November 28: The Black And White Ball

Black And White“This is how the other half lives… we know you were not rich, social, or beautiful enough to be invited, or you wouldn’t be up watching the news.” -CBS reporter Charles Kuralt, covering the Black And White Ball from outside the event.

According to Truman Capote’s longtime friend and editor, Leo Lerman, one day in 1942 Capote swore that if he ever became rich and famous, he’d throw a grand party for all of his rich and famous friends. Although Capote would often deny this story, usually as one of his trademark displays of false modesty, he was able to make good on this oath today in 1966 when he threw the legendary Black And White Ball.

Capote (seen at right greeting arrivals at the Ball) had been a favorite of the New York literary scene for some time now, but the success of his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood had made him a household name, and quite wealthy too. So, the time was right for a party. However, although the subtext of the party was that Capote had finally made it, it would be uncouth to throw a party in his own honor. Conveniently, he had recently begun a friendship with Katharine Graham, the unassuming head of the Washington Post Group (which owned the eponymous newspaper and Newsweek, among other media outlets) and the defacto most powerful woman in the United States. Capote knew that the combination of Graham’s influential position, her husband’s 1961 suicide and her shy demeanor would create the perfect hook to attract the nation’s movers and shakers to his party. When Capote told Graham that the party was to be in her honor, she was surprised and flattered, but privately suspected that Capote had planned the party long before thinking of her.

With the guest of honor decided, it soon came time to decide upon the theme and guest list. Inspired by the Ascot scene in the film version of My Fair Lady, in which all the women were dressed in black and white, he decided the dress code would exclusively be black and white. Additionally, he thought it would be fun to make the ball a masquerade. The way he saw it, having everyone wear masks would add an element of anonymity that would help people from different social circles mix. While deciding the theme of the ball was simple, figuring out who to invite was a bit of a challenge. Everywhere he went during the summer of 1966, Capote carried with him a 10-cent black-and-white composition book in which he was constantly adding and dropping new guests trying to create the right, as he viewed them, cast of characters to make the night memorable. During this period Capote would regularly drop not so subtle hints to his friends, enemies and acquaintances about their current status on the guest list.

By October, Capote had settled on his guests and sent out 480 invitations with the following information: “In honor of Mrs. Katharine Graham / Mr. Truman Capote / requests the pleasure of your company / at a Black and White Dance / on Monday, the twenty-eighth of November / at ten o’clock / Grand Ballroom, The Plaza / DRESS Gentlemen: Black tie; Black mask. Ladies: Black or White dress; White mask; fan. R.S.V.P. Miss Elizabeth Davis, 465 Park Avenue, New York.”

Capote’s invitations started an uproar amongst New York’s high society. Those who had not received an invitation scrambled to come up with an excuse for why they could not make the party they had not been invited to. It was fairly typical for non-invitees to claim they were going somewhere in Europe that week. Of course, those tickets to the continent had been bought after discovering they were not invited to Capote’s ball. Many pleaded to Capote for an invitation (much to his delight), but few were successfully added to the guest list. According to longtime New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, one of the few people to successfully negotiate an invitation was a man who told Capote that his wife had threatened to kill herself if she didn’t get an invite.

By the November 28, the guest list had swelled to 540 people. A partial guest list can be found here, but the notables included actors, directors, politicians, industrialists, playwrights, writers, photographers, publishers and three president’s daughters (Margaret Truman Daniel, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Lynda Bird Johnson; the last of whom came with an escort of 12 Secret Service men in black masks). Additionally, Capote invited some less familiar faces including his own family members and those of his long time partner Jack Dunphy, former school teachers, friends he made in Garden City, Kansas while researching In Cold Blood and even a doorman from the U.N. Plaza.

On the evening of the 28th, guests began their long evening at dinners hosted by friends of Capote who had been volunteered by Capote. Following dinner, guests arrived in groups at the Plaza Hotel where they were greeted by waiting fans and a throng of cameramen waiting to take their pictures for the press. Capote and Graham personally greeted every guest at the entrance, with Graham meeting many of the guests for the first time that evening. Once inside, the guests were treated to plenty of food, plenty of liquor (including 450 bottles of champagne) and plenty of music. All of this made the crowd shake off their cares and dance up a storm; the highlight of which was undoubtedly when actress Lauren Bacall and choreographer Jerome Robbins drew all eyes towards them when they waltzed “in a fashion that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might have envied”, according to Capote. The crowd also proved to be surprisingly hip by getting down to covers of R&B songs like “Twist And Shout” by Benny Gordon and the Soul Brothers.

At midnight, the masks came off and a late supper was served; but the party was far from over. It was still going strong around 2:45 AM when Frank Sinatra proposed that the members of his table join him for a drink at his favorite bar. Capote begged Sinatra not to go, knowing that his departure would significantly diminish the room’s star power, but the Chairman of the Board eventually managed to sneak out with the help of Lynda Johnson’s Secret Service men. The party drew to a close shortly after 3 AM, with Capote and Graham once again personally receiving every guest, but many unofficial after parties popped up all over the city as guests found ways to keep the night going. For his part, Capote went straight to bed in a room at the Plaza, satisfied that he had made a smash. Unfortunately, over the remaining 18 years of his life, Capote managed to alienate most of his high society friends, but he’d always fondly remember that one magical night in 1966 when all of the world’s eyes were drawn to the Plaza Hotel ballroom.

It would be appropriate to mix some manner of black and white cocktail to celebrate the Black and White Ball, but instead let’s drink Capote’s favorite cocktail. Capote always referred to his beloved Screwdriver as his “little orange drink”. The drink’s origins can be traced to Turkey in the first half of the 20th century when American engineers working on Turkish oil wells would mix vodka into their morning orange juice by stirring it with a screwdriver.

Screwdriver

  • 1 1/2 ounces Vodka
  • 6 ounces orange juice

Pour the vodka and orange juice over ice in a highball glass and stir. Garnish with an orange slice.

Tomorrow: A Thanksgiving controversy.

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