Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Saint Bill of Manhattan

with 2 comments

Bill Cunningham

A few weeks ago, I wrote that while I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a life of simplicity, I just don’t know what I’d do with all my books. And although I didn’t mention it at the time, I have a feeling that I’d also have problems with many other forms of renunciation. I don’t think I’d be happy living very far from a major city, for instance: I need to be around movies, music, museums, and the kind of random interactions that a city imposes, all of which are so important for the sanity of a writer who spends most of his time in relative solitude. (Sometimes I can feel the two impulses duking it out: this weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest, I found my love of books warring constantly with my dislike of crowded spaces.) But while we don’t often think of the simple life as being lived in big cities, or in rooms packed with books and pictures, it does exist, and in some ways it requires a more diligent commitment to that elusive ideal than it would in a cottage far from the outside world. The real trick isn’t pursuing the life of art and voluntary poverty at Walden Pond; it’s figuring it out in Manhattan.

Which brings me to Bill Cunningham. Recently, my wife and I have started reading the print edition of the Sunday New York Times over breakfast, after more than a year of subscribing—mostly because the price was the same as that of a digital-only subscription—and recycling it without a glance. It’s a good habit, and whenever we take the time to peruse the physical paper, I inevitably find my eye drawn to Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street,” with its remarkably witty and inventive collages of the outfits, styles, and nascent trends that its author finds on the sidewalks of his city. The other day, I was intrigued enough to finally watch the wonderful recent documentary Bill Cunningham New York, and what I found, to my joy, was a portrait of the artist of my dreams. Until a few years ago, Cunningham lived in a tiny rent-controlled apartment over Carnegie Hall crammed with books, papers, and filing cabinets filled with the negatives of his work, sleeping on a thin mattress laid across a pallet of more files. He’s since had to give up the apartment, but he still bikes everywhere in his trademark blue workman’s jacket, noting gleefully that it has plenty of pockets and only costs twenty dollars.

Bill Cunningham

And he displays an almost inhumanly principled indifference toward money. When he covers society events for his “Evening Hours” column, he refuses to accept so much as a glass of water, and he ceremoniously tore up the checks he received as one of the founding contributors to Details magazine. (A number of people interviewed in the film speculate that Cunningham may have come from money, but he says that this isn’t the case.) If you don’t take money, he observes, nobody can tell you what to do, and he clearly relishes his freedom: the half page that “On the Street” occupies every week belongs to him alone, and he exercises complete control over its layout and content. His life has also been radically simplified in other ways: he’s had many close friendships, but never a romantic one, and he seems cheerfully unconcerned with the question when asked on camera about his sexuality. And like many of the great documentaries about creative artists, from Crumb to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Bill Cunningham New York departs from its subject with many of his mysteries still intact.

But the more I think about Cunningham’s life, the more I see it as one of intense practicality. He’s simply a man who loves what he does to the exclusion of all else, and he’s structured his existence to pursue it with complete artistic devotion and self-sufficiency, while working in the heart of a city that isn’t particularly known for either. Despite the fact that he’s a fixture of the fashion world, he displays a striking lack of interest toward wealth and celebrity, not so much out of principle as because his true obsessions lie elsewhere: he’s driven by an anthropological curiosity about what people wear and why, and he approaches his subjects—especially the women—with an almost ornithological fascination. And although he says that he isn’t a saint, he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen to living the ideal of the life in art, immensely rich in its inner qualities while organically joined to a life of pragmatic simplicity. Bill Cunningham may not be “the most important man in the world,” as a bystander in the movie affectionately calls him, but I strongly suspect that he may be the sanest.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. I watched this movie with my mom a while back and loved it. He lives in the ultimate simplicity, but is in complete control of his work. While most people search for control through acquisition, he gains it through “lacking” belongings.

    Rachel Pierce

    June 10, 2013 at 3:41 pm

  2. Thanks for posting—I couldn’t agree more.


    June 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm

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