Goodbye Mr. Cunningham

During the fall of 2009 while an intern on the NYTimes multimedia desk, I was asked by director Richard Press to film a few b-roll scenes for his film Bill Cunningham New York. Richard had told me that Bill did not prefer to be in front of the camera and would be elusive. While acknowledging Richard’s caution, I felt confident because Bill and I had built a rapport that summer as our desks were only 10 feet apart. He would often stop by my desk and say “Hey there young fella,” and we’d briefly talk about our days.

            One of the two shoots I was asked to film happened on the night that Bill received a Living Landmark award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy at the Cipriani Restaurant. Richard had emphasized he wanted to capture Bill arriving at the restaurant on his bike. I staked outside the restaurant at least an hour before I thought he’d arrive. Mr. Cunningham snuck up behind me, but I was able to capture him walking in to the restaurant. I kept rolling throughout the night, capturing him talking photos of people, talking to old friends and acquaintances and then of course when he received his award. When dinner was served, Bill refused to sit with the rest of the crowd and opted to sit in the media section all by himself.

            As I was filming eating he called me over and said, “Why don’t you sit down and eat young fella?” Before I could answer Bill called over a waiter and asked him to bring me a plate of food and to get me a coke. Soon thereafter my plate of steak, potatoes and string beans had arrived. Bill noticed I didn’t touch my steak and I explained to him I was a vegetarian. He immediately tilted his plate and put all of his vegetables on to mine and took the steak of my plate. He then asked the waiter to bring me another coke. After we finished eating, Bill continued photographing people as I filmed him.

            As the event came to a close, Mr. Cunningham came up to me as I was packing my camera gear. He asked me how I was getting home and I told him I was hopping on the 4 or 5 back to Brooklyn. He shook his head and said that I should hop in a cab with all my expensive equipment. He then took out $40 and told me to pay him back only when I got reimbursed for the cab ride.

            The next morning I put $40 on his desk and wrote a thank you note. After coming back from a shoot later that day, I noticed my $40 had been put back on my desk and Mr. Cunningham wrote me a note saying that there was no rush to pay him back and I could do it when I had gotten reimbursed. I waited until I was reimbursed for the cab ride and about three weeks later I proudly put the money back on his desk with another thank you note. This time, he accepted the money.

            Goodbye, Bill. Your kindness, generosity and humility are unmatched.