Hats and gloves were on their way out by the late 1960s, the casualty of the post-Kennedy era and the Swinging Sixties’ new, more laid-back fashions. But in late 1966, just as the era of old-fashioned millinery began to die, there was a spike in demand for elbow-length gloves, masks, and custom-made headpieces in the upscale department stores of New York City.
These well-heeled women mobbing once-deserted millinery departments weren’t chasing the next fashion fad. Rather, they possessed sought-after invitations to what would end up being the 20th century’s most famous party: the Black and White Ball. The epic fête, given by author Truman Capote in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, would go down as one of history’s most lavish and singular celebrations.
The over-the-top party, which took place on November 28, 1966, was the brainchild of Truman Capote, the American novelist best known for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons, was a product of Depression-era Alabama, where he grew up alongside literary legend Nelle “Harper” Lee. So it’s no wonder that when he finally acquired wealth, fame and social prestige, he decided to throw an unforgettable blowout.
The ball was “a party its host had in some ways begun to plan as a precocious, lonely 8-year-old,” according to The New York Times. By 1966, Capote’s life couldn’t be more different than the one he had turned to writing to escape. His “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, about a quadruple murder in small-town Kansas, was published to wide literary acclaim in early 1966, offering an entrée into the society he had longed to enter for years.
Finally famous and able to afford to treat his new friends, Capote decided to throw a party for 540 guests from radically different backgrounds, professions, and even continents (at least four were represented at the ball). Capote knew that an elaborate soiree would gain him even more publicity and fame, but he also knew he couldn’t just give it for himself. So he made a savvy calculation and invited Katharine Graham as his party’s purported guest of honor.
Graham had assumed leadership of The Washington Post and Newsweek after her husband’s suicide in 1963. Capote told her he wanted to cheer her up and said he’d give the party in her honor. However, his invitation was strategic. It was “guaranteed to arouse the most curiosity and reap the most publicity,”notesVanity Fair. Capote capitalized on social and media interest in the mysterious Graham—now the scion of a major media conglomerate—before turning the question of who else would be invited to the party into a media circus.
A confused, flattered Graham accepted. “I really was a sort of middle-aged debutante—even a Cinderella, as far as that kind of life was concerned….[Capote] felt he needed a reason for the party, a guest of honor, and I was from a different world, and not in competition with his more glamorous friends,” Graham later wrote in her biography, Personal History.
Now that Capote had an excuse to celebrate, he set about planning one of the most profligate parties of its age. Capote had plenty of money thanks to his bestseller, and he wanted to show his guests a good time. So he rented out the Plaza Hotel’s grand ballroom. Guests were asked to wear black and white and to dress in masks, which they would remove at midnight—and the society pages of newspapers and magazines became places to speculate about who would attend and who would design their sumptuous clothing. Capotesaid he’d gotten the idea from a scene in the movie My Fair Lady where the guests at the Ascot ball dress in black and white.
The party cost $16,000 to throw—the equivalent of over $120,000 in modern dollars. But the main attraction was not the relatively simple decorations, the orchestra or the 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne—it was the guests.
Capote challenged the still strict social codes of the day by inviting people both famous and unknown. He invited people from the Kansas town where he had researched the book, along with royals like the Maharani of Jaipur and cult artists like Andy Warhol. Graham’s secretary was invited; so was one of the hotel’s doormen. But so were Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady at the time, and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. Capote spent months creating the guest list, and speculation about the list became a public preoccupation. Just as important as the list of invitees was the list of who didn’t get invited, like any writers who had ever reviewed Capote’s work unfavorably (and Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne, who claimed Capote copied the party’s theme from one of his events.)
Later called “a tour de force of social engineering,” the party was seen as a moment on the cusp of radical social change. Given in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, the party’s guest list represented a carefully curated cross-section of important people in American culture—a kind of who’s who of influential figures in fashion, literature, politics, society, and art. “This was the last possible moment such a party could take place and not be widely excoriated,” Graham wrote.
The party itself was a wild success. Couture-clad women and tuxedo-wearing men pushed through a massive crowd of media—up to 200 cameras in the hotel’s lobby alone—to participate in a receiving line, then drank champagne, danced to live music and mingled with one of the most unusual groups of people ever assembled. At midnight, the attendees unmasked themselves, then ate a buffet dinner and started dancing again.
The party ended around 4 a.m.—and the day-after media maelstrom was even more intense than earlier coverage. So what did Graham think of the party thrown in her honor? Though dazed, she was also touched. “Why was I the guest of honor?” she later wrote. “Who knows?” But though she was baffled by the gesture, she later said that it had relaunched her into society. “I was flattered, and although it may not have been my style, for one magic night I was transformed.”
In the words of Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke, “[Graham] was arguably the most powerful woman in the country, but still largely unknown outside Washington. Putting her in the spotlight was also [Capote’s] ultimate act as Pygmalion. It would symbolize her emergence from her dead husband’s shadow; she would become her own woman before the entire world.”
