Dear Bill Cunningham



bill cunninghamHEADER

At an auction in December 2010, I acquired a double-breasted men’s mink stroller coat owned by Edward Gorey. It was an unlikely purchase: I hadn’t intended to bid on anything, had never been to a proper auction before, and had very little money to my name.

I was there to write something about the once-in-a-lifetime auction of Gorey’s personal hoard of fur coats—twenty-one in all. I was a Gorey fan, not, outside a first edition or two, a collector. But that morning, I had deposited a meager paycheck from adjunct professing, and I began to feel the emergence of a dream. I could own the coat. Why couldn’t I at least try? I could at least pretend to be that person who wins precious objects at auction. 

Things had been rough for me that week. My bathroom pipes had burst and flooded my apartment, and my husband, my dog, and I had been living in a windowless, airless, basement hotel room of the Holiday Inn on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn with the sound of the building’s central-air ducts constantly humming. Just days before, I had been walking my dog at nine on a Monday night and accidentally stumbled into an attempted break-in and rape. I had a gun in my face and my life threatened. I was told I would be killed.

The auction, the idea of writing about it, was meant to be an escape—a day-killer when the days were too long, from teaching and hotel living, and I was trying to recover my nerves. The auction was a small, strange room of unpredictability. There weren’t more than a dozen souls registered to bid; it was also live online. The room was sparse, some cases for the books, hangers and racks for the coats, and chairs for bidders. It felt a good deal less rich than I’d imagined, which only fueled the idea I might have a chance to win. And I did win, I won the last coat, due to a fluke, two coats had been switched and they had to redo the bidding, and by then, the room had taken pity on me and my paddle. So began my relationship with the magical acquisition.

It was a strange thing to have. It didn’t change my luck for long—I’ve always had tremendous bad luck—but it did change my attitude. The coat became a doorway to friendships, to stories, to further dreams. I took it to the ballet with a friend, I took it to parties, I took it to dinners. I probably have more than thirty photographs of distinguished writers wearing the Gorey fur—a few more and it could be a book. A couple times, I received e-mails telling me it changed a life to have put it on. I wondered if I could learn more about it.

I looked extensively online for a picture of Edward Gorey wearing my coat. I looked through books about Gorey for a picture of him in the coat. I looked for the style of coat in his surreal illustrations of the Victorians and Edwardians, perhaps as evidence he’d used it as a model. And it was during this time I began to dream another idea—silly, really—that I would write to Bill Cunningham, the late street-style photographer and New York Times fashion reporter. He would, I decided, unlock the mysteries of my fur. In my daydreams, Cunningham had a file in one of his many cabinets—a file comprising thousands of photos of Edward Gorey, who was known, before he moved mostly to Cape Cod, to stroll around New York City in his fur coats, jeans, and white Converse. Certainly, I thought, Cunningham in his obsessed thoroughness had caught view of Gorey many times. Perhaps he could verify that Gorey wore this particular fur.

There’s something similar and sad about Gorey and Cunningham, something that drew me to them. They were both men who, as many now speculate, were either closeted gay men, repressed, or asexual. They both lived alone. They were both Yankee New Englanders who didn’t fit the mold. They both ignored contemporary fashion and wore something nearly like a uniform: Cunningham had his French janitor’s blue jacket; Gorey, his jeans, white sneaks, and furs. Both were singularly obsessed with the worlds they helped to define. Cunningham was the Nancy Drew of both women’s and men’s fashion, solving the mystery of its twists and turns: he uncovered the narrative through-line, and therefore something about the time and the era and people and the streets. Gorey, in his illustrations and books, invented a world that’s both familiar and not, an uneasy upending of traditional values, propriety, and order. They were both prolific.

It was more than a year later, in July 2012, when I finally wrote to Bill, sending a notecard and a copy of the piece I wrote for the Daily about the acquisition of my new coat. I asked if he had any photographs of Gorey in his archives. I knew Cunningham’s memory was incredible, if not outright eidetic—he recalled clothes from decades past and could always identify which designers had ripped off other designers, and when.

