By Megan McKinney
The late Bunky Cushing was a meticulously self-invented 21st century Chicago legend. Although he worked with intensity at perfecting the image he projected, it was always with love and generosity to those around him.
It was a hectic schedule: putting his unique imprint on the sale of shirts and ties at Polo Ralph Lauren throughout the week, writing through much of every night in a quest to become the non-fiction Truman Capote, issuing his own gossipy online publication and simply living up to the man-about-town persona he had so carefully crafted.
However, Bunky was best known for the several parties he hosted for Chicago ladies each year. It began in 1994, with an annual St. Valentine’s Day Tea, usually at The Ritz—back when The Ritz was THE RITZ.
Puttin’ on the Red—at The Ritz. This tilted photograph of one St. Valentine’s Day Tea decorated the invitation to the following year’s tea. Tea invitations carried the line, “Ladies, Please Wear Red.”
Bunky’s model was Truman Capote, and for years he stashed away cash to pay for his own version of the Capote Black and White Ball. His was to be a Red and White Ball. (“Ladies, Please Wear Red or White”) in The Peninsula Chicago Ballroom. It finally happened on February 14, 2004.
About a dozen friends had been asked to give dinner parties before the Ball, and Bunky chartered buses to pick up guests after dinner and deliver them to The Peninsula. The movement from one location to another increased the energy of an already festive evening.
Nancy Kelley and Skip Grisham descending The Peninsula Ballroom staircase at Bunky’s Red and White Ball. They had dined at Zarada Gowenlock’s apartment before the Ball.
The Ball was a one-time occasion, but the tea went on for the rest of his life. In the meantime, Bunky and the late Hazel Barr had created an annual “hat luncheon”—to which charity-contributing guests were instructed to wear hats.
Bunky and Hazel.
The most visible hatted lady was always a glamorous New Yorker brought in for the day as guest speaker. Nan Kempner, C.Z. Guest (who refused to wear a hat) and Charlotte Ford were among these.
Somewhere along the way, Bunky decided hat lunches were becoming too ubiquitous, and the one he created with Hazel was replaced by his own Handbags and Halos, a benefit for the Howard Brown Health Center. The annual luncheon received its jaunty name from Classic Chicago Style Editor Michelle Crowe, as a nod to the “gently used” handbags guests donated for resale at Howard Brown’s Brown Elephant shop.
Classic Chicago Style Editor Michelle Crowe in Bunky Red.
Handbags and Halos began at RL but soon moved to the elegant Palmer House Empire Room, where guests—courtesy of the Palmer House executive Ken Price—lunched on Mrs. Palmer’s gilded porcelain. Again a glamorous national figure was the focal point, among them were Dina Merrill, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Lynn Wyatt and Tippi Hedren. Bunky’s invitations were always irresistible.
Victor Skrebneski’s 1959 photograph of Carmen Dell’Orefice appeared on Bunky’s invitation to lunch with the ageless model.
Carmen, then 77, with Bunky in 2008.
The visiting star was entertained for dinner at RL or The Peninsula the night before by Bunky and his little circle of “Bunkettes” (a group of eight or so ladies, sprinkled with former Crickettes).
The lively pre-party was effective not only in reassuring even the most skeptical Manhattanite (Houstonite, in Lynn’s case) suddenly plunked down in what she might consider “the boonies,” but it also extended the imported glamour of the occasion.
Tippi Hedren, a dear friend of Chicago’s Patti Kaplan from their New York modeling days, regaled the Bunkettes at dinner with tales of the lions, tigers and ligers (half lion, half tiger) she was raising. And they also heard about that other, human tiger—Alfred Hitchcock. The conversation grew even more interesting with Tippi’s #MeToo information concerning the director. The world now knows of naughty Hitch’s advances on Tippi, but then it was titillating news.
Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock.
In 2009, Bunky added the spring Early Birds and Book Worms (although he always referred to it as his author brunch). The much-too-early-morning brunch and book signing at RL benefited the Jane Addams Senior Caucus.
Too early—but always a full house.
Bunkettes Nancy Kelley, Mamie Walton and Linda Heister at one of Bunky’s author brunches.
Next Saturday, it will be three years since Bunky abruptly left us following triple bypass heart surgery. And his ladies parties vanished with him. Until now.
On September 18, the Service Club of Chicago continued Bunky’s “author brunch” tradition, during which author Marc Sievers was interviewed by “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney.
Ina Pinkney and Marc Sievers continuing Bunky’s tradition.
The more things change . . . September 18, 2018, with Ina and Marc in the upper left.
Thank you, Bunky.
Hopefully the Service Club ladies will keep the author brunch tradition going—and possibly even add some of the other great early 21st Century Bunky-created parties.
John Reilly Photography
Robert F. Carl