From an Army Camp to the Champs-Élysées: Bill Cunningham’s Paris
"Everything was more French than I ever imagined!"
When graduation from basic training came, they lined us up in long rows, and we were separated into two groups, one for Korea and one for European duty in Germany. I landed in the European group. The thrill was so great that I rushed down to the PX and bought every French language book I could get my hands on, even though my papers read “Germany.” All I could think was, what’s the difference? France is a neighboring country, and I could smell Paris in the wind. We boarded the army ship in Brooklyn, and I’m sure none of the Vanderbilts could have felt any more excited boarding a ship for Europe than I did at that moment. I had only been in the swan boats in Boston’s Public Garden, but now, crossing the Atlantic seemed like the swellest thing, even though a hundred other soldiers would sleep in the same cabin.
The chow line for lunch started around ten in the morning, and it was just one constant wait after another. I had purchased and studied a book on handwriting analysis, so each day while we waited in line I would sit on the deck, and a group of sad soldiers were waiting for me to read the handwriting of their girlfriends’ love letters. It was a howl. The boys believed everything I told them, plus I got to read some of the most interesting letters. This tiny 35-page book made me an expert in one quick reading. It’s a wonder some of the soldiers didn’t throw me overboard for some of the scandalous things I told them.
The days flew by, and the crossing was sunny and cold, except for two days of storms that had half the 3,000 soldiers on board hanging over the railing. I slept on deck a couple of nights, not from seasickness—as nothing seemed to bother me—but the perfume of the hallways and sleeping quarters was enough to make your hair stand on end. We landed in Germany on September 28, and the early fall landscape of the Bavarian countryside is enchantingly etched in my memory for life.
I wasn’t in Germany two days when orders came that 100 men were needed in the newly opened camps of France. The requirements were that you had to speak French (to be able to mix with people, as the French were in the throes of their “Go Home, Americans” demonstrations), and a college education was preferred. I made it only because my records had shown entrance to Harvard. Thank God it didn’t say how long I’d stayed. I was able to speak French fairly well, from all the studying I had done. It seems the power of positive thought really works. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep on the overnight train to Paris. I was to be stationed in the southwest of France, at La Rochelle, a small port town.
My enthusiasm on arriving in Paris just exploded. We had a six-hour stopover. I dashed out of the station, hailing one of those old puddle-hopping taxis with the holes in the roof. I stood up in the back of the cab with my head and shoulders coming out of the roof, just breathing the air of Paris. The day was crisp and sunny, the trees lining the boulevard had been touched by frost, and the autumnal colorings seemed so right for a first look at the City of Fashion.
I didn’t know the city, but I immediately told the driver to take me to the Place Vendôme, as that’s where Schiaparelli and many of the fashionable designers had their shops. We drove through the city streets, past statues and fountains, the bridges, the imposing Louvre Museum, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the rows of old houses like scenes from La Bohème. My head was on a swivel, turning every which way on top of the taxi; as we drove along rue Saint-Honoré, women in delicious mid-calf-length tweed coats, billowing out in tent style, darted along in the autumn breezes. Heads were topped in elegant deep-profile hats, with long quills of pheasant tails piercing their felt. Everything was more French than I ever imagined.“I stood up in the back of the cab with my head and shoulders coming out of the roof, just breathing the air of Paris.”
As we drove into the Place Vendôme, my eyes saw the signs of Schiaparelli, and a moment of triumph filled my body. I had finally reached the top of the fashion-climbing ladder as I eyed everything through Schiaparelli’s window, a fantastic boutique full of imaginative shapes in shocking-pink colors. Most of all, I remember a satin sofa in the shape of lips.
I jumped back into the taxi, and we drove off to the pearl-gray stone mansion of the fashion king, Christian Dior. I remember peeping in all the doors, afraid to go in. The smell of perfume was everywhere, and I longed for the day when I would climb the grand stairway to see a collection.
My six hours were over in what seemed like seconds, and the train puffed out of the Paris station, weaving in and out of quaint old villages as we traveled through the central part of France.
What was to be home was an old broken-down French army building, left in despair since the war. The ceilings were falling down, and we had to put tents over our army cots for safety. There were no baths or toilets, and the 20 soldiers sent with me had a fit complaining. I didn’t mind a bit, as we were given complete freedom. First, we weren’t allowed to wear army uniforms, as the French civilians didn’t like the idea of American soldiers coming back on French soil, and uniforms started trouble with the communists. Second, all regular army life was discontinued, and everyone had to shift for himself, as the few officers there were trying to find living quarters for themselves. Although the camp increased by nearly 300 soldiers in a year, I never knew what it was to lead the army life.
