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Truman Capote's Black And White Ball

Seabastian writes about fashion and beautiful occasions, including weddings.

The Black And White Ball crowd.

The Black And White Ball crowd.

Truman Capote's Legendary Black and White Ball

If you opened your mailbox in the fall of 1966 and found this invitation in your mailbox, you knew you were on the "it" list:

"In honor of Mrs. Katharine Graham

Mr. Truman Capote requests the pleasure of your company at a black and white dance on Monday, the twenty-eight of November, at ten o'clock, Grand Ballroom, The Plaza."

The dress code called for gentlemen to be in black ties and black masks. Ladies were asked to be in black or white dresses with a white mask or fan.

This was the most coveted invitation of the 1960s, the card asking the recipient to attend the "Party of the Century," Truman Capote's legendary Black and White Ball. One of the most iconic and memorable dinner parties ever thrown, the Black and White Ball still holds a special place in the history of American high society. This is its story.

Truman Capote is one of the most famous American novelists. He is perhaps best known for his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was later translated into the Audrey Hepburn film classic of the same name. Already a well-respected author and popular figure on the social scene by the mid-1960s, Capote's fame and status skyrocketed with the huge commercial success of his 1965 book In Cold Blood, which would also later become a movie. In Cold Blood told the story of the brutal murders of a farmer and his family in Kansas, and despite some questions as to how factually accurate Capote's account of the events had been, the book is widely acknowledged as the first true crime book, thus launching the genre. The success of In Cold Blood made Capote a millionaire (although by his own account, the $2 million he made is less impressive when the six years spent researching and writing the book are taken into account), and it helped to secure his place in high society.

Katherine Graham and Truman Capote.

Katherine Graham and Truman Capote.

Katharine Graham: Designated Honoree

The commercial and social success that Capote achieved for himself was the pinnacle of the dreams of the young Alabama boy whose motto was, "I aspire." Capote was already a fixture on the New York social scene before the release of In Cold Blood, and he had a group of society ladies with whom he often dined with, known as his "flock of swans." Truman's blueblood "swans" included fixtures of American society: Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill (sister of Jacqueline Kennedy), C.Z. Guest, and Marella Agnelli. The socialites of New York affectionately referred to Capote as Tru Heart or Tru Love, and he was like their favorite little pet (albeit one with a sharp tongue and an attitude).

To celebrate his grand achievements, Capote decided to throw a party. Not just a party, but the party, the one to which everyone who was anyone would desperately desire to be invited. He set the date for November 28, 1966, in the Grand Ballroom of New York's legendary Plaza Hotel. Capote wanted his party to be spectacular, to make a splash, and he set about making that come true. The event was much more than a party to Capote. It was performance art and a childhood dream come true. Realizing that it would look better to at least pretend that the party was in honor of someone else, Capote designated Washington Post publisher Katharine ("Kay") Graham as the guest of honor.

Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead

William F. Buckley And Wife Patricia

William F. Buckley And Wife Patricia

Only 540 Were Chosen

Speaking of the guest list, it is one of the most interesting parts of the story behind the Black and White Ball. Capote was a skilled social climber and a master manipulator. When it was he who held the power, he decided to take the opportunity to make or break people socially. Capote taunted potential guests by saying, "Well maybe you'll be invited, and maybe you won't." He was fond of saying that when he threw his famous party; he made 500 friends and 15,000 enemies. Some said that it was less about whom Capote did invite and more about the people whom he consciously snubbed. Capote meant for the guest list to the Black and White Ball to become the 20th century's answer to the famous "400" of the Gilded Age (an 1892 list of the four hundred members of high society who could fit in Mrs. Astor's ballroom on 5th Avenue), and in many ways it did.

An expert at self-promotion, Capote got the kind of publicity for his upcoming party that had never been seen before. People were desperate to score invitations to the Party of the Century. Pleas were made, cash bribes were offered, and would-be partygoers phoned so often that Capote was finally driven out of New York for a time. One of the few guests whose begging was successful was a man who told Capote that his wife had threatened suicide if she did not make it onto the "in" list. Not wanting to be the cause of a death (his own mother had been a suicide), Capote did agree to extend an invitation to the unfortunate woman and her husband.

Capote carried a composition notebook around with him for weeks, working on the guest list. Names went on the list, names were removed, and some were placed back on. When the final guest list was complete, it included 540 people, of whom close to 500 ultimately attended the ball. To hear it told, though, quite a few more people were invited; there were plenty of social climbers who told their friends that they had been invited to the Black and White Ball, but had to be in London or Paris on that night (and then actually left the country to keep up the charade). Their efforts were all for naught, however, as Capote "leaked" the guest list to the New York Times, which published it in its entirety the day after the party.

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The press coverage garnered by the Black and White Ball was unprecedented. Prior to Capote's gala, the only guest lists ever published by the New York Times were those for state dinners at the White House. When guests arrived at the Plaza Hotel on that November evening, they were shocked at the size of the media presence, not to mention the star-watchers behind police barricades. In many ways, the Black and White Ball signalled the end of the era of the private high society party, and the start of the media-driven celebrity craze.

The guests at Capote's party were also a novel mix which had not been seen before: high society (his "swans"), Hollywood stars, authors and literary notables, the biggest names in politics, people Capote had met in Kansas while researching In Cold Blood, a few regular people (like his doorman and an elevator operator), and even a royal couple. By all accounts, it was the Kansans who had the best time and stayed the latest. The unusual combination of dinner guests, which Capote had hoped would give his party a spark never seen before, was not a genuine success, as the guests ended up clumped together in their own familiar cliques. Nonetheless, even the most seasoned partygoer had the feeling that the Black and White masquerade ball was something special and that to be invited to it was the ultimate status symbol.

Nearly every big name was invited to Capote's bash. The guest list included Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Lee Radziwill, Rose Kennedy, Lauren Bacall (who made a splash on the dance floor), jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane, Sammy Davis, Jr., Andy Warhol, author Norman Mailer, Harper Lee (Capote's childhood chum and author of To Kill a Mockingbird), Candice Bergen, Lally Weymouth, interior designer Billy Baldwin, and many more of the glitterati. In attendance that evening was also a trio of Presidential daughters: Margaret Truman Daniel, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Lynda Bird Johnson. As they rode the elevator to the Grand Ballroom in the Plaza, revelers were vetted by Lynda Johnson's Secret Security agents, who were appropriately attired for the party in black masks. Some of the better-known people who declined the invitation to the Party of the Century were the Duke of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor.

When creating his master list, Truman Capote took great pleasure in snubbing those he felt had done him wrong. Former friends, such as Southern author Carson McCullers were omitted from the "in" group, as were reviewers who had not given sufficient praise to Capote's books. Also snubbed was Tiffany and Co. chairman Walter Hoving, because Capote felt Hoving could have shown more gratitude for the free publicity his jewelry store gained from Breakfast at Tiffany's. On the evening of the party, security was present at the Plaza to keep out any would-be party crashers.

Preceding the Black and White Ball were 18 smaller dinner parties at 8pm which were attended by around three hundred guests. Capote dined at the home of Babe Paley, where other guests included Lauren Bacall and Lee Radziwill. Even the pre-party dinners generated buzz, and the press was out in force at Mrs. Paley's building trying to get the inside scoop on the dinner party within. The ball itself began at 10pm, and was even more deluged with media presence. Not only were reporters there from newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Life, but there was even a CBS camera crew there to capture the privileged guests making their entrances to the gala.

As Capote's chosen ones streamed into the Plaza, CBS's Charles Kuralt was there filming. His commentary was shown on the evening news that night, and included lines like, "This is how the other half lives...we know you were not rich, social, or beautiful enough to be invited, or you wouldn't be watching the news." The Black and White Ball was also extensively covered by fashion magazines Vogue and Women's Wear Daily. Many of the guests were very surprised to see the masses of reporters and photographers at the Plaza that night; it was a spectacle like the red carpet at the Academy Awards today, which at the time was unprecedented for a party. More media showed up for the Black and White Ball at the Plaza than had shown up when the Beatles stayed there in 1964!

