a kind of call from God, pairing a person’s interests, talents, and passion in some noble pursuit. … 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.”
Here’s the kicker: Over his lifetime, it turned out, Cunningham had quietly donated millions of dollars to AIDS charities — and to the Catholic Church.