A week later, I received his reply, written on a single piece of white printer paper, underneath a full-color five-by-seven image of a woman in ballet shoes jumping on the shore in front of a cloud-filled sky, wearing pink velvet and beads that float above her head and surround her like a jellyfish. Cunningham wrote in an elderly, unsteady hand, his script full of misspellings and missing words and an aversion to periods. The beauty of the letter, its flaws, makes me tear up nearly every time I read it.

bill cunningham1


29 July 2012

Dear Allison DEVERS … enjoyed your suspens[sic] story of landing one of Edward Gorey’s coats .. I often saw him in the 1950[sic] walking on Madison Ave. in[sic] a Vintage Raccon[sic] 1920 football game coat. There was a big renewal of these old coats in the early 1950[sic], Lord & Taylor even had a dept just for these coats all second hand … M. Gorey always [wore] unbuttoned a long 3 yard? mohair knitted scarf .. he would be reading as he walked (and [in] his signature white Tennis sneakers.) I don’t have a sepert[sic] folder of him but if I should one day stumble(d) across one I will think of you.

Best Regards   Bill C.

I treasure this letter as much as I treasure the coat. His recall of Gorey’s wardrobe from decades ago, of the special floor at Lord & Taylor, of the era. And I know, from everything written and observed about him, that Bill Cunningham never minces words. He doesn’t lie and he doesn’t pander. He had liked my story—and that’s been enough fuel for me for a long time, through a lot of difficulty. The letter and the coat were two of the few things I brought with me on the plane when I moved to London three months ago. I was too fearful of what would happen to them crossing the seas on a container ship.

As I packed up, under-informed about the looming threat of Brexit, I had a lot of feelings about leaving New York, my beloved and difficult home of fifteen years. I regarded these thoughts as stereotypical—my “Good-bye to All That” thoughts. The saddest one was that Bill Cunningham might be gone whenever I move back. Then I told myself that, at eighty-seven, he could feasibly go on for at least another decade.

Still, I decided to send him one last note on the final day of my move. It was a way for me to say good-bye to my city. I dropped his only book of photographs, Facades, in the mail. My copy, bought off the Internet, had unexpectedly been signed by Editta Sherman, his collaborator. Hell, I thought, I should have Bill sign it, too. I wrote him a terribly brief note, reiterating how much he meant to me, with the request for a signature. I put a self-addressed return envelope to my new mail-forwarding service in Houston, Texas. It finally made its way to me a two weeks ago. I opened it, but there was no note this time—just a signature placed underneath the signature of his deceased friend. I hoped I hadn’t made him sad.

Four days after I booked my first tickets back to New York for July, he was gone.

I don’t think he dwelled on his swelling popularity post–Bill Cunningham New York, or even liked it, but I do think he knew he had accomplished something. But did he realize what he left the world? Did he make plans for his file cabinets to go to the Met’s Costume Institute, to a museum, to a library, or to a college? Did he leave a will or directions for anyone? To Anna Wintour maybe?

He took hundreds of pictures a week and seemingly has stored the entire lot of them. I can’t think of any more thorough history of modern Manhattan than his visual documentation, not only of his New York Times Style features but the thousands of unpublished photos. He took the heartbeat of the city, he worked seven days a week, and then he kept most of it to himself. We have only seen a sliver of his work. I wonder if he ever riffled through his pictures and stumbled upon Gorey—as I hope to do myself someday, if his work is made available for research. But perhaps that’s an unlikely fantasy.

What is certain is that on the day I won that coat and again on the day Bill Cunningham wrote me, I felt as if everything in the world could be mine. They both taught me that I can make luck for myself, even if only for a day.

A. N. Devers is a writer and editor at Longreads and A Public Space. She lives in London for the moment.