Is that you, Martha?
To mark the beginning of the 57th Venice Biennale on May 13, we at The Salonniere have decided to take you on a little trip to Venezia. Well, Venezia on September 3, 1951. That was the night of Le Bal Oriental, a party the likes of which had never been seen before and, some believe, may never be seen again. Mix yourself a Venice Spritz, and join us as we go back in time to the revelry on the Grand Canal that became known as “The Ball of the Century.”
Countess Teresa Foscari Foscolo arrives at Le Bal Oriental
One of the largest and most extravagant bashes of the 20th Century, Le Bal Oriental was a masked costume ball hosted by Count Carlos de Beistegui, a wealthy, eccentric, and flamboyant art collector and interior designer.
It’s an exceptional party when guests need six months to plan their outfits. It’s even more exceptional when the uninvited travel by yacht—taking several days for the journey—to stake out the Lido, Venice’s famous sandbar, and try to catch the host’s attention—Yoo-hoo! I’m in town!— and snag a last-minute invitation. Rarer still? When everyone from the wife of Britain’s prime minister to the youngest of the stylish but scandalous Mitford sisters writes of the event in breathless terms. The former, Clarissa Eden, marveled at the desperation surrounding the invitations; the latter, Deborah, marveled at her luck in receiving one.
Simply put, Le Bal Oriental was a super-hot ticket. Among the 1,000 guests who attended were the Aga Khan, American heiresses Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke, Orson Welles, the glamorous American actress Gene Tierney, French society beauty Jacqueline de Ribes, and a host of other artists and aristocrats.
Le Bal was held at the count’s beautiful, art-filled, but unfortunately named Palazzo Labia, though no one took particular note. (Writer Anthony Haden-Guest has since surmised, “Perhaps the word was too clinical for that class.”) Anyway, throngs of onlookers crowded the canal to ogle the floodlit arrival scene, but no party crashers managed to gain entrance.
Onlookers stake out Palazzo Labia on party day
Standards for the soirée were high, not only in terms of social class, but also sartorially. French couturier Jacques Fath’s Sun King costume was so elaborate that he could barely move in it. Cecil Beaton (who photographed the party for Vogue) came as a perfectly turned-out French priest. Lady Diana Cooper, the glamorous European socialite, costumed herself to look like Cleopatra in Tiepolo’s “The Banquet of Cleopatra,” a fresco in Palazzo Labia. Thoughtful!
Lady Diana Cooper as Cleopatra
Salvador Dali’s costume was designed by Christian Dior—and Dior’s was designed by Dali. Pierre Cardin designed costumes for 30 of the guests, a move that is said to have reignited his career, and a then-unknown Nina Ricci designed several more.
Although Welles’ planned outfit, unfortunately, didn’t arrive in time, the director pulled together a last-minute costume that had élan—a silk turban with white feathers protruding from the top and a simple but luxe tux.
What did the host wear? A voluminous white wig, cherry-colored garments, and 16-inch stilts—the perfect get-up for a man who stood just five feet three inches tall in flats.
Count Carlos de Beistegui
Rounding out the ambiance were entertainers galore, including a troupe of giants, local firemen who formed gymnastic pyramids, and jazz bands that had Beaton dancing the night away with Hutton.
It was a party that didn’t end until 6 o’clock the next morning. Really, though, you could say it never actually ended. Today, Le Bal Oriental is vividly remembered via enchanting photographs by Beaton, Robert Doisneau, and Cornell Capa, all renowned for providing a window into a nearly surreal society. Surreal it was, as well as perhaps the most inspiring—and inspired—party of the 20th Century.
Le Bal Oriental: Welcome Mashup
Welcome Photo: Jean Simmons in So Long at the Fair (1950)
Welcome Quote: Dark Victory (1939)