Tom Gold first encountered Bill Cunningham, the Times’ society photographer, three decades ago, when Gold was a nineteen-year-old dancer for New York City Ballet. “I was at a party and started a conga line, and there was this old man following me around taking pictures,” Gold recalled recently, as he walked among the fountains at the Untermyer Gardens, in Yonkers. “After a while he said to me, ‘You got it, kid. You know how to have fun!’ ” After that, Gold, who formed a dance company in 2008, appeared regularly in Cunningham’s column—sometimes with the designer Mary McFadden or the night-club owner Nell Campbell. Gold went on, “Once, at the Frick, Bill called me over and said, ‘Child, just because you know how to have fun doesn’t mean you’re not serious. I told that to Balanchine, too. Remember that always.’ ”
Illustration by João Fazenda
Gold, who is fifty-two, wore a bucket hat, a striped Breton jersey, and black patent-leather Danskos. He walked into the Indo-Persian Walled Garden, which is a surviving portion of Samuel Untermyer’s hundred-and-fifty-acre Gilded Age estate, Greystone. Under an arm, Gold had tucked a cardboard envelope stuffed with sixteen photographs that Cunningham had taken at the park in 2013 and mailed to him. “He told me, ‘Child, I have a project for you. You need to perform at the Untermyer Gardens. It’s the most beautiful place,’ ” Gold said. Isadora Duncan performed there in the twenties and thirties.
In the garden, Gold opened the envelope. On each photo, Cunningham had scrawled notes detailing how a performance might be staged. One, of a mosaic-floored plaza flanked by sphinx-topped columns, read, “Looking from the amphitheater toward entrance. . . . Dance floor could be enlarged on lawn.” The mosaic, based on an ancient fresco, shows lotus blossoms among spiral shapes. Another: “The dance floor is center between the columns & sphinxes.” Cunningham noted that the amphitheatre would hold about “200 people plus standing” and pointed out that the park provided seat cushions so that guests wouldn’t be sitting on stone. On a shot of the Temple of the Sky—a roofless circle of Corinthian columns topped with a palmette-and-anthemion design—he had written, “Great for after-dance reception.”
Looking at the photos, Gold said, “I thought, Great, let’s make this happen.” He began petitioning Stephen Byrns, the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy’s president. Byrns stalled. When Gold would run into Cunningham at an event or at his usual stalking ground, in front of Bergdorf Goodman, Cunningham always asked about the Untermyer idea. “The last time I saw him was in 2016, at an event at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and he asked again, but this time he was more intense and seemed agitated that it wasn’t happening,” Gold said. “He kept saying, ‘You have to make this happen!’ ”
Cunningham died shortly after that, and Gold dropped his Untermyer pursuit. Unbeknownst to Gold, though, Cunningham had lobbied Byrns as well. This spring, seeking to augment the Untermyer’s outdoor performances, Byrns reached out (“A lot of water under the bridge in the last 5 years,” he wrote in an e-mail) and invited Gold to mount a program this summer. “I didn’t hesitate,” Gold said. “I ran to my storage space to see if I still had these pictures.”
Gold approached the stage area to demonstrate a few of the show’s moves. After a couple of pirouettes, he said, “In constructing the program, I was trying to think from Bill’s perspective—what he would have liked to see, what he would have liked to photograph.”
A few weeks later, he returned for the performance. About two hundred people had bought tickets. The gardens are public, and ten minutes before curtain a large wedding party barged past the “CLOSED FOR A TICKETED EVENT” signs to pose for photographs. “I was nervous that they were tracking mud and dirt onto the stage and the dancers would slip,” Gold said. “I told them, ‘We’re about to do a show.’ And they said, ‘We have a fucking permit.’ ” Once the bride and groom left, Byrns introduced the program, and talked about Cunningham: “When they were arranging for him to come here, his assistant asked, Where was Yonkers, exactly? ‘And do you think Mr. Cunningham could ride his bike up there?’ He was about eighty at the time.” After the show, there was a reception at a red-sauce Italian place in a Yonkers mini-mall. Cunningham’s suggested party venue, the Temple of the Sky, was closed for renovations. It will be unveiled in October, at a gala honoring Martha Stewart, an event that would have been just another day at the office for Bill Cunningham. ♦