TRUMAN CAPOTE’S ICONIC & BITCHY BLACK AND WHITE BALL OF 1966

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When Capote threw a party at the Plaza for the release of his epic “In Cold Blood”, the biggest stars came calling.  But little did they know that it would be Capote’s coup de grace, as he masked the world’s most important faces, in a calculated move that controlled the elites of politics, power and prestige.  It was the night Capote made 500 friends, and 15,000 enemies.

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Arguably, one can say that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” catapulted Truman Capote’s stardom to a level that very few writers ever reach.  It was a work so special, with a style of prose so signature, it would stir literary heavyweight Norman Mailer to openly praise Capote as “the most perfect writer of my generation.” Capote himself would later say that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the turning point in his career. Still Capote knew he could go further, professing– “But I’m nowhere near reaching what I want to do, where I want to go. Presumably this new book is as close as I’m going to get, at least strategically.”

This “new book” Capote was referring to was “In Cold Blood”, and it would do more than enough to get him where he wanted to go.  Upon its release in 1965, “In Cold Blood” created a wave of acclaim and controversy that would carry Capote for years to come, and make him one of America’s most talked about writers ever.  And a work of art this important deserved a grand celebration that was equally epic.

So in 1966, Capote decided to host a party that would be his “great, big, all-time spectacular present” to himself.  Some might even say that the 1966 Masked Black and White Ball was truly one of his greatest works ever.

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Truman Capote arrives at the Plaza Hotel holding hands with Mrs. Katherine Graham, the guest of honor.  Mrs. Graham was the president of the Washington Post and Newsweek Magazine.  – Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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No stranger to celebrity, Capote was already a fixture in New York City’s elite social circles, and knew very well how to play the game.  A masterful manipulator of self-promotion, he knew that this was much more than just a celebration—it had the potential to be a major publicity opportunity for “In Cold Blood”, and the ultimate act of self-aggrandizement.

The task before Capote now was no easy one.  How could he devise the perfect, titillating, gimmick for the party he planned to hold for himself?  One that would create a spectacle like none ever seen before, that would hold both the media and fans breathless?  Well, the answer was pure genius.

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Candice Bergen holding her white bunny mask at Truman Capote’s epic 1966 Black and White Ball. — Image by © Elliott Erwitt

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Capote decided to make it the most posh event, not just of the year, but also of the decade, and maybe even the century.  He held it at New York City’s Plaza Hotel — which In Capote’s mind was the only decent ballroom left in the city.  Attendance would be limited to 540, so it quickly became the most coveted invitation on every major celebrity’s wish list.  Capote knew he was in control, and would often taunt the potential guests with, “Well maybe you’ll be invited, and maybe you won’t.”

This was not just an invitation to a party.  It was the ultimate social validation. This was Capote’s statement to the world that the 540 guests hand-selected by him were the cream of the crop, and many felt he had the power to make or break them. Soon the begging, bribes, and threats began, as those unwilling to chance that they may not make the final cut, pulled out all the stops.  The hounding got so bad, Capote even had to leave town for a while.

The final guest list ended up as a surprisingly eclectic mix of New York socialites, Hollywood idols, artists, authors and writers, political powerhouses, and even Capote’s own doorman, and elevator operator.

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Adding to the glitter and dazzle at author Truman Capote’s masked party are Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II (left), and Princess Lee Radziwill accompanied by her husband Prince Stanislaus Radziwill (right). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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On that magical eve, it was said of the arriving guests in The New York Times that, “They rolled off the assembly line like dolls, newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels and addressed to Truman Capote, the Plaza Hotel.”

The media presence that greeted them upon arrival was unbelievable, as a wall of flashbulbs and reporters not typically encountered at private parties met the surprised guests.  There was also a large crowd of gawkers and critics who were quick to cheer and even throw-out spirited remarks and nasty comments at certain celebs.

The masks were Capote’s way of stripping his guests of their celebrity power, in sort of an insolent way.  Maybe he was trying to level the playing field, but in the end, they all found their familiar cliques once inside and huddled together like high school girls.

