What if you gave a party and everybody came? That is precisely what occurred on the drizzly night of Nov. 28, 1966, when 540 of Truman Capote’s nearest and dearest turned out for what the writer insisted on calling his “little masked ball for Kay Graham and all of my friends.”
The evening survives on film and in the recollections of the guests who are still alive 50 years later. It was a party of a kind we are unlikely to see again, given that it allowed for a then unheard-of, but now more common, coming together of disparate social spheres.
“There will never be another first time that somebody like Andy Warhol could step into a room with somebody like Babe Paley,” said Deborah Davis, the author of the 2006 book “Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and the Black and White Ball,” referring to one of Capote’s so-called swans — the socialite wife of William Paley, who built the CBS network.
Before the Black and White Ball, no one had ever imagined, let alone attended, a formal party with a guest list so wildly catholic, it brought into one room the poet Marianne Moore and Frank Sinatra, Gloria Vanderbilt and Lionel Trilling, Lynda Bird Johnson and the Maharani of Jaipur, the Italian princess Luciana Pignatelli (wearing a 60-carat diamond borrowed from Harry Winston) and the documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.
When Capote summoned his pals for a night of dancing (and spaghetti and chicken hash at midnight), he was as famous as he would ever be, and flush with the profits from his critically acclaimed best-selling nonfiction book “In Cold Blood.”
In the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza hotel, starting at 10 o’clock that night, European aristocrats rubbed elbows with novelists and scholars; social register blue bloods drank Taittinger Champagne with the denizens of Hollywood and Broadway; the stolid middle-class citizens of Garden City, Kan., who had played host to Capote during the years he had spent researching his masterpiece, danced to the Peter Duchin Orchestra alongside the photographer and film director Gordon Parks, who would later joke that he — along with Harry Belafonte and Ralph and Fanny Ellison — represented “the black of the Black and White Ball.”
In the half-century since that Monday evening just after Thanksgiving, countless other parties have evoked, interpreted or outright copied Capote’s ball.
“There are probably more Black and White Balls at this point than Civil War re-enactments,” Ms. Davis said.
Most memorably, perhaps, the hip-hop mogul Sean Combs used the party as a template for a 29th-birthday wingding he tossed for himself in 1998, reportedly spending more than $500,000 to furnish Cipriani with a translucent monogrammed dance floor and Plexiglas go-go booths for the amusement of a collection of celebrities, among them Martha Stewart, Ronald Perelman, Sarah Ferguson and Donald J. Trump.
Now it is difficult to recall a time when the borders between society and celebrity were sharply delineated and seldom crossed. And in an era when many celebrities attend parties because they have been paid to do so (and post the evidence later on Instagram), it is startling to remember a time when people went to parties to have fun.
A certain indulgent pleasure can be had in reliving the innocent wonder that inspired Capote’s Black and White Ball, a party its host had in some ways begun to plan as a precocious, lonely 8-year-old in Monroeville, Ala., but did not have the social power to pull off until the year of his huge literary success.
“Truman had always had a fantasy of the grand world, the smart world, the literary world, each of which was in some ways precious to him,” said Robert Silvers, a founder and editor of The New York Review of Books.
“It was tremendously important to Truman to be a star in all of those worlds,” he added, referring the elites of heredity and of accomplishment Capote cultivated with equivalent ardor. “The mixture of all those groups was so obviously an emanation of Truman’s dream.”
Even after a half-century, the party retains a dreamlike aura, one supported by photographs and newsreels that show the guests in black tie and monochrome couture dresses, masks by Adolfo and a young milliner who went by the single name Halston.
Sometimes buried in the retellings of the Black and White Ball myth is its guest of honor, Katharine Graham, whose family owned Newsweek and The Washington Post. After the suicide three years earlier of her husband, Philip Graham, Ms. Graham, who would go on to run the newspaper for two of the most noteworthy decades in its storied history, seemed thrust into a role for which she had little preparation, said one party guest, the psychotherapist Gillian Walker.
Raised in elite Washington circles, Ms. Walker was a childhood friend of Ms. Graham’s children and thus had a singular perspective on how power was distributed in those pre-feminist years.
“For all those women, those swans, however fancy they were, or whatever, they were still wives,” Ms. Walker said, referring to Ms. Graham, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Vanderbilt and Gloria Guinness. “Because of the complexities of his own life, Truman as an outsider understood these women. And what he did for Kay was such a great thing, giving her this party that brought her into the larger world she had left behind when she met Phil.”
The reserves of compassion that were characteristic of his best writing were deeply ingrained in Capote’s nature. Or they were, at least, in the days before his big party, which some consider the writer’s unintended swan song, a final golden moment before he began a descent into drugs and drink.
“People forget Truman was very gracious,” said Ashton Hawkins, for decades the senior counsel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was a lawyer on the way up in 1966. He recalled the host taking him by the arm and steering him toward a corner of the ballroom, where Rose Kennedy was stranded alone.
“I thought that was fun, that you could sit down with the mother of the president,” Mr. Hawkins said. “Everybody talked to everybody and just sat down where they wanted to sit.”
The relatively loose atmosphere led the bandleader Peter Duchin to later characterize the ball as having “closed an era of elegant exclusiveness and ushered in another of media madness.”
“It was a marvelous party because there was such a mixture of people, all kinds, all ages,” said the jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane, who, at 34, was among the younger attendees. The big moment of the evening for him, Mr. Lane said, was being walked to a gilded settee where the actress Tallulah Bankhead sat holding court and furiously smoking.
“I talked to her for about three minutes, but then could say I’d met Tallulah Bankhead,” Mr. Lane said with a laugh. “In the old days, it wasn’t a publicist society, and now it’s all publicists. People then had publicists to keep their names out of the papers, and nobody’d ever been to Kardashia.”
From the first, Mr. Capote had a canny understanding of fame and a prescient sense of celebrity’s untapped potential. Limiting press attendance inside the party to four hand-selected journalists — including one, Charlotte Curtis, from this newspaper — he heightened its air of exclusivity while managing potential criticism about the affair’s overall modesty.
European guests familiar with, say, the heady opulence of Carlos de Beistegui’s 1951 masked ball held at the Palazzo Labia in Venice, were heard to snipe about Capote’s modest supper menu and candles-and-balloons décor. Yet, in a sense, they were missing the point. Capote understood that the ball’s true ornaments were its boldface attendees, even going so far as to provide The Times with a guest list, which the newspaper published the following day.
Never mind that some of those listed, like Greta Garbo, were not actually at the party. The effect had been achieved. Before The Times published a “List of Those Who Were Invited to the Party at the Plaza Hotel,” that distinction had been reserved mainly for White House dinners and the like.
In many ways, the Black and White Ball served as a signpost pointing the way to Kardashia, that mythical land where accomplishment is largely optional and fame is an end unto itself. And it also served to help blur forever the lines separating public from private.
Of the attendees wearing masks, “There was something radically democratic in the notion of inviting these very famous people to a party and then telling them to hide their faces,” Ms. Davis said. At the last minute, though, the canny host had someone announce each of the guests as they arrived.
Almost until that night 50 years ago, said the editor and publisher Jason Epstein, New York society observed the rigid caste-based system it had followed since the Knickerbocker days, one dominated by a handful of families not much different from those depicted by Edith Wharton and Henry James.
“Then here came this out-of-town gay fellow who conquered society to the extent that he gave that party,” Mr. Epstein said. “Truman created this new class of talented, good-natured, funny people, and that lasted for quite a long time. Who really knows what is society in New York anymore?”