Truman Capote was at the height of his popularity in 1966 after the publication of his novel In Cold Blood. He decided to host a party now that he had the financial resources to impress the high society friends he had cultivated. For the party’s black and white theme, he was inspired by the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady and the wedding anniversary of his author friend Dominick Dunne.
He had to choose a guest of honour so as not to appear crass by throwing the party for himself. Rather than choosing one of his ‘swans’, he chose the publisher of the Washington Post Katherine Graham. He chose the Grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel as the venue and Evie Backer was recruited to decorate. Dinner was to be served at midnight and he brought in 450 bottles of Champagne. The cost amounted to $16,000.
Capote bought a black and white notebook which he carried around with him for 3 months adding and deleting names to his 540 person guest list. Besides his swans like Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Gloria Vanderbilt, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli and Lee Radziwill, guests included Lady bird Johnson, Andy Warhol, the Duchess of Windsor, Brooke Astor, Albert Maysles and Mia Farrow.
Capote’s friends hosted 16 private dinners in the lead up to the ball.
The ball took place on Monday November 28th 1966. It was a party that brought together people of completely disparate social spheres, from aristocrats, writers, Hollywood actors and the middle class citizens of Garden City Kansas, who Capote had befriended while researching In Cold Blood. Robert Silvers, a founder and editor of The New York Review of Books has said that “It was tremendously important to Truman to be a star in all of those worlds…The mixture of all those groups was so obviously an emanation of Truman’s dream.” Gloria Steinem wrote in Vogue in 1967 that “the effect was like some blend of Hollywood, the court of Louis XIV, a medieval durbar, and pure Manhattan”.
Everyone wore black and white. The masks for the party were made by Adolfo who later commented that “The orders for masks came in weeks before the ball. Oh, we did many, many—for Drue Heinz, Adele Astaire, Merle Oberon, Amanda Burden, Betsy Bloomingdale. Hers I remember best—a very delicate one, in the shape of a butterfly and held up on a stick. A mask that fits the face disturbs the makeup, so they all had little sticks to hold, sometimes in the middle, sometimes on the side. I was invited to the ball, but I don’t do very well at such things. So Truman came in later and told me all about it”.
16 year old Penelope Tree wore a dress from Betsey Johnson/Paraphernalia. She made such a sensation that she was discovered by Vogue and went on to become a supermodel.
Candice Bergen was seen in a bunny ear mask made of mink fur by a then young milliner- Halston.
Oscar de la Renta and Françoise de Langlade wore marabou feather kitten masks.
Princess Luciana Pignatelli borrowed a 60-carat diamond from Harry Winston and suspended it on her forehead instead of obscuring her face.
Bill Cunningham designed a coq feather mask in the shape of intertwining swans for Isabel Eberstadt, who wore a dress by James Galanos.
The Museum of the City of New York holds a collection of the dresses worn to the party. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/CgWBmyP7-t16LA
Frank Sinatra’s departure at 2.45am signalled the end of the night.
Following the ball, there was an immediate upsurge in masquerade/costume parties. It has been described as a pinnacle of New York’s social history in the same way the Vanderbilt ball of 1883 was during the Gilded Age. Truman’s party was a much more modest affair but the attendees were the real ornaments. In the 55 years since, countless other parties have tried to re-enact it.
In anticipation of selling the contents of the Plaza Hotel, Christie’s Auction House recreated the Black and White Ball in 2006 at Rockefeller Center.
It was Capote’s final golden moment before he descended into addiction. It marked a change in rigid New York society that blurred the lines between class so that all walks of life were allowed ‘to the party’. Publisher Jason Epstein noted that “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?”
Deborah David released the book ‘Party of the Century’ in 2006 all about the celebrated bash.
What would you wear to the Black and White Ball? Here's some looks we styled from our rentals collection: