Masked balls have gone the way of the orange spoon, archaic relics of a lost elegance. (I think we can all agree that Halloween doesn’t walk the sexy line between anonymity and exhibitionism with quite as much sophistication as the costume parties of the past). Let’s take a look at the most famous masked ball of the 20th century, Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball, held November 28, 1966, at the Plaza Hotel.
In 1966, Truman Capote (image 1) had just published his masterwork, In Cold Blood, and wanted to celebrate by throwing himself a party. Always an outsider, despite his newfound celebrity, Capote relished the process of composing his guest list of the beautiful, rich and famous — as gleeful about omitting names as adding them. In the end, he selected 540 people from the ranks of the boldfaced names, blending the worlds of Hollywood, media, politics and high society. The event was ostensibly in honor of Washington Post editor Katherine Graham, but those who knew Capote understood that the ball was an opportunity for him to be both the center of attention and the puppet master in a room full of glitterati.
On the invitation, Capote asked that the guests wear black and white and wear masks (image 2), and that the women also carry fans. Guests gamely had extravagant masks made, many with feathers and sequins, or in animal shapes. Many women figured out that carrying fans alongside their masks was too unwieldy, so only a few brought fans. The men were quick to shed their masks, which it turned out were uncomfortable and occasionally even painful to wear. George Plimpton nearly passed out before figuring out that it was the glue fumes from his mask that were making him woozy. Andy Warhol showed up without a mask, probably less out of impudence or laziness than out of a conceptual statement that his face was artifice enough.
In fact, in a Warholian twist, the event was so widely publicized ahead of time that guests entered the Plaza through a gauntlet of paparazzi and gaping onlookers. One guest talked about how she carried her mask with her on the plane to New York so it wouldn’t get crushed in her suitcase, and when strangers saw it, they’d say, “Oh, you’re going to Truman’s party!” Some guests felt that the party couldn’t possibly live up to such expectations, and declared it a bit of a failure; other guests remember it as being just as fabulous as it looked.
Among the guests were Babe Paley, Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra (image 3), CZ Guest, Normal Mailer, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Lee Radziwill, Jerome Robbins, Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Slim Keith, Tallulah Bankhead, Henry Fonda, Candice Bergen (image 4), Rose Kennedy and Albert Maysles, among many, many others. Dinner was served at midnight, and the guests danced till 3, before peeling off to home, or to clubs in the Village, or, if you were Gianni Agnelli, to a poker game at Elaine’s.
The black and white theme may have just been a detail incidental to the overall fabulousness of the evening. But it clearly got partygoers in the mood for a special occasion, and it photographed beautifully — color photos looked like they were in black and white (image 5), but with the occasional dash of red from the tablecloths at the Plaza (the choice of red may have been partially aesthetic, but it was also the default color at the Plaza, for which they charged nothing. The whole party supposedly cost $16,000, or about $32 per guest).
What do you think, would this sort of party fly these days for you and your friends? Or would you get more eye rolls than “aye’s” from your guest list?
Sources: This 2006 article from the Independent by Deborah Davis is a great source on the event, complete with colorful anecdotes, and it is adapted from Davis's book from the same year, Party of the Century.
George Plimpton wrote a book about Capote called Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintences and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, which includes wonderful quotes and observations about the Black and White Ball, many of which are reprinted here.
I've always thought that the party scene from the 1961 film version of Capote's wonderful novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, is one of the best scenes ever in film (though we can all agree that Mickey Rooney's caricatured portrayal of the Japanese apartment manager is irredeemably offensive). Maybe Capote was inspired to create a party of similar fabulosity in real life?
Images: 1 Truman Capote in his mask for the Ball, 1966, from the New York Times; 2 Guests at the Ball, via Lover of Fashion; 3 Frank SInatra and Mia Farrow, via Electric Feel; 4 Elliott Erwitt's photo of Candice Bergen at the Ball, which sold at Christie's in November 2008; 5 Color image of the ball, via Planet Fabulon.