Truman Capote’s Party To Remember
Truman Capote, who was born in New Orleans in 1924, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. His elderly aunts raised him after his mother abandoned him, and he started writing. A lot. After he was sent to New York City as a teenager, he dropped out of school and got a job with The New Yorker magazine. The young writer started to find literary success, which attracted the social elite. On the heels of his success with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he began work on In Cold Blood, which was in a new genre that he created, the nonfiction novel.
Inspiration For The Black And White Ball
In June 1966, Capote decided to throw a party. In Cold Blood had become such a success that Capote suddenly found himself with the financial resources to throw a party worthy of the friends he had made in high society. Although Capote denied the story of the origins of the ball, his friend Leo Lerman claimed that Capote declared in 1942 that once he was rich and famous, he would throw a lavish party for his friends. On November 28, 1966, after several months of planning, Truman Capote hosted a masquerade ball on the Plaza Hotel in New York City in honor of Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post.
Capote partially got his inspiration when he attended a black and white ball that Dominick Dunne, Capote’s friend and fellow author, had thrown in 1964 for his 10th wedding anniversary. Capote also drew inspiration from the “Ascot scene” in My Fair Lady. In that scene, the women all wore black and white.
A Venue Worthy Of The Party
He decided not to throw the party for himself as that would have been vulgar, so he needed to choose someone to be the guest of honor. He did not want to choose one of the beautiful women he called his “swans.” Instead, he chose Graham, calling her up and telling her, “I think you need cheering up.” According to Graham, she was “baffled” and, as she said, “I felt a little bit like Truman was going to give the ball anyway and that I was part of the props.”
He chose to host the ball in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York City because he had a long affection for the Hotel. He asked Evie Backer, who had decorated his apartment, to create the décor for the event. Capote wanted to include the color red, and he first thought about hanging heavy red drapes to cover the walls of the ballroom. Backer and Capote’s friend Babe Paley argued against this and so Capote instead adorned the tables red tablecloths and gold candelabra wound with smilax. The candelabra held white tapers.
Figuring Out Who To Invite
He also had to figure out a guest list. He spent much of July sitting beside his friend Eleanor Friede’s pool creating the initial guest list. For the next three months, the composition book was his constant companion as he continued to revise the guest list. He added and removed names to create a final guest list that was quite impressive in its variety. He invited writers and singers, actors, and former First Daughters. The list included Katharine Graham, Lady Bird Johnson, Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Vanderbilt, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He also invited his doorman and Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who was a character in In Cold Blood. As he told Esquire, “I have thought for years that it would be interesting to bring these disparate people together and see what happens." In total, there were 540 invitations sent out, which was just under the maximum capacity of the ballroom. The invitations indicated the dress code for the evening, reading: “DRESS Gentlemen: Black tie; Black mask. Ladies: Black or White dress; White mask; fan.”
The Black And White Ball Itself
The guest list was leaked (rumor was that Capote may have leaked it himself) and The New York Times printed the register in its entirety the morning after, which guaranteed that people couldn’t claim they were in attendance when they weren’t.
Almost like a build-up to the ball, many guests attended one of sixteen private dinner parties earlier in the evening to ensure that they didn’t arrive hungry. Capote had drafted his friends to host the parties. For the ball itself, Capote asked the bandleader Peter Duchin to play. At midnight, food was served, and the menu consisted of scrambled eggs, sausages, biscuits, pastries, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken hash. Capote also supplied 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne. All told, he spent $16,000 on the ball although his costume reportedly cost under a dollar.
The Party Of The Decade
The Black and White Ball has been called “a pinnacle of New York’s social history” and was credited with an increase in costume parties. People tried to recreate it, although nothing compared to the original. In 1991, for the 25th anniversary of the original, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan hosted a Black and White Ball in a tent outside Tavern on the Green as a charity event to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. Christie’s Auction House recreated the Ball in 2006 in anticipation of the sale of the contents of the Plaza. It was held at Rockefeller Center and followed the dress code, schedule, and menu of the original. They even had the Peter Duchin Orchestra playing.