The Beautiful People turned out for Capote in all their finery. Ladies kept the custom gown makers busy for weeks, and there was a sudden uptick in the revenues of milliners as the A list ordered their custom masks. One of the best-known masks was the white mink bunny mask worn by actress Candice Bergen (who reportedly found the party to be a bore). There was a hum at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York as socialites sought out the perfect gowns for the biggest party New York had ever known. Famed society hairstylist Kenneth and his team were kept busy creating elaborate coiffures for the attendees of the ball. One guest even had Kenneth dye half her hair black and powder the other half white before poufing it into an elaborate Rococo Fragonard-inspired coif. Guest of honor Katharine Graham wore a custom white wool jersey gown by Balmain accented by jet beads. The host of the evening wore black tie and a black mask that he bought at F.A.O. Schwartz for 39 cents.

The arriving guests were all personally greeted by Truman Capote and Kay Graham. She later said that she was very nervous while in the receiving line (which lasted for two solid hours) and that she felt like "an ancient debutante." Guests were treated to music by Peter Duchin and his orchestra, and there was plenty of dancing, as well as much time spent observing the pageantry of the Black and White Ball. Capote actually managed to throw his iconic party for a mere $16,000 (talk about getting bang for your buck!), and the décor was kept simple. Red table linens complemented the red velvet drapes in the Grand Ballroom. The centerpieces for the dinner were fairly minimal: golden candelabras with white tapers and twined greenery. It was Capote's belief that the people in the room would provide enough ornamentation, and that there was no reason for him to waste money on more elaborate decorations. One area where he spared no expense was the champagne. The guests went through 450 bottles of Taittinger, which according to C.Z. Guest, "flowed like the Mississippi, or the Nile".

Although the music at the party was superb (Duchin's standards and showtunes were followed by a funkier band from Detroit called the Soul Brothers), Capote actually danced very little at his own party. His only dance partners of the evening were Kay Graham, Lee Radziwill, and Lauren Bacall. Capote was much more interested in circulating through the party to make sure that everyone else thought it was as fabulous as he did. The host rushed from table to table exclaiming how great the party was. He also enjoyed stepping back and observing the spectacle that he had set into motion.

Penelope Tree Discovered

Supper was served at midnight, consisting of the Plaza Hotel's famous chicken hash, spaghetti Bolognese, pastries, coffee, and some more bottles of Wild Turkey for Sinatra's table (Old Blue Eyes was apparently not a Taittinger champagne sort of guy). One of the most intriguing guests at the Black and White Ball was the pretty young thing Penelope Tree, who arrived clad in a black minidress and tights. She was a perfect symbol for the way in which the early 1960s, which were really more like the 1950s, were about to give way to the "youthquake" of the second half of the decade. Penelope Tree caught the attention of fashion luminaries Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, and Diana Vreeland, all of whom instantly decided that in Tree they had discovered the next big thing. Before long, Penelope Tree was a cover girl, and it all started at Truman Capote's little party.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow.

Frank Sinatra Ended the Party With His Exit

All good things must come to an end, and the departure of Frank Sinatra and his cronies at 2:45 a.m. signalled that the Black and White Ball was coming to a close. Knowing that this would be the case, Capote begged Sinatra to stay longer, but he was ready to take the show on the road for an after-party at his favorite bar, Jilly's. Soon after, Gianni Agnelli and his friends headed out to New York landmark Elaine's for a late night poker game. Capote's friends from Kansas were the last to leave, and by around 3 a.m., the party was finished, with Truman and Kay back at their station at the ballroom door to say good night to their guests.

The Black and White Ball instantly became one of the most iconic parties ever thrown. Some guests felt that Capote's party did not live up to the hype, but many others felt that it was a smash hit. Whatever the case, Truman Capote definitely pulled off a coup when he hosted the Party of the Century, thereby confirming his own elite social status and gaining him entry to every glamorous event for years to come. The boy from a small town in Alabama had officially made it in New York.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


P Conlon on August 22, 2011:

******Why this Gathering- All by itself doesn't qualify for a Film has amazed me for some time. It has all the significance of a "Fool's Paradise" or of America when the Rich were Rich and most were still in awe. The Tech age begining within just a few years narrowed the gap and now most of that Glamorous Group are gone. A Mini Gilded Age almost.

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