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November 1, 2006updated 05 May 2016 1:08pm

Party Of The Century: The Fabulous Story Of Truman Capote And His Black And White Ball

By Spear's

Party Of The Century: The Fabulous Story Of Truman Capote And His Black And White Ball
Deborah Davis

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, which took place on Monday, November 28th, 1966, was an event without peer in the annals of New York society. The masked ball hosted by the William K. Vanderbilts in 1883 runs at a close second, but Capote’s masked ball had the added element of being a modern media phenomenon directed by a man who was himself a modern media phenomenon.

As Deborah Davis puts it in this unashamedly frothy though highly entertaining book, the party took place ‘when glamour was the rule instead of the exception, when celebrity was earned, and when Truman Capote was the man of the hour.’ Never before or since has a party so uniquely brought together the worlds of New York and Washington society with Hollywood, Broadway, the leading novelists of the day, and a token sprinkling of English and European aristocrats. It was, says Davis, ‘a tour de force of social engineering.’ For Capote, his party was another story, ‘but not one that was written. Instead, it would be written about.’

Davis explains the background to the party: Capote’s cultivation of the society beauties whom he dubbed his ‘swans’ Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest); the gradual build-up to the publication of his bestseller In Cold Blood; the two-month build-up to the party in the press; and the elaborate preparations for costumes, masks and hair by various invitees.

Inspired by a similar black and white themed ball he had attended in Hollywood, hosted by the Dominick Dunnes, Capote planned the event meticulously in honour of his friend Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. Held in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, it was a dance in the old-fashioned sense, although the sets from Peter Duchin’s society band were interspersed by sets from the Soul Brothers, whose rhythms caused the younger guests to twist and frug.

Most of the guests had attended specially arranged dinners beforehand, but there was also a midnight buffet to sustain them. Capote had arranged a secret entrance for those celebrity guests wishing to avoid the attentions of the paparazzi, but not a single guest took advantage of this, since they all wanted to be seen in their finery. The famous-for-being-famous Baby Jane Holzer, the Paris Hilton of her day, was pointedly excluded, but the appearance at the party of fledgeling model Penelope Tree, in a risqué costume that wowed the photographers, was the making of her career.

Publication of the party’s guest list in the New York Times the next day caused uproar. Many suspected Capote of being behind the leak, yet he always denied it. Since the list contained the original invitees as well as last-minute additions, the false claims to have been invited by those who had actually left town so as to be able to say that they could not attend were exposed for all to see. (Davis re-publishes this intriguing guest list in an appendix.) As Capote had predicted, the moment he sent out the invitations he had made 500 friends and 15,000 enemies.

In the years that followed, with his book Answered Prayers, which was published in magazine instalments, Capote alienated his prominent society friends by betraying their confidences. Babe Paley refused to forgive him, while C.Z. Guest was the only one of his swans to stay loyal. ‘Gradually stripped of his friends and social connections,’ says Davis, ‘the man who had led the list of in’s in the 1960s was now officially and irrevocably out.’ As for his party, Truman continued to cultivate its myth by promising a repeat performance at some unspecified date in the future, although this never came to pass.

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For any aspiring social host or hostess, this study offers plenty of practical wisdom. For those merely seeking a glimpse of a glittering moment, it is a titillating read.

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