Even more, it solidified Capote as a social icon—a man who dared to turn his social life into fine art.
Whither The Balls?
The Gilded Age may have ended with the Panic of 1893, but its tradition of fabulous, frivolous costume parties attended in garb outlandish enough to impress Lady Gaga happily resurfaced from time to time over the next century. These days, though, except on October 31, few have the gumption to wear anything more shocking than a feather hair extension. Are we missing something? Yes, and the dazzling new book from Assouline, Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century ($175), reminds us exactly what it is. Writer Nicholas Foulkes treats us to tales of Vanderbilts and Astors dressed as nursery rhyme characters and to lavish images of countless male dignitaries unafraid to don absurd wigs or horns in the name of a good party. Could you imagine, say, Tinsley Mortimer's perfectly coiffed blonde locks peeking out from behind the giant, gruesome stag's head that Baroness de Rothschild wore to her Surrealist Ball in December 1972?
Perhaps it's vanity, or conformity, or political correctness, or maybe it's fear of cell phone cameras. All share the blame for the death of dress-up. Once, our bravest citizens, women like Marion Davies and Cher, roamed red carpets unaided by stylists. Now, as Prince Harry will surely attest, we all hesitate to let our freak flags fly, even in private society. Maybe it's time, as Marisa Berenson writes in Bal's afterword, to "let go of a little madness."
How this model crashed Capote’s big bash — and won his heart
On Nov. 28, 1966, Susan Burke — then a 20-something model at Bergdorf Goodman — was sitting by the fountain of the Plaza hotel with her Harvard Business School boyfriend when she came up with a daring idea: “Let’s crash Capote’s big party.”
It wasn’t just any event, but rather the biggest blowout of the 20th century — the now-legendary Black and White Ball that author Truman Capote threw at the Plaza for 540 of the rich, famous and powerful.
Susan Burke Angel Chevrestt
Dynasties such as the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers were represented, as were several generations of Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead, Frank Sinatra and then-wife Mia Farrow, a 20-year-old Candice Bergen. The Maharani of Jaipur and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Authors James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Harper Lee made the guest list, along with Harry Belafonte, Andy Warhol and Capote’s “swans” — glamorous socialites such as Babe Paley.
For months, Capote, a notorious pot-stirrer, had been dangling invitations in front of people.
“It was devastating if you weren’t invited,” Deborah Davis, author of the book “Party of the Century,” told The Post. “He totally [angered] some people. He’d say, ‘Honey, maybe I’ll invite you and maybe I won’t.’ Some people even offered money, and that never worked.”
In the case of Burke, it just took a little moxie — and the luck of being dressed to fit the party’s eponymous dress code.
“I had on a little black dress and [my date] was in black tie. We’d just been at the Ski Ball for the US Ski Team,” the Upper East Sider, now a fixture at charity galas, told The Post. “I’d been reading all the stuff in the papers about Truman’s party so I said, ‘Let’s go crash it.’ My [boyfriend], who was very proper, Harvard and all that, said, ‘Absolutely not!’ But I said, ‘Come on!’ ”
The party had been going on for hours, and the guest-list attendants “were tired and weren’t paying much attention, so in we bopped, and all of a sudden we were standing in front of Truman,” Burke said.
Perhaps Capote, too, was tired — or perhaps by that point he’d imbibed quite a bit of booze, which would contribute to his death in 1984 — but the author, then 41, seemed to think he knew the couple.
‘He decided, ‘I’m going to give myself a big party.’’
“He said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here, dears, come on in.’ He led us to a table and we sat down with these people who were kind of funny-looking,” Burke said. “So I turned to the man beside me and I said, ‘I think maybe you’re not New Yorkers.’ ”
As it turned out, Burke’s tablemates were among the guests of honor: the man was a police sergeant who had investigated the 1959 murder of the Clutters, a Kansas farm family, and had cooperated with Capote in writing his best seller about the case, “In Cold Blood.” That book, which focused on the author’s obsession with the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Edward Smith (both of whom were hanged in 1965 for the murders), shot the social-climbing Capote to international acclaim.
The Black and White Ball was supposedly held in honor of the author’s date for the night, Katharine “Kay” Graham — whose husband, Phil, the publisher of the Washington Post, had recently committed suicide — as Capote felt she needed cheering up. But author Davis noted that the party was also for the host himself.
“The ball was his way of celebrating his book,” she said. “He decided, ‘I’m going to give myself a big party.’ ”
Burke remembers watching “Frank Sinatra dancing with Mia Farrow. I was just a wide-eyed little dope back then. I didn’t really think about how great the party was. I just thought it was fun to crash it.”
Truman Capote Getty Images
Some years later, she was at another fancy bash — one she had been invited to — when Capote snuck up behind her and began bitchily gossiping about some of the other big-name guests in attendance.
“He was bitingly funny, and I said, ‘Truman, why don’t I tell you a little story,’ and he said, ‘Yes, dear.’ And I told him, ‘I’m the person, the only person that you’ll probably ever meet, who crashed your Black and White party.’
