Idiot or Genius? A Manhattan Playboy at Age 33

Manhattan Playboy at 33

At the age of 33, Ian Cunningham has a severe case of nostalgia for his lost, glorious, misspent Manhattan youth.

“When I was young,” he said, riding in a cab on a Saturday night, “we’d walk home at maybe 6, 7 in the morning, and we’d walk across Central Park, and you’re walking home from the most brilliant evening–sex, drugs, celebrity, everything!–and you’re smoking your cigarettes with your sunglasses on and then you’re passing people on the reservoir, jogging , and it was a combination of ‘What the fuck are those people doing?’ and ‘Why the fuck am I not in bed?’ For me, that was normal for years, walking home while the rest of the city is going to work. That makes you feel a little bit bad, because you feel a little that you are lucky enough to have the ability to walk home at 10 in the morning, and they have to work, and you are just a product of your birth. You just had pure luck.”

Mr. Cunningham’s parents met at a civil rights march in the early 60’s. His father was from an old-line Boston family and his mother was from a relatively poor family in Harlem. They served in the Peace Corps together and got married in Nigeria. Ian was conceived atop Mount Kilimanjaro. His father is now an esteemed pediatrician at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

“I remember once, fifth grade, my mother came to school, and I was embarrassed that she was black. I’m embarrassed about it now, that I was embarrassed about it,” he said over a rum and tonic at a downtown lounge. “But I got over that rapidly. Now my biggest problems are trying to synchronize the idea that I do know better than other people do, yet try to give people the opportunity to speak their minds. I’m pretty sure that I know more than 97 percent of the population from what I’ve learned throughout my lifetime. Basically, if you ask me, I think I know everything.”

He took a drag on a honey-flavored Nat Sherman cigarette.

Growing up on the Upper West Side, Ian was considered a “problem child.” He said he got kicked out of many schools, even Columbia University. “I was studied a lot,” he said. “People were always trying to ascertain whether I was a genius or an idiot.”

He works sometimes as a graphic designer, but work is certainly not what he lives for. “I’ve been going out every single night since I was 16,” he said. “The nights I’ve gone to sleep with no alcohol or a woman next to me could be maybe 10 times. It’s just imbued inside of you, the idea of going out. Such high standards are set when you’re raised in Manhattan. When you’re raised in Manhattan, meeting Woody Allen is nothing. Going out is normal, and to get home at 3 in the morning, that’s an early night.”

“Are you independently wealthy?”

“Here’s a quote from my father: ‘We’re upper class and sinking fast.’ We have lost our money, all we really have is our minds.”

“How can you afford not to work?”

“Socially, at my level, you don’t really pay for anything. You go to lots of cocktail parties, people invite you to country houses, you go to Europe and stay in somebody’s castle. You’re not paying for the things that normal people pay for. So you really do not need a lot of money. You just have to be amusing.”

“Do you have many expenses?”

“I have absolutely no expenses, and that’s the key. Basically, it’s all about pussy. It’s all about power, and power is all about pussy.”

“What role does pussy play in your life?”

“For me, pussy has no part–but when you have the attitude that pussy plays no part in your life, you suddenly find you have lots of pussy. But I don’t have a lot, because I turn it all down.”

Mr. Cunningham was wearing a blue blazer, a white oxford shirt and khaki pants. He looked around the lounge. “I can describe to you all these people’s lives. I’m a New Yorker. I know everything. I know everything . It’s arrogant. I know everything about everybody.”

“So what’s your New York like?”

“There was a time, a situation, which I consider the turning point in New York night life. And it has a name and that name is Robert Chambers. Who was in my class at York Prep. Who was a great friend of mine. The day he killed Jennifer Levin, he changed the face of the city. Before that day, it was possible to be a young person in New York. When you’re 14 in New York, you’re everywhere, you’re drinking, you’re out, you have a freedom, and that freedom gave the city an energy. You’d be at Studio 54 and you’d have 13-year-olds partying with Cher, and that was normal . You can’t have that anymore, because after Robert Chambers–he’s still a great friend of mine, no matter what he did–the consequences of what he did was to make the 18-year-old drinking age a lot more strict , and eventually it was raised up to 21, which cut out a good six years of young, fresh blood. This is the absolute truth of how New York changed. It killed the club scene, it killed New York. New York will never recover until we lower the drinking age.”

Mr. Cunningham (and I) tried to get into Veruka–and found ourselves rejected at the door.

At some point, we were walking down Thompson Street.

“I really find I’m best off with girls who are rich and beautiful,” he said. “They have such less baggage.”

I asked him about cocaine.

“I’m fine with coke,” he said. “I can never turn down drugs, so I try to avoid them–because I think it’s rude . I mean, I think if somebody offers you coke, you have to do it, because it’s just a polite thing to do.”

We ended up in a French place at about 1 A.M. Mr. Cunningham ordered some chicken and a glass of Jack Daniel’s. He perked up a little and suggested a trip to the recently reopened Limelight. “Upstairs it’s quiet,” he said. “It’s just beautiful girls taking off their clothes, up in the V.I.P. room. We have passes, we’re all set, we have drink tickets. We’re on the list. Come with me–let’s go now!”

We got a cab and rolled past Veruka.

“Fuck Veruka,” he said. “I’ve been going out all my life and, frankly, door people know everything. If they don’t think you’re right for a party, I trust their judgment. They’re almost doing you a favor. But you have to be very secure to feel that way.”

“You still like the city, right?”

“I would never leave New York. I mean, I’m leaving. I’m going to marry a girl in Belgium and stay there, but there’s nothing like New York. I know every crack. You forget: I know everything.”

The new generation of club kids was gathered outside Limelight. Mr. Cunningham went to the front and did his spiel. The big security guy barked at him: “I don’t care! Get in the line!”

Ian Cunningham had to wait, like everybody else.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll be great inside.”

–George Gurley

Psssst! Get Yer Dylan, Lennon Bootleg

Bob Dylan and John Lennon, together–spring 1966. Blonde on Blonde and Revolver are just weeks from release. The two pop gods are being chauffeured around London. A short segment of the ride appears in Eat the Document , the seldom-seen film shot by D.A. Pennebaker and fancifully edited by Mr. Dylan himself. Now, a 20-minute bootleg of the ride is making the rounds of Manhattan record companies. Copies go for around $20 (check the sidewalk tables on St. Mark’s Place).

Mr. Dylan, who’s 25 at the time, looks miserable in his black coat. Lennon, also 25, wears shades and a black turtleneck. “Come on, it’s only a film,” he says. “Pull yourself together. Money! Money!”

They attempt some witty banter for the hand-held camera, but it goes nowhere. Next, they deride one-hit wonder Sgt. Barry Sadler (“The Ballad of the Green Berets”) and that “big chick” (Mr. Dylan’s term) in the Mamas and Papas. In the remaining 13 minutes, Bob looks like he’s about to barf–but manages not to. “He was dramatizing just a little,” Mr. Pennebaker said. He added that, with Lennon’s help, he had to hoist young Mr. Dylan out of the limo and up to his hotel room.

How did this footage become available? “Not through me,” the filmmaker said. Whatever its history, $20 is a reasonable price for Dylan addicts to pay to see this “new morning.” As for Lennonphiles, walk away. You’ve already been taken for a ride by Yoko Ono’s box set.

–David Bowman

Idiot or Genius? A Manhattan Playboy at Age 33