The late photographer Bill Cunningham, who was documenting the eclectic style of New Yorkers long before “street style” photography was a career for trendy bloggers, left behind a memoir right before he died in 2016.
The New York Times reports that among the $1 million archive Cunningham left after he died, he also left a secret memoir, a typewritten account he titled “Fashion Climbing” that appeared to have been revised several times. The book chronicles his life story and ascent in the fashion industry, starting with the ways in which his Catholic family disproved of his taste in womenswear. One particularly graphic passage reads:
“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.”
Elsewhere, Cunningham chronicles how he decorated his helmet with flowers while serving in the Korean War (because of course he did) and dishes old New York media gossip.
Cunningham, who worked as a fashion photographer for the New York Times for nearly 40 years, was a beloved figure in the New York fashion industry. He had a unique eye for trends and the ways in which real people, not just models, not just socialites, wore clothes. Every blizzard I miss his style coverage, as one of the few fashion commentators who was interested in what people were wearing as they stepped across slush puddles.
But while Cunningham was a charming and sociable photographer, he was also immensely private. The 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York was a rare glimpse into his personal life, documenting how he chose to live in a filing cabinet-filled studio apartment and, at one point, showed Cunningham burst into tears after reflecting on his romantic life. So the fact that he left behind a memoir, especially one reportedly this revealing, is a complete surprise.