As we enter the festive season our thoughts turn to planning parties for the holidays ahead, when we’ll gather with friends and family.
It’s a good time to seek inspiration from one of the greatest social events of all time: Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, held at New York’s Plaza Hotel on November 28, 1966. More than 50 years later, people are still talking about it.
Often called the Party of the Century, the Black and White Ball was technically held in honor of Washington Post newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, but it was, in truth, all about Truman. Capote was an American author, tastemaker and social butterfly, whose true-crime nonfiction novel In Cold Blood had become a runaway success the year before. The party was his chance to surround himself with the beautiful women who formed his coterie—his so-called swans—and to play puppet master for what would be remembered as one of the most extravagant evenings of all time. (Even if it only cost him the relatively low price, for a party of 500-plus, of $13,000.)
The invitation list was a who’s who of mid-century movers and shakers from the worlds of Hollywood, politics, literature, art, music, business and industry. But regular folks made the cut, too: people from the small Kansas town where the murders of In Cold Blood had happened, and Capote’s own doorman. When it came to devising the guest list, Capote was ruthless. He wrote and revised his list again and again as his friendships and feuds waxed and waned.
In the end, some 540 people received an invitation and started making plans (while those who didn’t get one started making excuses). The invitation specified the costume for the evening, which took inspiration from the scene set at the Ascot horse races in My Fair Lady, which had won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, the year prior: "Gentlemen: Black tie; Black mask. Ladies: Black or White dress; White mask; fan."
Imagine it: Lee Radziwell—former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister and a princess by marriage—in silvery sequins and white gloves. Frank Sinatra in a tux and a black, whiskered mask, with Mia Farrow on his arm in a mask resembling a white butterfly. Oscar de La Renta in a full-face furry cat’s mask. Candice Bergen in a rabbit mask of white mink, created by none other than future fashion star Halston, then a hatmaker at the Bergdorf Goodman store in Manhattan. Socialite Isabel Eberstadt wore a headdress resembling two swans, one black, one white, their necks interlocking and tail feathers trailing down the back of her sleeveless sheath.
They all danced to tunes played by celebrated bandleader Peter Duchin and at midnight enjoyed a buffet of spaghetti and chicken hash. (Imagine the red-sauce stains on all those white dresses!)
Dressmakers and hatmakers in Manhattan, across the country and in Europe had shifted into high gear to create the outfits that the glittering guests wore that night. And with good reason. The Plaza’s elegant Grand Ballroom didn’t receive much in the way of party décor for the event. As jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane noted in Town & Country magazine on the occasion of the ball’s 50th anniversary: “In those days, the people were the decoration.”
Indeed they were.
TEXT: Andrew Sessa PHOTO: Magnum Photos