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.”
To read the full piece at AVENUE Insider click here.
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