Bill Cunningham on Borrowed Dresses, Charity Galas, Astor

“I remember a waiter spilling a tray of food on Sandy Weill,” Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer, said of Citigroup Inc.’s former chairman, a frequent subject in his column “Evening Hours.” “All the gravy went down his back, and he just went with the flow, sitting with his guests.”

Cunningham, 83, accepting the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence last night at the Waldorf-Astoria, was arguing the point that galas are not so glamorous.

The photographer, known for riding a bicycle around town, sported a black tie and a navy blazer in place of his trademark blue jacket. He also recalled former World Bank President James Wolfensohn playing the cello and retired Goldman Sachs partner James Marcus speaking “flawless Russian” after a concert by a Russian orchestra.

“People don’t realize what you give to these events,” Cunningham said in front of 360 guests including Blackstone’s chairman and chief executive Stephen Schwarzman, Daniel Ziff of Ziff Brothers Investments, Lightyear Capital’s Donald Marron and David Koch of Koch Industries.

“There are cynics, who think the parties are just for ladies who want to dress up,” he continued. “That’s a lie. It’s not that way at all. It is an American tradition of giving back, from a country that has given us everything.”

This particular gala raised $1.5 million for the music education programs at Carnegie Hall, said Weill, its chairman. These programs are now located where Cunningham lived for 60 years in what were once artists’ studios above the venue.

Brooke Astor

Cunningham began his remarks unfurling 10 or so pages of notes. Among the topics he touched on: Brooke Astor (“she gave her time and money”); the New York Times (“I’m just the fluff, I fill around the ads, if we have any”); wisteria in Union Square Park (a sign we’re living in New York’s golden age), and the fact that 30 years ago he used to photograph women going to lunch. Now he photographs them going to work.

Speaking about what to wear to a gala, Cunningham urged women to buy, not borrow their dresses.

Any woman guilty of that crime forgot it when Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo came on stage, to sing “Maria” from “West Side Story” and a few arias. Lauren Santo Domingo, Annette de la Renta, Sarah Jessica Parker and Mercedes Bass were beaming, especially after he took off his jacket.

Cunningham first spotted Weill without his jacket, at a gala in a very hot tent.

“I couldn’t believe it, so I asked who he was. The press agent said he ran a company, couldn’t remember the name but the logo was an umbrella. So I thought, ‘He’s an umbrella maker?’”

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include: Manuela Hoelterhoff interviews Pablo Heras-Casado; Mark Beech on new rock CDs; Jeremy Gerard on Broadway.