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Princess Lee Radizwell, sister of Mrs. John F. Kennedy, wife of the late President, adjusts her mask after arrival at a masked ball thrown by best-selling author Truman Capote. The rich, celebrated, beautiful and social of two continents were invited to the socially historic ball. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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The women didn’t seem to mind wearing their masks, and embraced the glamour and mystery of the evening’s events.  The men on the other hand, were less than compliant, some were downright irritated, as many took them off at the first chance they had.  All except Andy Warhol, a Capote chum, who somehow got by with not wearing one at all.

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Author Norman Mailer and masked companion at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at New York’s swanky Plaza Hotel – one of the most extravagant and elegant New York’s social circles had seen in a long while.  – Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Norman Mailer, the literary rebel of his time was there, in his battered raincoat, as he artfully dodged reporters ribbing him with comments about “In Cold Blood” outselling his own works.  To which he simply responded, “It just shows that I’m no longer the biggest thief in America.” Later he had a heated exchange with George Bundy over the Vietnam War.  All in all, It was Mailer as usual.

Frank Sinatra may have been the one personality there that evening that was too big for Truman Capote’s charades to contain.  Sinatra seemed less than willing to play along, quipping to the Washington Post columnist Suzy Knickerbocker, “I don’t know how anyone can recognize Mia with her mask on.” Suzy tried to soothe Frank by replying, “I think it has something to do with her haircut, Frank, honestly I do,” referring to Mia Farrow’s short hairdo from filming Rosemary’s Baby.

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Reporters swarm Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.   – Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Frank Sinatra immediately took control of the joint upon entering, saying to his group, “I’ll get the table for us ’cause I know all the waiters,” and was granted one of the best tables in the ballroom right next to the stage.  Mia spent much of the night dancing, while her hubby worked the room and boozed.  The wait staff made sure that a bottle of Wild Turkey, Frank’s favorite drink, was never out of arm’s reach.

It would end up being Sinatra who’d have the last word.  As the story goes, around 2:45am he effectively shut down Capote’s Black and White Ball by announcing to his cronies that it was time to move on. Capote begged Sinatra to stay longer, knowing that his departure would lead to the place clearing out. But Frank already had his mind set on an after-party at his favorite bar, Jilly’s.  There was no changing his mind.  By 3am the festivities were well winding down, and the ball slowly came to an end as people lingered and chatted, while others like Gianni Agnelli and friends made off to continue the evening elsewhere.

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Since masks were the order of the night at author Truman Capote’s Black and White Dance, this gentleman (and iconic decorator), Billy Baldwin, went all out and came dressed in what was probably the weirdest mask at the party–one which looks like a cross between the mythical unicorn and a fox.  – Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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The reviews are mixed as to whether or not Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White ball actually lived up to all it’s hype.  One thing is for sure, never since has there been a party as anticipated or talked about, with the anything close to the star power of that evening.  Truman humbly commented to reporters at the end of the evening, “It was just what it set out to be.  I just wanted to give a party for my friends.” Not too bad for a poor little boy from Alabama, if you asked me.  Especially since no one’s ever done better.

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The chosen few: a selection from Capote’s guest list

