The True Story of the Most Famous Social Event of the 20th Century
It's been called the party of the century—an event so grand people begged to be invited. Charlotte Curtis at the New York Times even described it as "the most exquisite of spectator sports." Truman Capote's Black and White Ball represents a singular moment in New York society. Thrown on November 28, 1966, it's as much a part of the writer's legacy as Breakfast at Tiffany's or In Cold Blood, and 50 years later, we're still talking about it.
In the summer of '66, fresh off the successes (and reaping the financial benefits) of his pioneering true crime work, Capote decided he wanted to celebrate with a "great, big, all-time spectacular present"—a party. But he knew enough to know it was gauche to throw such a thing for oneself, so he bestowed the honor on someone else: publisher Kay Graham. A strategic choice, the shy Graham didn't threaten the flock of women Capote surrounded himself with—his "swans" Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Lee Radziwill, among others—and gave them no reason to cry favoritism.
"Truman called me up in the summer and said he wanted to give a party for me, to, quote, cheer me up," Graham told Esquire in 1991. Graham's husband Philip had committed suicide in 1963, leaving her to run the family media empire, which had been started by her father, Eugene Meyer and included the Washington Post and Newsweek. In the fall of 1966, she was one of the most powerful women in publishing, if not the whole country.
"I told him I didn't need cheering up. At first I didn't think he was serious. He had the idea of the party first—I think he had always wanted to give a party at the Plaza. Then afterwards he was looking for a reason, and I guess I was it.… I suppose he chose me because I didn't conflict with all the glamorous women he knew."
"The ball was ostensibly for Kay Graham," editor Leo Lerman later told George Plimpton. But "it was for Truman."
Truman Capote and Kay Graham
Once Capote had his excuse for a party in place, he turned his attention to the guest list. "He sat there planning it all summer long, surrounded by these notebooks," said Lerman. Capote would add names, crossing others off as his friendships waffled. "I think Truman was more excited by the preliminaries of it, by who he'd invite, and who he definitely would not invite," Radziwill said of her friend.
The writer reportedly responded to inquiries about the list with a taunting "Well, maybe you'll be invited and maybe you won't," igniting a fire among socialites yearning for a card. Finding themselves without an invitation, some claimed travel abroad was the reason they couldn't attend (and then had to scramble and book a trip to save face); others tried (unsuccessfully) to bribe Capote. Hollywood legend Tallulah Bankhead's persistent requests paid off, as did the reported threat of suicide. "The ultimate thing was when a man told Truman his wife had threatened to kill herself if she weren't invited," said New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers. Capote—whose mother killed herself a decade earlier—felt for the women and offered her a place on the guest list.
The notebook in which Truman Capote planned the Black and White Ball
Early on, Capote asked legendary bandleader Peter Duchin to play the evening, but the request came with specific instructions. "He called me and said that he was going to give this party for Kay Graham, and he'd love me to play for it, but it's absolutely important that you don't tell anybody that you're going to play because there's going to be no press. It's only going to be people who are friends of Kay's and mine," Duchin told me. "So I said that's great, but of course two days later, everybody was talking about it." There's nothing quite like excluding the press to pique a journalist's interest.
"That was kind of a smart thing to immediately say no press," said Duchin. "The press is going to wonder why the hell they're excluded."
In those days, the people were the decoration.
Plaza's Grand Ballroom. "I wanted it at the Plaza," Capote told the New York Times, "because I think it's the only really beautiful ballroom left in the United States."
Despite the grand facade, the whole affair cost a relatively paltry $13,000. While the champagne was extravagant, and flowed, "like the Mississippi, or the Nile," according to the late C.Z. Guest, the food—a midnight buffet featured chicken hash and spaghetti—was nothing fancy (16 intimate dinner parties were thrown earlier in the evening to ensure guests didn't arrive hungry). And decor was minimal. "In those days, the people were the decoration," jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane told me.
And the glamorous attendees were only supplemented by the party's famous dress code. It was inspired by the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, strikingly costumed by Cecil Burton in black and white. The invitation read: "DRESS Gentlemen: Black tie; Black mask. Ladies: Black or White dress; White mask; fan."
Partygoers went all out, commissioning custom masks and spending hours in the salon to prepare. "I haven't been to a masked ball since I was a child," said Capote of the strict aesthetic. "That's why I wanted to give one." His own disguise, which he purchased from FAO Schwartz, reportedly cost just 39 cents.
"Imagine the Plaza ballroom filled with people wearing wonderful masks," said Duchin. "Don't you think that would be a great look?" Writer John Knowles even compared the evening to "Versailles in 1788."
And while most adhered to the invitation's instructions, photographer Gordon Parks found good reason to skip the mask. "I went with my second wife, Elizabeth," he said. "She spent a fortune getting a rhinestone mask made. I didn't wear a mask. With a mask, people wouldn't know that I was black. After all, I was there to make it a real black-and-white ball."
He had a point: To say the event was lily-white is an understatement—Parks, along with Ralph and Fanny Ellison, were the only people of color in attendance. And yet, for its time, the guest list was diverse in other ways, bringing together artists, writers, actors, singers, ladies who lunch, Capote's doorman, former First Daughters, and Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who had headed up the Clutter murder investigation and was a key character in In Cold Blood.
"I have always observed in almost every situation, and I have been in almost every situation, that people tend to cling to their own types," Capote told Esquire. "The very rich people, for instance, tend to like the company of very rich people. The international social set likes international socialites. Writers writers, artists artists. I have thought for years that it would be interesting to bring these disparate people together and see what happens."
