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Bill Cunningham in Newport: Remembering a Legend

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Kenneth Lindh

It’s an ages-old tradition in Newport…when a member of the “community” passes away off-season, a memorial service is held after all summer residents have returned for “the season.”

In his own way, Bill Cunningham was a member of this group having been recording Newport’s parties, social pastimes and sports for almost thirty years. And so, on August 4th, on the vast water-side lawn at Ocean Cliff, newportFILM offered their tribute with the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. The movie’s poster recreates Bill’s very familiar collage layouts in the Style section of The New York Times.

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It was definitely a celebration of his life, with over twelve-hundred picnickers on the lawn, honoring his memory with their themed vignettes — blue (the color of his jacket) was the order of the night!

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Even the venue, though a resort now, was once the summer home of a dear friend’s family. The movies always start just as the sun is setting over Jamestown Island…

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Bill’s images captured the culture of a town unlike any other. Along the way, anecdotes were created that make for a wonderful slice of history in our “City by the Sea” (it’s not difficult to spot Bill’s famous blue jacket… in the background at the Cushing estate).

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Photo Credit: Kenneth Lindh

Bill became a part of this culture for the place he played in capturing on film the social mores of Newport. While he said that it was always about the clothes, not the people, the background stories make for a great telling — all with a singular Newport twist. Bill may have demurred in his lifetime that it wasn’t about him — but death is bestowing upon him the mantle of a legend.

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Photo Credit: John W. Corbett

What fun to capture some of those anecdotes and look back at what Newport reveals in the images he has produced while here, to include his New York Times centerpiece, “Evening Hours.”

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There is an especially wonderful story from a friend who had known Bill Cunningham and been included in all his postings on Newport. It’s a story that any female can relate to —

At the Coaching Ball at The Breakers in 2012, I did something I had never done before; I asked Bill to take a photo of me. I said that I wanted a photo in this dress, explaining that there were two other women wearing the same dress and that I was going upstairs to change. He exclaimed, “But child, why? It’s a beautiful dress, everyone is going into dinner now and no one will notice.” I said, “No, Bill, these ladies are guests and they can’t change their dresses but I can.” “Oh child”…then he took the photo. But before I went off, in true Bill fashion, he asked, “Who is the designer?”
-Diana Sylvaria

And by the way, the following Sunday the piece came out and there was a picture of Diana in both dresses (images # 48 and #49) as well as a brief mention of this tale in his words.

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Courtesy of The New York Times.

Sometimes Bill would take a picture at a Newport event and end up using it to support an “on the street” fashion trend collage (Pamela Ford and I wearing black and white polka dots.)

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I believe I first met Bill Cunningham sometime in the 1980’s at one of the early Coaching Weekends in Newport.
He loved this weekend and I have so many memories of him in his blue jacket speeding along the side streets of Newport on his bicycle seeking a shortcut to get ahead of the coaches to capture the perfect shot of the elegant procession.
And then there was the time, only a few years ago, at a party at The Elms when I spotted him precariously perched on a balustrade in the garden. One misstep and he would have tumbled at least eight feet to the ground. He was already in his eighties and I was concerned and went over to offer him some support. He laughed and seemed touched and somewhat bemused. “But this is the only angle for a decent shot!” he exclaimed. He was probably right and, of course, ever spry, got down safely on his own.
-Paul Szapary

A rare document…Bill’s handwritten note along the edge of a scanned image sent to Diana and Paul.

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One last anecdote will come as a surprise to many — in Maureen Donnell’s own words…

I was one of the very few Bill danced with in Newport. As he was not known for dancing with guests at various functions, I felt especially honored. I found that he not only was a talented photographer but an excellent dancer. He always sought me out, photographing me for the many articles for The New York Times pertaining to Newport. He always had a smile on his face with his twinkling kind eyes that roamed everywhere. We will all miss him as he was a friend to all of us.
-Maureen Donnell

Well deserved praise for a special man…

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Featured Image Credit, Kenneth Lindh.

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5 thoughts on “Bill Cunningham in Newport: Remembering a Legend

    1. Thank you, he’s such a perfect subject! But I must admit I was surprised to learn that he dances at some of these events….

  1. I ADORE these tributes to HIM.A VERY SPECIAL MAN.I live on the WEST COAST so NEVER saw him in action.I recently wrote to YOU on instagram about places to dine!Only to find out you went to the 4th grade with PENELOPE BIANCHI!It is such a small world.THANK YOU for your recommendations I look forward to seeing YOUR beautiful city!
    I have SUBSCRIBED NOW…………

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