On Fridays at 10 a.m., we heard his voice before we saw the flash of his bright blue jacket. Bill was hard of hearing and always spoke loudly, very loudly. We had to speak loudly to him, too, always talking directly into his right ear.
He never deviated from his daily uniform: blue jacket, khaki pants and sensible black sneakers. He said once that Vanity Fair wanted to put him on their best-dressed list and asked for his fashion essential. “Duct tape is what I will tell them!” he said. (He sometimes duct-taped his jackets to prolong their use.)
“Miss Joanna! Miss Val!” he would call out as he approached our desks. He was so focused on getting his pictures precisely organized on the layout, he usually forgot to eat breakfast. So one of us or another colleague would go out and get his regular order: a sugar doughnut (with the sugar scraped off) and a coffee with milk.
The total was $2, not that he would let any of us pay for it. Cecilio, who works at the coffee cart across the street, always knew the sugar-doughnut-hold-the-sugar was for Bill, and would say, “Tell Billy I said hi.”
Over the course of the day — almost every Friday until Bill’s death on June 25 — we worked with him on our projects.
He and Joanna would go to a conference room so they could record his popular On the Street videos. Nothing was rehearsed or scripted. He would give a nod and then start. “Hello, this is Bill Cunningham.”
His Billisms were always left in, like his throat clearing as he said his introduction or his laughing at his own jokes. There might be tangents about how all the kids had a fashion revolution at Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Easter Sunday 1967, or about the giddy feeling he got when he saw Courrèges’ first collection.
Bill never watched the completed videos. He just said, “Child, I trust you.” (He would often call people “child,” and sometimes “Miss Muffett.”) Maybe he didn’t want to suggest he was questioning the work. Maybe he didn’t like to hear the sound of his voice.
The meeting with Val would be in her cubicle. Bill described her job as “doing the words,” the words being the names and scene setters in his Evening Hours column and the descriptive paragraphs in On the Street. He would dictate. She would take down everything he said. Together they would edit.
This was a task taken on by many New York Times employees over the years, a lot of copy editors among them. It was not without its difficulties. There was always the tension of the looming 3:30 p.m. deadline. He had a tendency to make changes at the last minute. He wanted his columns to be just the way he wanted them to be. What mattered to him was the quality of the pages hitting doorsteps that Sunday.
Bill embraced fashion’s eccentrics and didn’t care about celebrities. (He refused to say Kanye West’s name in the most recent Met Gala video, referring to him as “one man.”) Though it was a photo of Greta Garbo that earned him his first half-page spread of pictures in 1978, the only reason he had photographed her was because he loved how her coat fell on her shoulder.
He knew the back stories and family trees of the “unknown” guests he repeatedly photographed at society parties. And he loved babies and children. While every other photographer was shooting clothes on the runway, Bill turned his camera to the “kiddies” in the front row. “Are you kids interested in this?” was one of his favorite questions.
He had a passion for museums. Many weeks, his Evening Hours column was a roundup of names, but on certain occasions, such as when the Frick Collection and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were involved, he would leave extra space for a narrative.
Flowers received special attention, as well, and they often appeared in his photographs. In the office, when he saw arrangements wilting on someone’s desk, he would rush to get a cup and water them, muttering as he did it, “Oh, what a crime.”
Bill expressed his enthusiasm regularly and effusively. He complimented all of us who worked with him, and he was a generous, playful colleague. On days when the vending machines would malfunction, he would call everyone over and hit the numbers to hand out free sodas. He’d ham it up when friends from other departments came by and even consented to pose with us for selfies, against his better instincts.
When Joanna wore red lipstick to work, Bill would ask her, “Oh child, do you have a date tonight?” After she told him she just liked to wear red lipstick for herself, he replied: “That’s right, child. Just remember they need you, you don’t need them.”
He considered those who worked with him family. On Thanksgiving, he would invite many of us over to his modest apartment, which had a view of the parade. He would hand out chocolate turkeys and let people sit on his bed, a thin mattress on a wood strip over two box crates. This year, he gave everyone feathers that he used on his hats when he was a milliner.
Bill marked every holiday with gifts. On Easter, he’d hand out toy bunnies. On the Fourth of July, it was scarves with a print of the United States flag on them. On Christmas, a box of truffles from Godiva or Myzel’s, a small chocolate shop on 55th Street from the ’60s, where Kamila Myzel, a Polish immigrant, still makes the chocolates by hand. When he received a Christmas card that lit up, he rushed downstairs to show us how it worked.
This year, for Valentine’s Day, Bill left us paper hearts with a toy bird attached to each one. The birds were the same ones he had in his apartment. He was giving us a piece of himself.