“He loved it,” Burke said, “and for the rest of his life every time we ever saw each other he would grab me by the wrist, raise up my hand and tell everyone, ‘She crashed my party!’ ”
Jerry Oppenheimer’s 14th biography, “The Kardashians: The True, Untold Story,” will be published in 2017.
Take hints from Capote for a memorable bash
And you thought selecting the right salsa was a big deal. It takes a little bit more than that to plan a truly memorable soiree, as author Deborah Davis details in Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (Wiley, $24.95). It’s an intoxicating book that touches on the history of everything from masked balls of the 1300s to s socialites, one of whom loved Pilates. You won’t mind the champagne hangover.
Giddy with the success of his groundbreaking In Cold Blood, Capote planned the ultimate party in 1966 — not so much to celebrate, but to solidify his standing in society. The ball was all anybody would talk about for months beforehand, and it filled newspapers afterward. A year later, it was on the cover of Esquire magazine.
No event since has surpassed the Black and White Ball (although Davis points out that Sean “Diddy” Combs has tried).
Where did Capote’s party go right — and what can you take away for your next bash?
The nation was still charmed by the black-and-white Ascot scenes from “My Fair Lady,” and Capote gave his guests a chance to costume themselves. Requiring masks was a sadistic challenge. How were New York’s most legendary beauties supposed to obscure their faces while still ensuring they were seen by the right people? (Capote paid 39 cents for his plain black mask at FAO Schwarz.)
IT HAD AN IMPECCABLE GUEST OF HONOR
Capote named Katharine Graham the honoree. The publisher of the Washington Post was recently widowed and needed cheering up. Of course, everyone knew that the evening was all about Capote.
The ballroom at the Plaza Hotel could accommodate 540 guests, so Capote estimated that he made 15,000 enemies. Greta Garbo was invited Capote’s own father was not. Tallulah Bankhead had to beg for her invitation. Jackie Kennedy declined, but her sister, Lee Radziwill, was there. There were Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, the newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, and Andy Warhol (who refused to wear a mask). The guest list was a “tour de force of social engineering,” writes Davis.
Capote was always his own best promoter. He teased the press with tantalizing tidbits about who would and wouldn’t be at the ball — and then invited the most important columnists as guests themselves, so they’d be sure to write about it.
Capote’s engraved invitations from Tiffany’s came back with typos, but there was no time to fix them — so he just crossed out the wrong address in pen and scribbled in the right one. And then there was the buffet. For such a fancy occasion, he chose some interesting dishes: his favorite chicken hash, and spaghetti and meatballs. Needless to say, the socialites in couture white gowns didn’t go near the spaghetti.
‘Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation’: Film Review
Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto provide the voices for 'Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,' Lisa Immordino Vreeland's documentary about the friendship between authors Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
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The title of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary about two legendary literary figures of the 20th century proves a bit misleading. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams only speak indirectly to each other in Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation. Nonetheless, this film composed entirely of the two men’s words, many of them read by actors Jim Parsons (Capote) and Zachary Quinto (Williams), is a fascinating portrait that astutely uses their decades-long, sometimes rocky friendship to shed light on their respective personas. The film was recently showcased at the 2020 Hamptons International Film Festival.
Interestingly, the documentary makes one not only nostalgic for its subjects, both of them gay trailblazers who revolutionized American writing in very different ways, but also for a vanished time in which in-depth, revelatory conversations were a feature of the talk show landscape. Some of the documentary’s most powerful moments come from archival footage of Capote and Williams’ separate appearances on David Frost and Dick Cavett’s television programs, in which they talk revealingly about themselves in a way that simply wouldn’t happen on today’s more superficial late-night chat shows.
“Do I like myself? No, I don’t like myself very much,” Williams admits to Frost at one point. “I’m very personal as a writer. I don’t mean to be, I just am, unavoidably,” he comments in another clip. Discussing the prevalence of rape in his works, the playwright points out, “We’re all victims of rape. Society rapes the individual.” He also complains about his treatment by critics in the later stage of his career. “I never got a good review after 1961,” Williams bitterly complains.
Capote is equally frank in his appearances, such as when discussing Answered Prayers, the roman a clef novel that he spent years working on and which he never finished. “I refer to it as my posthumous novel,” he acidly comments about the work, which featured a character inspired by Williams and the published excerpts of which alienated many of the high-society friends he had long cultivated.
Both men’s appearances in the numerous clips shown are disturbing on a visual level, as their respective physical dissipation, caused by alcohol and drug use, is on vivid display.
Vreeland, who explored similar biographical territory in such films as Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict and Love, Cecil, uses these interviews and extensive excerpts from the writers’ letters, diaries and works to chronicle their lives and careers. There were many similarities between them, including their Southern heritage, troubled upbringings, struggles with their sexuality, early critical and commercial success followed by career downturns and addiction issues.
