Monday, October 18

The Black and White Ball

The evening of this fabled party began inauspiciously. It was raining, although this did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 300 onlookers on the street, the 200 press people in the lobby, or the 540 elect whom [Truman] Capote invited. His guest list read like an international Who's Who: Norman Mailer, Rose Kennedy, Steven Sondheim, Henry Fonda, Lillian Hellman, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Lauren Bacall, John Steinbeck, Lynda Bird Johnson, Arthur Miller, Vivien Leigh, Jerome Robbins, Diana Vreeland, James Michener, and Andy Warhol, among others; ... guest of honor, Kay Graham, and designer Billy Baldwin; ... Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow -- arguably the couple of the night, as they were newly wed -- linger[ed] in the Ballroom foyer.

The Ballroom had been done in red, with not a flower in sight -- "The people are the flowers," declared Capote. To the accompaniment of Peter Duchin's orchestra, 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne were served, along with a midnight buffet of chicken hash with sherry, spaghetti Bolognese, and scrambled eggs. The masks came off long before midnight, but other than that minor detail, all of Capote's wishes had been realized.

The party cost Capote sixteen thousand dollars, a modest investment for the millions of dollars' worth of publicity it generated for him. The New York Times printed the guest list. CBS aired live coverage. Newspapers across the country offered up editorials debating the meaning of it all. Critic Diana Trilling summed it up neatly, if enigmatically: "a very complicated moment in this country's social history." Magnified by the hyperbolic atmosphere of the 1960s, the Black and White Ball quickly became legendary, and today is a leading candidate for Party of the Century.

-- Curtis Gathje At the Plaza