In November of 1948, without the slightest idea of how to rent a shop, I went in and out of every building I saw with empty windows, inquiring about space. I decided my shop should be no farther downtown than Hattie Carnegie’s on East Forty-Eighth Street, and no farther uptown than Fifty-Seventh Street somewhere between Park and Fifth Avenues. Oh, was I ever dumb and innocent! As I dashed into buildings, breathless with excitement, most of the people I met thought I was pulling a school prank. When I saw what appeared to be empty windows on the top floor of Hattie Carnegie’s, I walked right into the grand salon, where a frosty-eyed salesgirl said Hattie would be delighted to rent me the top rooms. She went on to say Hattie would be thrilled to see me, and she wrote down Hattie’s address, where I expected to be greeted with open arms. I was so sure of myself, and the $300 I had in my pocket made me feel I owned the world. With great dignity I rushed over to the address the salesgirl had given me, which turned out to be the insane asylum at Bellevue Hospital. I was so mad I could hardly see straight. Who did I think I was to just rush into Hattie Carnegie’s and rent the top floor?
The next day, with fresh enthusiasm, the first rays of honest hope came with a charming little town house, 62 East Fifty-Second Street, formerly, as I recall, the residence of the mayor of New York around 1820, and a notorious speakeasy during the 1920s. As I walked up the front steps and entered the quaint Renaissance-revival reception room—which looked down on a huge Hollywood-type medieval banquet hall with six desks on either side of a giant fireplace—a kind of moon-shaped face covered with freckles asked me what I wanted. The young lady of about 28 turned out to be secretary to the six men who held offices in the three-story building. Her name was Kathy Keene. When I asked her about the empty windows on the top floor and I told her I planned to open a millinery business, she thought I was a little mixed-up but invited me to stay awhile and warm myself from the ten-degree cold outside. As we talked, she became more believing, and finally said to come back the following day, as there was a tiny attic room on the top floor that was empty. The next day, I was sitting on the doorstep when Miss Keene arrived to open the house. We had an hour before her bosses would come, so she briefed me on how to impress them, as they didn’t want to speak to some crazy kid about renting a room. Kathy was terrific; she told me to tell her boss the names of the women for whom I had just made masks, as her boss was a desperate social climber. Finally he arrived and called me into his office, but when I started telling him about my plan to be the world’s greatest milliner and began naming some of my customers, the guy nearly fainted. He thought he’d caught a real live one. He figured he’d use me to meet all the ladies, so I was given the room.
Up tiny, winding stairs were the offices of a movie talent scout, headed by the niece of David O. Selznick, and another office for TV productions, where dozens of passé radio personalities from the 1920s and ’30s were desperately trying to make a comeback. On the top floor, a man in the front room wrote murder mysteries; he was a real spooky character. There, in the back of the house, was my first salon, a nine-by-twelve room with two large windows looking down to what once was an enchanted garden of fountains and statuary, now lying in despair after 20 years of neglect. Finally we got down to the discussion of rent, which I wasn’t prepared to pay. The price was put at $50 a month. I immediately said I couldn’t afford it but that I’d clean the house each morning before eight for the use of the room. The owner was stunned by my unorthodox terms but decided he needed a cleaning man, and the deal was made. (Miss Keene, knowing I had little money, told me they needed a house cleaner.) Within two days I had moved into my garret, with just $300 in capital. I was a ten-cent millionaire and immediately rushed out to the Salvation Army store, where I bought slightly moth-eaten Austrian drapes and Louis Bronx French furniture. I think the whole room was decorated for about $35. Wallowing in French chic, I started making my new hats.
Separated from my glamorous salon by a three-panel cardboard screen that hid the workroom, I designed hats inspired by nature. Life-size apples hung on hats of red felt; daisies were wrapped around plaid duckbills, and a pixie cap of straw was molded into fruit shapes. These were truly happy times, and I waited quietly for my first client to come rushing up the narrow little stairway. But I must honestly say, they didn’t come breaking down the door, and my $300 disappeared.
Finally I took a job delivering lunches for a drugstore on the corner of Madison and Fifty-Second. For this I made tips and got a free lunch. At night I got a job as a barker on Broadway, at the vaudeville Palace Theatre. After a few weeks in the freezing cold, I moved inside, where the Saturday-night audiences would give a few quarter tips for better seats. I stayed on this job for about four months and then moved on to the Howard Johnson’s restaurant across from Radio City, where I had lots to fill my stomach, and generous tips from the soda counter. My hours there were from five in the afternoon until two in the morning. In between all this, I designed the hats. The millinery-supply houses were all kept busy counting out my payments, the piles of nickels and dimes I had made the previous night.
On Sundays I would roam the streets of New York after early church, feasting my eyes on the wonderful window displays, which are perhaps the best free show in New York, always winding up my tour at the public library on Fifth Avenue. There I would spend the evening looking through old issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and the library’s superb collection of costume books.
Leading up to my first press collection, in July 1949, I worked night and day to prepare 50 models, with the help of my first milliner, a darling, quiet lady with an alcoholic sister who would arrive at the shop at the most unexpected moments, demanding money for whiskey. Wild scenes of screaming and fighting would often occur between the two sisters.
The people in the house were similarly colorful, and anything could be expected. I was so naive I hardly knew what was going on between the bill collectors who were steadily filling the front office of the house, chasing most of the people who worked there, and the two men on the second floor who often displayed screaming tempers, scaring my sedate customers out of ever coming back. On one occasion, while I was fitting a deep cloche hat on a very timid Park Avenue woman, the cops raided the second floor, and the two men scrambled over the garden wall to adjoining Fifty-Third Street.
On another occasion, one of the movie producers, who was being hotly pursued by the sheriff, came in late one night to gather all her belongings with the help of a now-famous and respected movie actor. They were escaping to California but before leaving decided to take what they thought was an antique. It was a bidet in the second-floor bathroom, and these two damned fools got ahold of the fire hatchet and began chopping the lead plumbing. I woke up to see a waterfall flowing down the spiral stairway, pooling in several feet of water down below.
Despite all the wild carryings-on, my first show got off to a grand start. The old garden and the big Renaissance hall were lent to me for my showing, as all the people who worked in the room were hoping to meet my customers. I was also allowed to use the dirty garden, and found myself very happily cleaning it and arranging big bunches of peonies in glass light globes I had taken off the unused ceiling fixtures and planted in the sooty ground. The center fountain was cleaned out, and palms sprouted from its spout. The gals from Bonwit Teller’s modeled the hats. Of the 75 hoped-for guests, only six customers came, all hatted in my latest whims, and of the press, only one appeared, but she was the most influential and important in all New York: Virginia Pope of The New York Times. Most people would have thought the tiny audience a disaster, but I felt the queen herself was there, and no one else mattered. She graciously sat through the whole show, when I’m sure she could have used her time elsewhere. The next day a tiny paragraph appeared on the Times fashion page proclaiming a new designer. This was the most important encouragement and gave me reason to fight on—and what a fight it was!
From Fashion Climbing: A Memoir by Bill Cunningham. Copyright ? 2018 by The Bill Cunningham Foundation LLC. Published by permission of Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.