The documentary also includes numerous clips of films adapted from their works, including Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, Baby Doll, The Fugitive Kind, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, The Night of the Iguana and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Williams comments that he wasn’t satisfied with the film versions of any of his plays since they had to be toned down for the censors, and that he advised audience members to walk out of them before the last ten minutes. Capote claims that he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly in Tiffany’s, but that Paramount “betrayed” him by casting Audrey Hepburn, while Williams says that the only performers for whom he specifically wrote parts were Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.
The writers’ relationship was often strained, with Capote in particular suffering from intense jealousy that made him resentful of Williams’ mainstream success and numerous awards. At one point, he remarks that Williams isn’t very intelligent Williams apparently got back at him by pointedly turning down an invitation to Capote’s now-legendary “Black and White Ball.”
Parsons and Quinto, who recently appeared together in the stage and Netflix screen version of The Boys in the Band, do a generally fine job of voicing the writers’ words. The latter is slightly more effective, perfectly capturing Williams’ languid Southern drawl, while Parsons, whose own voice is quite distinctive, sometimes struggles with Capote’s high-pitched cadences. Other than the archival clips, the film’s visual images are rather banal, such as the dreamy scenes of a boy flying a kite that accompany excerpts from Capote’s breakthrough work Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Lacking third-party commentary and much in the way of contextual information, Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is far from a definite cinematic account of the writers’ lives and careers. But it succeeds beautifully in providing a revealing look at their troubled psyches.
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival
Production companies: Fischio Films, Peaceable Assembly, Gigantic Studios
Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto
Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Producers: Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Mark Lee, Jonathan Gray, John Northrup
Executive producers: Brian Devine, Brook Devine
Director of photography: Shane Sigler
Editor: Bernadine Colish
“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.
“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”
It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”
The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.
Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.
We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.
But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money) or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.” and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it) the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.
But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.
Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.
Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”
Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant he does have scars he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”
For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”
His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”
“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. ”
This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”
We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”
“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”
The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.
Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.
Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls our voices rock the chinaware we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.
Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”
Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.
“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”
“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”
“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”
She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”
Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.
And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”
Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.
A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.
After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”). Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.
Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.
“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy”—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—”I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences. Possibly we doze but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.
Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.
My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”
“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”
The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.
“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I wager it never happens. I wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
This is our last Christmas together.
Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.
And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones….”). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.” But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! ”
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
One of Ertegun's great talents as a cultural catalyst was his ability to move effortlessly from "the high life to the low life," Greenfield says. For instance, he writes that, backstage at Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert at the Garden in May 1988, Ertegun introduced his friend, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to soul legend Wilson Pickett, who was still on probation for bringing a loaded shotgun into a bar.
"Henry Kissinger, my man!" Pickett said, giving the diplomat a bear hug.
At the same show, Greenfield recounts, Phil Collins introduced himself to Kissinger as "Otis Redding." Apparently unaware that the soul genius had died in 1967, Kissnger told Collins in his German accent: "I luff your music, Otis."
Ertegun's openness to new music and cultures sometimes translated into eye-raising relations with women.
In "The Last Sultan," Dorothy Carvello , who worked as "Secretary to the Chairman" for Ertegun before becoming a publicist, says of his numerous affairs: "Whatever felt good, he would go for." She also tells us that if "sexual harassment" had been more of an issue "in those days, Ahmet would have gotten the chair."
Invitation Only: Truman Capote's Black and White Ball
Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball was quite possibly the most extravagant party of the 20th century, only fitting then that The Rake should dissect it.
Even before a single cork had been fired, it was obvious that Truman Capote’s Black and White dance would be a party for the ages. A fever-dream collage of diplomats and dilettantes, movie stars and Maharajahs, the ball’s guest list was an Encyclopedia Britannica for name droppers, while its host was both the most celebrated writer of his era and an acknowledged social chessmaster with a carnival eye that made The Great Gatsbylook like The Sort Of Just Okay Gatsby. A Last Days of Rome bacchanal for the American Golden Age, the greatest party in the history of the world took place 50 years ago this month. But for those who were passed over for an invitation, it probably still stings like it was yesterday.
“One man told Truman his wife had threatened to kill herself if she weren't invited”, remembers editor of The New York Review of Books Robert Shivers. Property baron and ‘man-about-everywhere’Jerry Zipkin (who Capote famously described as having “a face like a bidet”) pretended to be called away to Monte Carlo when he realised he was in for a snub, while Upper East Side brahmin John Gallihan recalls how dozens of international jet-setters attempted to “bribe Truman with great sums of money” in order to get their name on the sacrosanct list. As Parisian aristocrat Étienne de Beaumont once put it: “A party is never given for someone. It is given against someone.”