Within two weeks of my arrival, when the boys and I were out digging a latrine ditch, a hundred additional soldiers arrived to help set up a headquarters. At night the boys would be seen drowning their sorrows in local barrooms, getting drunk to help forget their troubles. I don’t drink alcohol, as I think it dulls the mind, and hate the taste of it. Seeing the fellows wasting their time and money sitting on bar stools really made me sad. So I boldly approached the post commander and told him something had to be done for the morale of the soldiers. He looked at me as if to ask how dare I be so blunt. At any rate, I presented my plan to him, which was to schedule weekend tours to the local areas of interest, using an army bus. This, I felt, would get the men out of their self-pity, and orient their minds to enjoying their two years’ stay. And of course I would guide the tours. When he asked about my experience, I looked him right in the eye and said, “Why, I’ve crossed the ocean and traveled through Europe, and know very well what would interest the men.” I wasn’t really lying, as I had just crossed the Atlantic, and I felt it would be a snap to run little trips to interesting parts of the country.
The following day, to my surprise, I got his okay to start a tour department. They gave me an old broken-down building to clean up into an office. The weekend tours developed so well that 40 soldiers at a time were crowding onto the bus, if not for the benefit of my informative tours, at least to escape the dirt and boredom of their lives. I would read everything I could about the local areas during the week, and what I couldn’t find out, or didn’t sound interesting, I’d invent. No one ever questioned my stories, as no one ever really knew what was going on. The tours grew into two- and three-week vacations, taking the boys on their leaves. It allowed me to spend two years traveling all over Europe and North Africa, always guiding a caravan of 40 thankful soldiers.
I was very realistic about the trips. The three-day Paris tour was a sensation: instead of forcing the boys into the opera and the museums, I would have the bus pull up in front of the Folies Bergère, and as the fellows left the bus, they were given a white card with the address of our hotel and the departure time Sunday and granted complete freedom. I sat through so many performances of the Folies I was just about able to tell the fellows how low she was going to drop it, and calm their whistles. During these weekends, I had arranged the hotel and tours to all the interesting spots, at prices soldiers could afford—my wholesale hat selling gave me the idea that a party could travel at a quarter of the cost for a solo traveler. On this theory, I bargained for theater tickets, restaurants, hotels, etc. all over Europe. Each fellow would pay just the cost of the trip, as these were considered army tours, and no extra money could be collected.
On the trips to the French Riviera, we had a million laughs. I can remember getting the boys out of prostitutes’ houses at the end of weekends, having the driver stop the bus at the houses of ill repute to collect the troops. On one of the first trips to the Riviera, we were riding along the main drag in Nice, and I was talking up a storm about all the hotels and fancy goings-on when we came to the famous war memorial that overlooks the beach. The 40 soldiers had gotten out of the bus to get a better look and hear my long-winded spiel; when I turned around to ask if they had any questions, there wasn’t one of them in sight—they had all run across the boulevard and were looking down at a beautiful nude woman sunbathing on the beach. Their cameras were snapping pictures like you never saw. Finally, the French cops came along and broke it up, chasing the curvaceous young lady from sight.
During the winter weekends, we took trips to the fashionable ski resorts in the Swiss Alps. They always gave me a chance to observe all the elegant women, and skiing is my favorite sport. I think I was the only one on the mountainside in Saint-Moritz at 7:30 in the morning, as elegant life didn’t begin to show its coiffured head until midday in that plush resort.
Zooming down the mountainside in freshly fallen snow, between the fir trees laden with fluffy white, I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful feeling it is when you feel all alone in the world, sliding down at terrific speed. I always felt it was the perfect place to commune with God.
These trips were certainly the chance of a lifetime for my eyes to be exposed to different ways of life, and the true reasons for fashion; understanding the normal habits and working lives of women in all parts of the world gives a designer insight. Anyone can see a pretty dress and copy it in different fabrics, but a true designer will look deeper and understand the reason the garment was designed in the first place. A real spirit will be found. It’s the same as looking at the art in international museums. You don’t look at it to copy, but rather to see the essence that inspired the artist to create it. So often when people take these grand tours of Europe, they never find the essential meanings of art, and bring back a flighty surface impression.
The fashion magazines I had hidden in my locker were one of the big jokes around the camp. I had a subscription to Women’s Wear Daily, along with the millinery magazine, Hats. And if you don’t think that caused a lot of scandal! But after a while, most of the fellows wanted to peruse the fashion magazines, just to look at the beautiful girls. I remember one weekend when I was running around Paris with Stella Daufray—one of the most gorgeous models in all Paris—a group of the fellows from my camp were sitting at a sidewalk café when they spotted me skipping down the Champs-Élysées with this gorgeous creature tucked under my arm. The fellows were dumbfounded. They couldn’t understand how a dope like me could have this fabulous gal, when they’d been sitting around all weekend without a chance for a date.
When I got back to camp that night, it was past midnight and most everyone was in bed. I quietly undressed and got into my bunk, when all the lights went on and the fellows jumped out of their bunks, demanding to know where I’d picked up this beauty, as they were under the impression that I spent most of my time in museums.
From Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham, published by Penguin Press, and imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by The Bill Cunningham Foundation LLC.