On November 28, 1966, Truman Capote hosted “a little masked ball” for 540 of his closest friends. The event, held at the venerable Plaza Hotel ballroom, went down in history as the Party of the Century. Though hailed as the greatest party ever thrown, it was also shamed for its over-the-top exuberance in the context of widespread civil unrest and the Vietnam War. Both sentiments are correct, but above all Truman Capote wasn’t just giving a party — he was creating a work of art.
Coming from a modest background but propelled by natural talent and circumstance into the upper echelon of New York society, Capote knew everybody: gorgeous socialites, writers, artists, and politicians, among many notable others.
Creatively drained after taking six years to finish his classic In Cold Blood, Capote needed a new endeavor to occupy himself with. A grandiose ball, reminiscent of the 19th century events with their beautiful gowns, elegant people, and mysterious appearances, proved to be the perfect undertaking.
The success of the ball hinged on a list of invitees that Capote worked on tirelessly for several months. Breaking with the usual tradition of matching people according to social status, wealth, or occupation, he formed the idea of completely mixing the crowd. The wealthiest people would rub elbows with the artists, the writers would talk to the politicians, and the actresses would mingle with the complete unknowns from his childhood. The mandatory masks would ensure anonymity. Capote was the only person able to invite the most famous people in the world and have them cover their faces! Alongside Rose Kennedy, Tallulah Bankhead, Norman Mailer, Linda Byrd Johnson, Andy Warhol, and the Sinatras, he invited the people from Kansas whom he befriended while working on In Cold Blood. Some famous actress danced the night away with a tall, dark stranger who turned out to be Capote’s building elevator operator. The masks were to come off at midnight, revealing famous and not-so-famous faces. The masks were spectacular, crafted by the world’s best designers. Ladies tried to outdo one another by ordering two masks, just in case. The host himself bought a 39 cent Halloween mask from the FAO Schwarz.
The idea of such unpredictable inviting turned the city on its heels. One executive famously called a meeting to announce that he had received an invite. The unfortunate souls who did not receive one were devastated. Some pleaded with Capote but to no avail. He gave in only once when a man wrote to him that his wife threatened suicide if not invited. He invited the president’s daughter Linda Johnson but did not invite her boyfriend actor George Hamilton. He had no qualms about withholding an invitation from one member of a couple whom he deemed unfit for the party.
The official reason for the party was to cheer up Kathryn Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. Although she had already moved on from her husband’s tragic suicide three years prior, Truman Capote, not taking no for an answer and insisting on cheering her up, made her the official guest of honor.
The party was as orchestrated as a well directed play. At 8 pm the guests were instructed to meet for dinner served by appointed hostesses around town. 18 dinners were served simultaneously in the best New York houses prior to the main event at the Plaza. At 10 pm, the string of fed, beautifully attired, and masked guests arrived at the hotel. The dancing and socializing was interrupted by a dinner served at 2 am and followed by more dancing. 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne were popped, allowing champagne to flow “like the Mississippi, or the Nile.”
The party was a grandiose success, and proceeded without a glitch. It was a talk of the town and the press for months afterwords. The unfortunate uninvited ones fabricated stories explaining why they could not make it. These stories varied from traveling to Europe to the unexpected demise of a favorite aunt. Capote made many enemies when he published the list of invitees, exposing people who had to bury their imaginary relations.
The Black and White Ball thrown by Truman Capote was more than just a party — it was, indeed, a work of art.