And that was precisely how Capote liked it: all murmurings and histrionics and subplots and scrabbling in the margins. Things had been much the same in the months that led up to the release, in January 1966, of In Cold Blood, the novel that had catapulted him simultaneously into the literary world’s limelight and into the laps of a dwindling American high society (sometimes literally, in fact: at five foot two, Capote was often labelled the ‘lapdog’ of the great society hostesses they in turn referred to him cooingly as ‘Tru Love’ and ‘Tru Heart’.) It also scraped him “right down to the marrow of my bones”. After half a decade in the Stockholm Syndrome clutches of a gruesome murder case, Capote knew that this would be his last book for some time. If the circus was to continue, then the carousel would have to keep spinning of its own accord. The Black and White dance was its jet fuel.
Perched on the Hampton's poolside of one of his many collected heiresses, Capote set to the task of drawing up his plans with a fervour usually reserved for his novels (“The party was the product of a literary mind” notes Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke). More a cast list than a guest list, the stack of thick-cut invitations saw a cornucopia of international players dance on Capote’s imagined stage: president’s daughters and disgraced European princes and international film stars Croesus-rich oil barons and riviera play boys literary titans and lily-white debutantes.”There was a slight note of insanity about that guest list” remembered Katharine Graham, the editor of the Washington Post who Capote, in a social masterstroke, dedicated the ball to. But for the author, the exercise held the cool rationale of a laboratory experiment: “I have thought for years that it would be interesting to bring these disparate people together and see what happens” he told Esquire magazine years later.
As the invitations began to cascade through 540 gilded letter boxes, the relief at making the cut was soon overtaken by another nausea entirely: the question of what to wear. Capote had specified a dress code of strictly black and white, and insisted that everyone wore a mask (“I haven't been to a masked ball since I was a child” he explained.) The rush to Manhattan’s dressmakers and milliners was apocalyptic. “The ladies have killed me” wheezed the deflated young hat maker at Bergdorf Goodman, while a bespoke mask maker eulogised over the “many birds that have donated their feathers to the cause.” Capote’s own mask cost him just 35 cents from toy shop FAO Schwartz.
And then, at eight o’clock on the 28th of November, the floodgates – so long under siege – burst open. A throng of gawkers, hopeful reporters and autograph hunters swelled at the main entrance to the Grand Plaza hotel, held back only by a phalanx of police-sawhorses, put-upon junior officers and some well-disguised members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secret service. The torrent of guests poured into Capote’s receiving line two-by-two – like bedizened animals jaunting onto the Ark – while a voice from the heavens announced their names to cheers and faints and whispers. Inside, 450 bottles of Taittinger popped in unison (flowing, according to actress C.Z Guest, “like the Nile”), before unlikely dance partners swirled and eddied across the marble floor to the swing of Peter Duchin’s big band (“Everybody, no matter how rich or sophisticated, was rubbernecking’ remembered Aileen Mehle”). An impromptu game of American football broke out with economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s silken top hat as the pigskin Frank Sinatra beat his fists on the table and demanded twenty bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon a satin-gloved fist fight broke out over the rumblings of the Vietnam War masks were cast aside, marriage proposals extended, celebrities concocted and Capote stood in the half light, at once a proud parent and a saucer-eyed child, in gentle awe at his creation.
We’re still talking about Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball 50 years later. Here’s why.
“In Cold Blood,” his sensational nonfiction novel about a murdered Kansas family, made him the best-known writer in America. He made $2 million and bought a $62,000 luxury Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. He was on the cover of Life, Newsweek, the New York Times Book Review and more.
So he decided to throw a party — a huge, spectacular gathering in New York for all his friends. It was a present to himself, the ultimate reward for his boundless ambition and need for attention. But even Capote understood that it was bad form to celebrate himself. He needed a guest of honor.
Which is how Katharine Graham, then-owner of The Washington Post and Newsweek, first became a household name. Relatively unknown outside Washington circles, Graham was the perfect choice: She was influential, undemanding and grateful to be asked.
The night succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Black and White Ball, held exactly 50 years ago, on Nov. 28, 1966, became the most famous party of the 20th century.
“The publicity and higher profile frightened me a little, and may have actually hurt me — and probably should have, given the serious, professional person I was trying to be,” Graham wrote in her 1997 autobiography, “Personal History.” But it was also a life-changing moment.
“For me, the party was just great pleasure, maybe doubly so because it was unlike my real life,” she wrote. “I was flattered, and although it may not have been my style, for one magic night I was transformed.”
The ball was the last gasp of a social elite based on exclusivity, pedigree and privilege — and the dawn of a new social order based on buzz, celebrity and self-promotion. Half a century later, it’s still imitated, dissected and mythologized.
Photographers swarm Frank Sinatra and his bride, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at the ball. (Bettmann Archive)
Earlier that year, Capote called Graham to say that he was throwing a party for her.
Her husband, Phil Graham, had committed suicide three years earlier Capote told her that he was giving the ball to cheer her up. “I’m fine,” she told him, according to her memoir. “It’s really nice of you, but I don’t need cheering up.”
