Bill Cunningham Left Behind A Secret Memoir

March 21, 2018

Finally, some good news. The New York Times announced today that Bill Cunningham left behind a secret memoir, which will be published later this year in September (just in time for New York Fashion Week). Little is known of the famous photographer – who many credit for having started today’s culture of street style photography. Cunningham mostly avoided interviews and only reluctantly agreed to be in a documentary, partly because it was filmed by a friend (although, it’s reported he never went to see the finished film).

The forthcoming book, titled Fashion Climbing, gives fans a better view into Cunningham’s past and how he felt about the fashion industry. The title refers to how Cunningham ascended what he felt was an invisible fashion ladder, despite the disapproval of his stern family. An excerpt:

The book chronicles his dress-mad childhood, service in the Korean War (during which he decorated his helmet with flowers), a move to New York, success as the ladies milliner “William J.” and his beginnings as a journalist. It is also the poignant portrait of a boy growing up in a “lace-curtain Irish suburb of Boston” whose passions do not necessarily align with the expectations for him.

“It’s a crime families don’t understand how their children are oriented, and point them along their natural way,” Mr. Cunningham wrote 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.” About this familial disapproval Mr. Cunningham is blunt but not rancorous.

“There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress,” reads the memoir’s 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.”

[…] “It feels like he had internalized that reaction,” Mr. Richards said of the disapprovals of his childhood. “It’s speculation to think of why he decided not to publish this in his lifetime, but my assumption, having spent a lot of time with the text, is because though he really wanted to tell the story of this special period in his life, his education in creativity and style, at the same time he was worried how people were going to respond.”

But aside from some scenes of family discord, Mr. Cunningham’s memoir is a rosy account of an irrepressible dreamer who tripped his way from the stockroom of Boston’s newly opened Bonwit Teller to hat shops of his own in New York. He arrives in the city in November 1948 on opening night of the opera — then a tent pole of the New York social calendar — and stays long after the Social Register stopped being anyone’s bible.

You can read the rest of the article at The New York Times. A pre-order page for the book is also already up on Amazon.