It was 52 years ago, on November 28, 1966, when author and bon vivant Truman Capote hosted what would come to be known as the most famous masquerade ball of the 20th century. Christened the Black and White Ball, the fabulous society fête—held at the Plaza Hotel in New York—still fuels the imagination and inspiration of party hosts worldwide.
Capote’s Ball was held in the ballroom at the Plaza Hotel
Fresh off the success of his true-crime novel, In Cold Blood, Capote wanted to celebrate his newfound fame and prosperity by inviting the who’s who of New York society to a grand party. Recognizing that a guest of honor would add spice and significance, he opted to hold the soirée in honor of Katharine Graham, the recently widowed publisher of the Washington Post and the most powerful woman in publishing at the time.
Katharine Graham and Truman Capote
In a 1991 Esquire interview, Graham recalled how she was selected: “Truman called me up in the summer and said he wanted to give a party for me to, quote, cheer me up. At first, I didn’t think he was serious. He had the idea of the party first—I think he had always wanted to give a party at the Plaza. Then afterward, he was looking for a reason, and I guess I was it…I suppose he chose me because I didn’t conflict with all the glamorous women he knew.”
Principessa Luciana Pignatelli, Peter Gimbel, and Contessa Crespi
Indeed, at the top of Capote’s invitation list were his “swans,” Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, and the other gorgeous, stylish, and wealthy socialites that comprised his inner circle. Also on the guest list were artists, authors, titans of industry, and the A-list movie stars that Capote had become acquainted with over the years. They included Mia Farrow, Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, and Candice Bergen.
In all, 540 of Capote’s “closest friends” attended, resulting in the most magnificent literati-meets-glitterati mix that New York had ever seen. As society columnist Aileen Mehle, known as “Suzy” and “Suzy Knickerbocker” noted, “Everybody, no matter how rich or sophisticated, was rubbernecking.”
Capote’s notebook is now part of the New York Public Library’s collection.
Securing a spot on the guest list became the talk of New York. Capote carried a black-and-white composition notebook around with him for months, continually adding and deleting names from the list. An invitation to his party became so coveted that some of New York’s elite who’d heard they hadn’t made the cut tried to bribe Capote for a spot or feigned other plans.
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra
The party itself, which started at 10 p.m., was styled after the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, with the gentlemen wearing black tie and black masks and the women wearing black or white dresses and white masks and carrying fans.
Annette and Oscar de la Renta
While Capote reportedly purchased his simple black mask for 39 cents at F.A.O. Schwartz in Manhattan, most of his guests’ designs were more extravagant.
Designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife Annette played on the masquerade theme with maribou kitten masks, while actress Candice Bergen opted for one resembling a bunny. Instead of wearing a mask, Principessa Luciana Pignatelli borrowed a 60-carat diamond from Harry Winston to add to her headdress. Guest-of-honor Graham added rows of rhinestone gems to the top of her mask, coordinating it with the bejeweled neckline of her gown.
Graham, Capote, Lauren Bacall, and others danced at the Ball until 3 a.m.
The décor was minimal—black and white with pops of red—but really, who needed more eye candy than the fabulous attendees? During the evening, guests dined on chicken hash and spaghetti Bolognese, danced to the sounds of the Peter Duchin Orchestra, and downed more than 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne, which led C.Z Guest to say the champagne flowed “like the Mississippi or the Nile.”
Days after, the press would dub the soirée “the party of the century,” which also became the title of this terrific book about the event. The post-fête frenzy continued, when the complete guest list—rumored to have been leaked by Capote himself—was printed by The New York Times. For the next few months, those who attended enjoyed a special status among New York society.
The Ball was the subject of a story in the January 1967 issue of Vogue
As to the public’s lasting fascination with the ball, bandleader Duchin had a theory. In 2016, on the occasion of the party’s 50th anniversary, Duchin said, “The only reason that people are interested in it today is because it was the first time that people from all sorts of disparate places in society were put together in one room to have fun. Vanderbilts danced with Smiths. People really had a ball.”
Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver
And here are a few more stories that we think you’ll enjoy:
The Vanderbilt Ball: The Party that Changed New York Society
Le Bal Oriental: The Ball of the Century
Paul Poiret’s “Thousand and Second Night” Party