Mr and Mrs Gianni Agnelli, Count Umberto Agnelli, Edward Albee, Mrs W Vincent Astor, Mr and Mrs Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Cecil Beaton, Mr and Mrs Harry Belafonte, Marisa Berenson, Candice Bergen, Mr and Mrs Irving Berlin, Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, Mr and Mrs Leonard Bernstein, Mr and Mrs Benjamin Bradlee, Mr and Mrs William Buckley, Mr and Mrs Richard Burton, Prince Carlo Caracciolo, Lord Chalfont, Dr and Mrs John Converse, Noël Coward, Mr and Mrs Walter Cronkite, Mr and Mrs Sammy Davis Jr, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mrs Marshall Field, Mr and Mrs Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Mr and Mrs Henry Ford 2nd, Mr and Mrs John Kenneth Galbraith, Greta Garbo, Ambassador and Mrs Arthur J Goldberg, Mr and Mrs Samuel Goldwyn, Henry Golightly, Hamish Hamilton, Ambassador and Mrs W Averell Harriman, Mr and Mrs William Randolph Hearst Jr, Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz 2nd, Miss Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Hilton, Horst P Horst, Christopher Isherwood, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur, Senator and Mrs Jacob K Javits, Lynda Bird Johnson, Philip Johnson, Senator and Mrs Edward M Kennedy, Mrs John F Kennedy, Mrs Joseph P Kennedy, Senator and Mrs Robert F Kennedy, Alfred Knopf, Mr and Mrs Joseph Kraft, Mrs Patricia Lawford, Mr and Mrs Irving Lazar, Harper Lee, Vivien Leigh, Mr and Mrs Jack Lemmon, Mr and Mrs Alan Jay Lerner, Mr and Mrs Alexander Lieberman, Mr and Mrs Robert Lowell, Mr and Mrs Henry Luce, Shirley MacLaine, Mr and Mrs Norman Mailer, Mr and Mrs Joseph Mankiewicz, Mr and Mrs Walter Matthau, Mr and Mrs Robert McNamara, Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Mr and Mrs James Michener, Mr and Mrs Arthur Miller, Mr and Mrs Vincent Minnelli, Mr and Mrs Samuel I Newhouse Sr, Mrs Stavros Niarchos, Mike Nichols, Lord and Lady David Ogilvy, Mr and Mrs Gregory Peck, George Plimpton, Prince and Princess Stanislas Radziwill, Mr and Mrs Jason Robards Jr, Governor and Mrs Nelson A Rockefeller, Philip Roth, Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild, Theodore Rousseau, Mr and Mrs Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Mrs David O Selznick, Mr and Mrs Irwin Shaw, Mr and Mrs Frank Sinatra, Steve Sondheim, Sam Spiegel, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Gloria Steinem, Mr and Mrs William Styron, Mr and Mrs Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Ambassador and Mrs Llewellyn E Thompson, Penelope Tree, Mr and Mrs Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mrs T Reed Vreeland, William Walton, Mr and Mrs Edward Warburg, Andy Warhol, Mr and Mrs Robert Penn Warren, Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, Mr and Mrs Billy Wilder, Tenessee Williams, Mr and Mrs Edmund Wilson, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Darryl Zanuck

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27 thoughts on “TRUMAN CAPOTE’S ICONIC & BITCHY BLACK AND WHITE BALL OF 1966

  1. Wonderful. Congrats to TC again for lampooning the foolish set. But one wonders whether he would get away with this sort of thing today, especially considering that America’s modern power elite is even less American (i.e., more Middle Eastern) and more prone to lawsuits than its predecessors.

  2. Excellent! What wouldn’t I give to see some pics of Bankhead and Steinem at this event – I didn’t know they had attended. Hope this signals a return to regular posting.

  3. Capote’s genius for self promotion was, to my mind, far in advance of his literary attainments. At the time that Capote threw this party Thomas Pynchon’s “V” had been out for three years and, if I recall correctly, Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49″ was newly published. Mailer, who declared Capote to be “the most perfect writer of my generation” may not of heard of Jorge Luis Borges, or Pynchon, or even of the estimable Rudolph Wurlitzer.

  4. Great read

    Would of loved to be part of that crowd, so many names and personalities, Frank Sinartra!!!!!
    Theres so many “sheep ” in the world

  5. JP~

    how are you? have not heard from you for awhile…

    Great post, I have always heard from those in the know Truman’s B/W party was the Party to Emulate for All Time…. hope all is well…

    Cheers Federico

  6. JP

    Once again a nice post. What a solid era for Literary giants. Mailer, Capote, Vidal, and Williams. Are we just being too nostalgic? I just don’t think of contemporary writers on their level. Keep up the great work.

    Mark Loquet

    • Mark,

      You are right on.

      You can never be too nostalgic, in my book. It was an era that we will never see the likes of again.

      Best,

      JP

  7. JP
    As usual your cut through all the bullshit ,and come clean with another classic peice of Americana and the power of being a wordsmith.

    Missed your post, and am enthusiastic with it’s return.

    Ciao, Dominic

  8. Man,

    so glad to know you’re back.
    6 weeks of clicking boredome are over.
    Spread the news: “the selvageyard is back, the selvadeyard is back!”

    b Rgds
    Uwe

  9. I’m glad that at least one person (Sinatra) had the stones to stand up to that simpering weirdo.

  10. The black and white ball that Capote was imitating that night at the Plaza had been thrown earlier in Los Angeles by Dominick Dunne and his wife, an original idea for a theme and a huge celebrity-studded party attended by an evidently impressed guest named Truman Capote. When Capote threw his own version in New York, never mentioning that he was mimicking Dunne, he invited every celebrated person he knew except….Dominick Dunne!

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