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His Excellency Bill Cunningham

Carnegie Hall Crowns the Legendary Lensman

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"I'm looking at the cardboard cutout over there and thinking that's Bill," Gayle King said last night at the Waldorf Astoria, where the legendary Bill Cunningham was being honored with the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. "I feel stupid with two Os. I was thinking, 'Wow, he's taking pictures at his own party.' "

In fact, that's exactly what the real Bill Cunningham was busy doing. Surrounded by some of his favorite subjects, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Linda Fargo, Mercedes Bass, and Annette de la Renta (all of whom had come "dressed for Bill"), the shutterbug snapped away with his camera. "Bill is like a war photographer. If he's talking to you and sees something going on, he'll leave mid-sentence," Paper's Kim Hastreiter told Style.com.

"Bill used to run after me on the street and photograph me because I used to dress crazy back in 1976 and we just became friends," Hastreiter went on. "Then one time the photo ended up in The New York Times—I remember I was wearing this coat made out of a Hudson's Bay blanket." Many ladies last night were musing over the thrill of their first Bill photo: "There's really nothing like the first time; you can't compare anything to that," said Alexandra Lebenthal.

When Cunningham finally took the stage, the crowd was on its feet applauding him. "Well, what can one say?" said Cunningham. As it turned out, the usually taciturn photographer had plenty to say, surprising his audience with a nearly 20-minute acceptance speech. "You know, 30 years ago I used to photograph women going to lunch at Le Cirque and before that it was at the Colony restaurant, and now I jump out of bed in the morning and I rush down to Fifth Avenue to photograph women going to work," he said. "Between 8:30 and 9:30 is fabulous!" After the tenor Vittorio Grigolo serenaded the audience, the tireless Cunningham went back to work with his camera in hand.

"He's a visionary," said Hastreiter. "And when you're a visionary, you never stop doing what you do."

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