The two had met five years earlier, introduced by Babe Paley, the wife of then-CBS President Bill Paley and one of Capote’s famous “swans” — the rich, beautiful wives who ruled New York’s social world. Graham, like everyone who met the writer, was charmed: He was witty, flattering, gossipy, irreverent and exotic, with an exaggerated, effeminate manner and unbridled confidence in his own genius.
“It’s hard to describe Truman as I first saw him,” Graham wrote. “He had that strange falsetto voice for which he was so well known. He was very short, perfectly dressed, groomed and coifed. And he was a magic conversationalist — his sentences were like stories.”
The two saw each other whenever Graham was in New York. In the summer of 1965, they found themselves alone on Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli’s yacht, where she read an advance copy of “In Cold Blood.” That fall, Graham hosted an A-list Washington dinner for Capote and Kansas detective Alvin Dewey, who had cracked the murder case. Capote and Graham were close enough that he persuaded her to buy an apartment in his U.N. Plaza building the following year.
Graham, then 49, originally thought that the party for her would be something small. Then Capote laid out his vision: the ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, with every guest wearing black or white, based on the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.” They would all wear masks, which would come off at midnight.
When Graham realized what he really had in mind, she was overwhelmed, but she went along with the plan because she knew how important it was to Capote. “I realized that this party was more about him than it was about me,” Graham wrote. “I think he was tired from having written ‘In Cold Blood’ and needed to be doing something to re-energize himself. I was a prop.”
Why pick Graham? He couldn’t single out one of the swans without disrupting the delicate social world he had built for himself, and he enjoyed playing Henry Higgins to Graham’s Eliza Doolittle.
“Truman knew I didn’t lead the glamorous kind of life that many of his friends did,” she wrote. “He may have given the party for me primarily so I could see it all up close, just once.” She called herself a “middle-aged debutante — even a Cinderella, as far as that kind of life was concerned.”
First daughter Lynda Bird Johnson, wearing a mask, arrives at the Plaza Hotel for the ball. (AP)
Conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. and his wife, Pat, opted for black masks. (David Pickoff/AP)
Capote planned the ball meticulously, applying his literary mind to constructing the perfect setting, mood and cast of characters. He wrote everything in a small black-and-white notebook, adding and deleting guests like chess pieces, taunting friends and enemies: Maybe you’ll be invited, and maybe you won’t.
The ballroom of the Plaza held 540 people, and Capote’s list quickly swelled to fill it. He insisted that it include the very rich, the very famous or the very beautiful. He also threw in a group of friends from Kansas and his doorman at the U.N. Plaza. As the guest of honor, Graham was allowed to invite 20 couples from Washington.
Capote didn’t invite President Lyndon B. Johnson, because he didn’t want to deal with the security issues. But he did invite Johnson’s daughter Lynda, as well as Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Margaret Truman.
New York newspapers began speculating who would make the cut. Old friends hounded Capote for an invitation. Some loudly told friends that they were crushed to miss the party because of a previously scheduled trip overseas. One man called to say that his wife was threatening to commit suicide if they weren’t invited. Capote, whose mother had killed herself, put the couple on the list.
“There was a slight note of insanity about the party,” Graham told Vanity Fair magazine in 1996. “There is just no rational reason why the whole situation escalated.”
Blame social insecurity, the gnawing fear of not being good enough. Everybody who was anybody was going, and everybody else was a nobody.
The competition for the most glamorous gowns and masks began in earnest, with custom designs by Adolfo and a newcomer named Halston, who created a white mink bunny mask for 20-year-old actress Candice Bergen. Some women ordered two or more masks, and some of the uninvited ordered masks to save face.
Graham commissioned Bergdorf Goodman to copy a Balmain design: a long, white crepe gown with hematite beads around the neck and sleeves, with a mask made to match by Halston. On the day of the ball, she showed up at the salon of Kenneth, hairdresser to New York’s most fashionable. The place was a madhouse one employee asked Graham whether she had heard about the already-famous party.
“Yes,” she replied. “It seems funny, but I’m the guest of honor.” The embarrassed employee insisted that Kenneth himself would take care of her hair, and someone else would do her makeup. “I wound up looking my very best,” wrote Graham, but compared with the legendary beauties at the ball, “my very best still looked like an orphan.”
The scene on the dance floor: Truman Capote in the center with Lally Weymouth, Katharine Graham’s daughter. Graham is dancing on the left, and actress Lauren Bacall and choreographer Jerome Robbins are on the right. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Much has been written about the party, thanks primarily to the striking black-and-white photos of the famous people who attended. The ball’s timing, just before Vietnam and the Youthquake of the 1960s split the country into Past and Future, serves as a convenient touchstone for meditations on class, fame and modern culture.
“I felt as if we were in Versailles in 1788,” writer John Knowles told fellow author George Plimpton. “People were applauding on the street as we walked in. We had our masks on. I thought, next year it’ll be the tumbrels taking us out to Herald Square, but at the moment, we were the last of the aristocrats.”
