By William Deresiewicz
This is Bill Cunningham: an old man in a blue smock who stands every day on the streets of New York taking pictures of passers-by. This is Bill Cunningham: the producer, since 1979, of the “On the Street” column in The New York Times, a photographic record of the city’s fashion life, and the subject of the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham: New York. This is Bill Cunningham: tall, thin, boyish, 83 or thereabouts, painfully shy, inflexibly principled, secretive, sweet. His eyelids flutter. His face flickers between joy and pain. He smiles beatifically when he thinks of beauty.
He lives a life of almost unbelievable simplicity. His apartment (until he was forced to move a couple of years ago), was a small studio in Carnegie Hall filled almost entirely with filing cabinets. (They hold every photograph he’s ever taken.) There was no kitchen, no closet, no bathroom. He slept on a cot—not even a cot, a board—and hung his few clothes on the handles of the filing cabinets. He doesn’t go to the movies, doesn’t watch television, eats at the office or a diner, and gets around on bicycles (which keep getting stolen). What he does is work: out on the street every day, then in the evening at a function or two (he also does a society column), topped off by a downtown event, perhaps, to catch the more exotic creatures of the night.
He was born in 1928 or ’29. He says his family was working-class, but he dropped out of Harvard and his accent sounds patrician. He doesn’t seem to have a personal life. He treats everybody the same—drag queens, socialites, people on the street. He moves among wealth and glamour without being touched by a desire for either. “You see, if you don’t take money,” he says in the movie, “they can’t tell you what to do, kid. That’s the key to the whole thing.” His only love is beautiful clothes. He’s a “slob,” he says, searching for “stunners.”
Later on, we see him in Paris. The famous blue smock, it turns out, is the uniform of the Parisian street sweepers—the lowest of the low, as it were. He is being inducted as an Officer into the Order of Arts and Letters. At the reception, he wears a blue smock and takes pictures, as if it were somebody else’s event. The man who will bestow the award tells the camera, “He doesn’t want to be honored. He doesn’t want anything. Very deeply, I think, he doesn’t believe he deserves it.” Accepting the award, Cunningham says, “It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty”—his voice begins to break—“will find it.”
The French appear to think that he’s an artist. I think he’s something else. The asceticism, the self-erasure, the monkish cell and monkish habit, the deep humility and high principles, the otherworldliness: this man has shown me what it means to be a saint. It’s not about morality; it’s about devotion to the absolute. He doesn’t create beauty. He does exactly what he said: he goes out and seeks it. He chases epiphanies; he waits for visions. He enacts a purity the world does not possess. He insists on God.
Late in the film, the director asks him two questions. The first is the one we’ve been waiting for. “Have you ever had a romantic relationship?” Cunningham laughs: “Do you want to know if I’m gay?” He’s coy, but the answer appears to be yes. As for the original question, that answer is no, never. “You do have body urges or whatever. You control it as best you can.”
Then comes the second question. “I know that you go to church every Sunday”—Cunningham drops his head, and stricken, seems to give a sob—“and religion, is that an important part of your life?” Cunningham keeps his head down, face frozen, for nearly 30 seconds. You almost think he’s going to stay like that until the crew packs up and leaves. At last he simply says, “It’s something I need.”
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.