It's one reason why the party's appeal endures.
"The only reason that people are interested in it today is because it was the first time that people from all sorts of disparate places in society were put together in one room to have fun," says Duchin. "Vanderbilts danced with Smiths. People really had a ball."
Henry Fonda and his fifth wife, Shirlee Mae Adams
Lane agrees. "What was interesting about it was that it wasn't just a society ball. There were all of Truman's swans, who were beautifully dressed. And they sort of sat together—Lee Radziwill, and Marella Agnelli, and Babe Paley—and they were all looking like wonderful birds with wonderful feathered masks: beautifully dressed, beautifully jeweled," he remembered, while puffing on a cigarette in his Midtown office.
"And then there were a lot of other nice people who were not society. Writers, old friends of Truman's, and there were a couple of people even younger than I—Penelope Tree, Benedetta Barzini. It epitomized Truman's world—there was this marvelous mixture, which made it fascinating."
"Everybody, no matter how rich or sophisticated, was rubbernecking."
The novelty of the guest list—combined with the absolute fever regarding invitations—drew headlines. The register was even printed in its entirety in the New York Times the morning after; rumor has it Capote leaked it himself, to shame those who had lied about being invited. "Everybody, no matter how rich or sophisticated, was rubbernecking," said Aileen Mehle, better known by her nom-de-gossip, Suzy.
The publication of the list ensured that people couldn't fib about having been present, though there are at least two attendees whose names don't appear in the record: Susan Payson Burke and Jerry Jones.
Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver
"A beau and I had gone to the Ski Ball, which was black tie," Burke told me, when I visited her in her Fifth Avenue apartment. A former PR director for Bergdorf Goodman's, she's now a philanthropist. "It wasn't the most scintillating evening in the whole world, and we ended up kicking our heels, sitting on the edge of the Plaza fountain. I looked over and realized that this was the night of the much-ballyhooed Black and White Ball. So I turned to my date, and I said 'Jones, Let's crash the party.'"
Burke, then an assistant at Bergdorf's, and Jones, a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, followed a group of guests into the ballroom, waltzing right past security. "We ended up in front of Truman, and I think he'd had maybe a drink or two by then, and we were young and fairly attractive, so he said, 'Oh, I'm so pleased you're here, it's so wonderful of you to come.'"
The author then ushered them into the ballroom to a table on the right. "'Well, come with me dears,' he said. And he sat us down with these really kind of funny looking people."
"They didn't fit the New York mold at all. And I talked with my date for a few minutes, meanwhile, just absolutely glued to the dance floor, and I finally turned to this really sort of stocky-looking man next to me, and I said, 'Now you don't look like a New Yorker. Where are you from?'"
"The Midwest," he answered. It was Alvin Dewey. Capote had sat Burke and her date with a group of people who had been involved in In Cold Blood. She said it was fascinating, but awkward. "What do you say to the family of the murdered people?" Eventually her gaze returned to the dance floor.
"The most stand-out couple to me was of course Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. That was a whole new number. And I just stared at them, I couldn't believe that I was seeing these people," she said.
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra
And while Lane cautioned me not to believe people who say they snuck in—"Just don't believe it," he said—I'm inclined to give Burke the benefit of the doubt. She went on to admit her trespassing to Capote, himself, while at a party in Mount Kisco, New York at the house of Bennett and Phyllis Cerf.
"I said well Truman, let me tell you a story. And I described to him about crashing his Black and White Ball. He thought it was hysterical. He laughed and laughed and laughed. And for the rest of his life, whenever I'd see him, he'd always grab my arm and raise it up and say "She crashed my black-and-white party!"
"The ball represented the end of a particular era. It was the end of elegance, in a way."
espite its long-lasting acclaim, the party did have its detractors, those who found the extravagance and hedonism inappropriate in the midst of the ongoing Vietnam War. In fact, Norman Mailer and McGeorge Bundy reportedly took a political conversation about the conflict too far, much to everyone's embarrassment.
"I thought it was one of the most terrible parties I'd ever seen," said writer Alan Pryce-Jones years later. "Everybody tremendously got up in mundane masks, television cameras flashing. I left with Marianne Moore around midnight."
As for Candice Bergen, the press wouldn't leave her alone. "I remember the guilt that I felt, or actually the guilt that other people thought I should feel. Reporters accosted me." said the actress, who was just 20 in 1966. "Nowadays I don't see how anyone can rationalize a gesture like a ball."
Many have tried to recreate the party's magic, from Christie's 2006 ball at Rockefeller Center to this year's Library Lions party. And while those events may have been successful in their own right, they're no match for Capote. "It's hard to recapture things," says Duchin. "People trying to recreate something, but it's impossible because there's a whole different iconography today. Things have happened that have irreparably changed America."
C.Z. Guest put it more succinctly when she said, "They don't give parties like that anymore because everyone's dead, unfortunately."
Masked guests at the Black and White Ball
Indeed, everyone I spoke to about the Ball lamented the demise of New York Society. "I think it died with Bill Cunningham. It's killing me. I really miss that man," said Burke. "Page Six used to be fun. I don't know who those celebrities are now."
"I wouldn't say [New York Society] has evolved since then—it's disappeared," said Lane. "I'm practically the only one left," he joked when I mentioned I was speaking with people who attended Capote's party.
"New York society used to be something you were born into; you didn't just buy your way into it," said Duchin. "It's a different world. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but certainly manners have decreased exponentially."
"The ball represented the end of a particular era," he said. "It was the end of elegance, in a way."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.