Everyone Came Dressed to See Bill Cunningham Honored

by Mara Siegler Photographed by Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour== Bill Cunningham Receives Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence== Waldorf Astoria, NYC== April 23, 2012== ©Patrick McMullan== Photo - Owen Hoffmann/ ==
Thursday, April 26, 2012

Walking up to the Waldorf-Astoria in the downpour Monday night, between the rows of black umbrellas and hooded pedestrians bumping into each other in a rush to get somewhere dry, I spotted a giant, billowing pink dress emerge from a cab nearly a block away, a cotton candy confection even the rain couldn’t damper.

It was just the first of many such extravagant gowns meant to catch the eye of the night’s honoree, New York Times lensman Bill Cunningham who was being honored by Carnegie Hall with the Medal of Excellence. “First off, I’m not fond of photographing parties where women borrow dresses,” he would later state when accepting his award. “I’ve been to parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses. The other doesn’t tell me anything. “

Looking around the room it was clear that ensembles had been carefully chosen and purchased. AnnaWintour turned out wearing a white fur stole, Linda Fargo was perfection in a red column dress, Chiu-Ti Jansen wowed in a gingham number, Mercedes Bass looked heavenly in white feathers and Alexandra Lebethal was decked in a blue Douglas Hannant, throwing the long chiffon tail cheerily over her shoulder when walking.

“With Bill you can wear something twice. I wore it last year but he loved it so I thought it was the perfect thing when they said come dressed for Bill,” Alexandra confided to AVENUE, her sister Claudia joining her to add how much of a friend and family member Bill has become over the years. “Behind this legend there’s actually an amazing person.”

Gayle King, who was wearing Oscar de la Renta and seated at the designer’s table, also had kind words for Bill, calling him a legend and marveling at the way he continued to photograph the crowd even when being photographed himself. “There he is,” she pointed, but it was just a life-sized cardboard cutout of the fashion chronicler.  For any others, and there were surely many who made the same mistake from far across the room, the real Bill had replaced his signature blue jacket with a tux and bow tie for the evening.

His outfit wasn’t the only thing different. Taking the stage to accept his award following an introduction by Annette de la Renta, the normally quiet photographer spoke for almost 20 minutes, visibly tearing up three times.  He thanked those in the room for their charity work, lauded the kindness of Brooke Astor who gave “not only her money but also her time” to philanthropy, regaled in stories like the time Citigroup’s former CEO Sandy Weill had gravy spilled on him by a waiter and noted how while he used to photograph women going to lunch, he now runs outside early to catch them heading to work.

“A lot of people think [New York] was much better years ago. Well, I was around then, and it’s much better now. You go down Broadway, and it’s turned into a garden. You go to Union Square, and you see Wisteria trees. I mean, c’mon: The city in its golden period.”

Bill, who lived in Carnegie Hall for 60 years before being removed and set up in a new place (which is documented in the film Bill Cunningham New York), recounted his time there and gave his full support to turn his former home into practice space for musicians.

“The main thing in Carnegie Hall were the studios where the halls at that time, ’49, ’50, were filled with the sound of music,” he began, noting that many people later moved out when the space was meant to be demolished. “In the last 30 years it was like a mausoleum. I know it’s a controversial subject, I know a lot of people think I am wrong, but I don’t. Those corridors, those halls should be filled with the sound of vocalizing, music or dance, everything that it was.”

The evening, which also included a short speech by Sarah Jessica Parker, a performance by opera singer Vittorio Grigolo, and a dinner of lamb chops raised $1.5 million for programs at Carnegie Hall and was capped off with a set from DJ Cassidy that got everyone, including a pink caped Hamish Bowles, who stayed late into the night, on the dance floor.

“He’s someone who is so humble and thoughtful and had the most incredible experiences and has the wisdom of age and some real truths to deliver,” Hamish said of Bill, recalling his favorite time being photographed by the living legend. “Every moment I am very flattered but there was one season where I bought suits and jackets that had been made by this wonderful English dandy and I wore one a day for each day of New York Fashion Week.  He was always photographing me and I didn’t notice it especially and then there was a whole rainbow spectrum of them in the Times.”


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