Held on a rainy Monday night, the ball began at 10 p.m. Capote ordered his swans to host dinners beforehand, and he and Graham went to the Paleys for cocktails before slipping back to the Plaza, where they posed for photographers and took their place in the receiving line.
Guests made their way through a phalanx of 200 photographers — more than had shown up when the Beatles stayed at the hotel in 1964. In a precursor to today’s red-carpet coverage, CBS sent Charles Kuralt to anchor a live feed of celebrity arrivals: Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Henry Fonda, Norman Mailer, Rose Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Claudette Colbert, Oscar de la Renta, Tallulah Bankhead, and the Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur.
Capote and Graham stood greeting guests for two hours, most meeting her for the first time. There was music by Peter Duchin Capote danced with Graham, Lee Radziwill and Graham’s daughter, Lally Weymouth. Lauren Bacall entranced the crowd when she waltzed with choreographer Jerome Robbins. Mailer threatened to beat up former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy over the Vietnam War. The crowd was served a midnight buffet of chicken hash, spaghetti Bolognese and 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne. The last guests stumbled out at 3 a.m.
“I thought it was incredibly glamorous,” remembers Weymouth, who was a young bride at the time.
The party cost Capote $16,000, although the amount grew larger and larger every time he reminisced about the ball.
Graham wore a white crepe dress — a copy of a Balmain design — trimmed with slate-gray hematites and a matching mask made by Halston. (Associated Press)
Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta arrives with his future wife, Françoise de Langlade. The couple wore matching cat masks. (Associated Press)
The party was national news, with stories in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Women’s Wear Daily and dozens of other publications.
Capote leaked the guest list to the Times, which published the names of all the invited — even those who did not attend, including Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It was really a knife twist to all those who had foolishly announced that they were invited but unable to attend. It wasn’t enough for Capote to exclude the impostors. He wanted public humiliation, revenge for every slight, every unkindness real or perceived.
There is a Shakespearean irony to all this: Capote’s fall was swift and unsparing. After the party, he wrote little of significance. He was bitter when “In Cold Blood” failed to win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, which he thought he deserved. All his hopes turned to what he thought would be his masterpiece: stories about the very rich called “Answered Prayers.”
In 1975, Esquire published the chapter “La Côte Basque 1965.” The thinly veiled excerpt was so damning that one of the socialites depicted in it committed suicide Capote was ostracized from New York society after his adored swans refused to take his calls. He was shocked by the response, mostly because he thought his society friends would forgive anything he did.
Graham was spared, mostly because Capote had always had a soft spot for those he saw as vulnerable. But their friendship became strained Capote spent most of his time drinking, doing drugs and appearing on talk shows. He died in 1984 at 59, shunned and broken.
Graham famously went on to preside over the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the coverage of the Watergate scandal. She lived until 2001, acclaimed for her storied career and her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography.
High Score: The Most Pretentious Party in History
In 1965, Capote was the most recognizable writer in the US, whose name was known by even those who didn’t read. The New Yorker had just published his novel “In Cold Blood,” Random House publishing purchased the rights to print the book and Columbia Pictures studio procured the movie rights. The book hadn’t even been printed and Capote had already earned around $6 million on it in today’s prices, which comes to $14.80 per word.
Capote had already come up with the name of his next book: “Answered Prayers.” The novel was thought to be like a black comedy about the lives of the super-rich, and the writer came up with the idea to organize a ball in order to gather material and try himself in the role of host at a huge celebrity event.
It had to be the best ball in the world: otherwise, the darling of the most stylish women in the world would not have been forgiven.
Capote came up with a gimmick pretty quickly: a black-and-white ball with masks required. All of the rich and famous guests would float past the photographers and cameramen without showing their faces! The masks would be removed at midnight.
As the event was made to be private, The Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, which fit 540 people (13.7 x 25.2m), was ideal. Capote held a close relationship with this hotel, in fact his first novel, “Summer Crossing” (1944), begins with the scene of a high-society family lunch at the Plaza. In addition, important events from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” took place there.
Capote enlisted his friend, interior designer and the person who designed his Manhattan apartment, Evie Baker, to decorate the ballroom. Baker refused to use traditional tapestries and compositions for this ball. She decorated it with golden chandeliers entwined with green vine, red tablecloths and a huge cluster of shimmering balloons under the ceiling.
On the menu, there were eggs, sausages and biscuits (the classic American trio for a midnight snack at the time), meatballs in tomato sauce, and chicken hash (minced meat in a creamy sauce), a specialty of the Plaza Hotel and Capote’s favorite dish. The drink of the evening would be Taittinger champagne - 450 bottles of it.
At the beginning of summer, 1966, the writer bought a new notebook with a black-and-white cover and wrote the word “Party” in it. He couldn’t put the notebook down for the next three months, constantly writing down and crossing out guests’ names. He immediately crossed out the Johnsons because the entire presidential security unit would need to be there, as well, but he did invite their daughter. He rejected inviting former President Harry Truman because, after all, there could be only one Truman at the ball. But he did invite his daughter. He later crossed off the names of Winston Churchill, actor Yul Brynner and editor of Esquire Clay Felker.
