The incredible story behind Bill Cunningham's secret memoir
Bill Cunningham was the unofficial mascot of New York City. To see the legendary fashion photographer on the street, his signature blue jacket flapping in the breeze as he pedaled his trusty bicycle, was always a good omen, like finding a lucky penny. His fans spotted him by his ever-present camera, knew his voice as the narrator of New York Times fashion trend videos, and recognized his iconic photographs of the women of Madison Avenue, each more glamorous than the last.
But few of these people really knew Bill Cunningham. He was a chronicler, a mysteriously friendly observer among constant crowds of extroverts. Those who devoured his eponymous documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, are familiar with the way he dodged and deflected personal questions with seasoned practice. So when The Times revealed earlier this year that he had written a secret memoir before his death, titled Fashion Climbing, it was a pleasant shock.
It wasn’t until after his 2016 passing that his family discovered the manuscript, stored among the extensive archives he kept in his spartan apartment. (For years Cunningham lived in a quintessentially bohemian rent-controlled unit above Carnegie Hall that measured 300 square feet and had a communal bathroom down the hall.) He kept the book’s drafts alongside thousands of photographs and negatives, and took pains to preserve it all. His surviving nieces and nephews (he never had children) got the manuscript into the hands of book agent Bill Clegg, who contacted Penguin Press editor Christopher Richards. Richards, for his part, never saw it coming.
“When they called me and said ‘Bill Cunningham,’ it was a real shock,” Richards tells EW. “It seemed impossible that Bill of all people had written a memoir. You’re so vulnerable when you write about yourself at length, and the idea that this particular man, who was so guarded, had done this was a complete and total surprise.”
Richards read the manuscript immediately, and knew within 30 minutes that he “absolutely had” to publish it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to score this kind of a title, especially as a young editor, and Penguin was lucky enough to beat out the competition.
While the public, the publishing industry, and even Cunningham’s own family may have been shocked to discover that the man they had been so fascinated by for decades was secretly documenting his personal life, those who worked alongside him for decades were not. Cathy Horyn, the prominent fashion critic and journalist who worked at The New York Times for more than 15 years (and is now at New York magazine), saw this memoir coming before most. She first met Cunningham in the early ’90s, while at the Washington Post, and befriended him over early-morning breakfasts at the Times cafeteria.
“Bill’s life was a mystery to most people, but he thought a lot about the past,” she says. “So it didn’t surprise me that he would have written things down. And there’s another good explanation for the book, or why he was doing this book in secret, which is that Bill was a writer. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Horyn recalls a time in 2002 when Howell Raines, then the Times’ executive editor, tasked her with interviewing Cunningham for a special section about him. It took a little arm-twisting, but once they sat down he talked for hours and hours, filling up all her tapes.
It’s this side of Cunningham’s personality that Richards discovered while editing the book, which is subtitled A Memoir With Photographs. The version he read on submission was a scanned facsimile of the manuscript Cunningham’s family found, and it was covered in little notes the author left to himself in the margins, and words or phrases he had crossed out and revised.
“It was clear he reworked certain sections and really put a lot of care into preparing and preserving it,” Richards says.
That precision, combined with the fact that Penguin is publishing Fashion Climbing posthumously, means that the book fans will read when it hits shelves Sept. 4 is almost exactly the version its author left behind. Richards worked with Cunningham’s family to select photographs and commissioned New Yorker writer Hilton Als to pen a preface, but Cunningham’s account of his journey to the upper echelons of fashion’s elite speaks for itself.
The story begins with a difficult childhood in Boston, with a rigidly traditional family wary of a young man’s interest in fashion, design, and millinery. Most poignant is the fact that, despite what most would consider a struggle at home, Cunningham retained a sunny optimism, even through reliving the experience in his memoir. Horyn chalks that up to the restorative power of New York City.
“When people come to New York, they reinvent themselves,” she says. “Bill was such a positive, jubilant guy, and he was very connected to the present. That’s the thing about fashion: It’s all about change and new things.”
Even for readers who don’t count themselves as part of the Cult of Bill Cunningham, there’s a message in his memoir that he seems to have left — and keeping that lesson intact was important to the editors. The discovery of Fashion Climbing led to many discussions among the Penguin Press team, and the overriding opinion was that the book’s warmth reigns supreme.
“This is a book that is going to resonate with a lot of people who have thought about New York city as a kind of emerald city,” says Richards. “A place you can attain your dreams or be the person you couldn’t be in your hometown. A place to really pursue exactly who you believe you are at heart.”