In September, Capote put together a draft of the invitation: “Address: Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, New York, New York State. Gentlemen: Black Tie, black mask. Ladies: black or white dress, white mask, folding fan. Jewelry: only diamonds, pearls and black amber.” The invitations were sent out in the first days of October.
‘This is how I managed to get 500 friends and 15,000 enemies,’ Capote later said.
Many guests asked if they could bring another person with them. Capote was adamant: only husband or wife. Even Andy Warhol, who never went anywhere without an entourage, was forced to fall in line. Only TV producer Mark Goodson turned out to be principled in the matter. He called an emergency meeting of his directors and told them that he does, in fact, have an invitation to the “Black-and-White Dance” (the word “dance” was written on the invitation instead of “ball”), but that he wasn’t going by choice. The directors in the room exhaled with relief they were certain that Goodson called the meeting to fire someone.
There were others who tried to buy their way into the ball. According to Capote, he was approached by a representative of Charles Revson, the owner of the Revlon company, with an offer to pay for the ball’s expenses in return for an invitation. Capote refused him, explaining that he didn’t personally know Mr. Revson and thus couldn’t invite him to his party.
The rich fashionistas were split into two camps: those who ordered their masks from the hat designer Halston, and those who ordered their masks from his competitor, Adolfo. Actor Henry Fonda spent two weeks putting together a handmade mask for his wife. Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, ordered his mask from a Venetian artisan who made it so that the producer could leave his glasses on and still be able to smoke. Cartier decided to run with the theme two “Mephistopheles” masks made of black velvet and diamonds and at prices of $35,000 and $38,000 appeared in the windows of their shop. When Capote heard about it, he giggled like a child he had bought his mask at a toy store on 5th Avenue for 39 cents.
On November 28th, the writer was in good spirits he was told that the Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur were flying to New York to attend his ball. Of course, they didn’t have any time to look for a black suit and white dress, but it was the only case in which Capote was ready to make an exception. Several commercial flights to LaGuardia Airport were actually cancelled that day because of the expectation of so many private jets arriving in the city. At West 54th Street, which had never seen the slightest bit of traffic, it was pandemonium since early morning. Women invited to the ball were rushing to get their hair done at Kenneth’s, the best hairdresser’s in the city. Several streets surrounding the salon were lined with limousines.
The first guests to arrive at the ball were Alexander Liberman, the editing director at Conde Nast, and his wife, Tatiana. The next one to enter the ballroom was the legendary beauty, Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart, and after her, the guests flowed in like a river. The orchestra started playing once the amount of guests outnumbered the musicians.
Writer Leo Lerman said later that never in his life had he seen such beautiful women in such a quantity in one place.
Even with all the abundance of beauty and luxury around, some of the guests were wise to come up with original masks. Interior designer Bill Baldwin wore a golden unicorn head, writer Isabel Eberstadt whimsically wore the intertwined necks of a black and a white swan, and illustrator Charles Addams, creator of “The Addams Family,” wore an executioner’s mask. However, 16-year-old future supermodel Penelope Tree got the most attention. Her outfit, which consisted of a transparent, skin-tight dress and pants on which there were more rips than there was fabric, caused the nanny who accompanied her to the ball to literally cry. Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, who both danced with her that evening, both proposed to do photo shoots with her. Within a year, she would be as famous as Twiggy.
At one of the 53 tables sat the daughters of three former presidents, Lynda Bird Johnson, Margaret Truman Daniel and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who shared gossip about the White House between themselves. Gloria Guinness complained about the heavy emerald necklace that would force her to stay in bed all day tomorrow. Frank Sinatra was drinking Wild Turkey bourbon at his table while his bodyguard danced with his wife (Sinatra never danced). Writer Norman Mailer was trying to pick a fight with politician McGeorge Bundy, but relented at the right moment.
The ball was practically over by four in the morning. When Capote finally laid his head on his pillow, he managed to let the image of “a galaxy of black-and-white guests in masks, spending the time of their lives at the most wonderful ballroom in the city” rush through his head.
Not one of the guests used the service exit in order to dodge the press.
The guests did the right thing: in full gloss, each newspaper and magazine wrote a full gossip column about the incredible success of Capote’s venture, about the guests’ wonderful suits and dresses and about the level of spectacle attained that no one would likely be able to reach in the foreseeable future. Norman Mailer swore that it was one of the best parties in his own personal, party-rich history. “Vogue,” “Life,” “Time,” “Newsweek,” “The Chicago Tribune,” and “The New York Times” all published reports about the “Black-and-White Ball.” People who didn’t like reading could watch the live feed and reporting on CBS.
“Esquire” magazine put out an issue with famously angry words on the cover, “We wouldn’t have come even if you had invited us, Truman Capote!” This, it seemed was the final signifier of the glory of the “Black-and-White Ball,” a glory that has lived on in our days and has not been matched since by any other ball or party.