Guest List

How Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball Shook Sixties New York

You were either on the list, or—oh the shame—you were not. And Capote’s grand 1966 party, with a glamorous cast of hundreds, at the Plaza Hotel went down in history.

Harry Benson/Express via Getty

Truman Capote’s ambitions for his Black and White Masked Ball of November 28, 1966, were huge.

It was to be at the Plaza hotel because, he said, it had the grandest ballroom in New York. The reason was the overwhelming success of his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, but the party couldn’t be pure self-promo, it had to be “for” somebody, so not wishing to pick amongst his “swans,” the society ladies who cosseted him, he settled on Katharine Graham, an unstylish friend from D.C., whose husband had killed himself the year before, so she needed cheering up.

It also just happened that Graham owned the Washington Post company, so was one of the most powerful women in the U.S. She came aboard, shyly.

As for the Black-and-Whiteness, Capote had loved the black-and-whites in My Fair Lady, created by Cecil Beaton, an old friend. He had also been impressed by a star-studded, black-and-white do given by Dominick and Lenny Dunne in Beverly Hills just a couple of years before.

“Then he didn’t invite us,” Dominick Dunne said. Amused. Somewhat.

This was predictive. In a letter to Bennett Cerf, his publisher, Capote described his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, and called the society folk with whom he spent his time as his “sitters.” As if for a group portrait.

The party was a work of art in progress, so the guest list was crucial. Capote became a tease, listing names in a black-and-white school composition book, which he carried around theatrically.

“Perhaps I’ll invite you and perhaps I won’t,” he would tell people.

Inevitably the news reached Women’s Wear Daily, then a tip sheet-cum-bulletin board of the social whirl, and pressure from wannabes began to build. It never stopped.

Some, unwilling to admit they hadn’t made the cut, let it be known they were unavoidably out of town. Prominent amongst them was Jerry Zipkin, a leading “Walker,” this term being invented by Women’s Wear Daily for gossip-proof escorts who would take female socialites to functions, when this was a service their husbands couldn’t or wouldn’t provide.

But Zipkin and Capote had been feuding. Indeed Capote affected to forget his name, referring to him as “that man with a face shaped like a bidet.”

Capote organized for a number of his friends to give pre-ball dinners, and the ball itself began at 10. It was a rainy evening but the phrase “Party of the Century” was already being heard and there was a media hoopla outside which, the manager the Plaza would later say, outdid the hullabaloo when the Beatles were there for The Ed Sullivan Show.

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For the ostentatiously discreet, there was a private side entrance. In due course all the upwards-from-540 were within.

So was the Party of the Century actually fun? It took place way before my arrival in Manhattan, but I heard many firsthand tales, mostly admiring, not all.

Capote had intended a piece of socio-cultural engineering, redrawing the map of who and what mattered, with himself at dead center, and giving everybody—no matter how important—somebody of interest to talk to or at least watch.

So there were, yes, hyper-socialtes, magnates and couturiers, but it was, after all, a book party, so Philip Roth and Louis Auchinchloss were just two of the novelists present.

The poets Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell showed, and a few starry hacks, such as Joe Alsop, James “Scotty” Reston of The New York Times, and Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The powerful uninvited columnist, Earl Wilson, begged the bandleader Peter Duchin to sneak him in as an instrumentalist. Nothing doing.

It might well have been the last roll-call for masks and costumery at that level. Amanda Burden (the socialite and former director of NYC’s Director of City Planning) had hired one of the black-and-white outfits used in the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, Candice Bergen wore a bunny mask in white fur, a grumbling Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt—“It itches”—wore a cat mask, the decorator Bill Baldwin wore a golden unicorn’s head, and the cartoonist Charles Addams wore an executioner’s mask. But of course.

On the minimalist side Lynda Bird Johnson, the president’s daughter, was accompanied by six unsmiling Secret Service men in masks of basic black.

So there was lots to gossip about but, all that said, the intended socio-cultural mix didn’t really take. Peers hung out with their peers, socialites with socialites, writers with writers, Hollywood players with Hollywood players, Euros—not yet Eurotrash, that was soon—with other Euros.

But there were memorable vignettes, such as Norman Mailer challenging McGeorge Bundy, one of the architects of the Vietnam War, to a fistfight. Here too nothing doing.

John Kenneth Galbraith, the 6-foot 8-inch economist, escorted a candelabra and George Plimpton showed off his football chops by kicking Galbraith’s discarded top hat around.

And there were discoveries. Penelope Tree, the 16-year-old daughter of Marietta Tree, a lioness and power figure amongst New York Democrats, was wearing a shift down to the floor, cut so that you could see her bikini briefs.

A writer observed that the Flower Child look of the later ’60s was born at that moment. Tree caught the eye of both Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, and was promptly put into a suite of pictures in that magazine.

Writers typically rather failed at the visual astonishment. Mailer wore a well-used trench coat and Plimpton a cheap mask that so overwhelmed him with the glue fumes that he took it off.

Artists too. Andy Warhol—one of the very few artists there, that was Before the Artworld—didn’t wear a mask at all, calculating correctly that his face was mask enough.

Another Mailer nugget: In The Naked and The Dead, his war novel published years before, the soldiers sometimes use the word “fugging.”

Supposedly the actress Tallulah Bankhead, meeting Mailer after the publication, had said, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell ‘fucking’.” “That was the invention of a press agent,” Mailer told me years later. “I would say it has affected 1 percent of my social life ever since. I hadn’t even met her.”

They did meet at the ball. “We gave each other embarrassed smiles,” he told me.

At 2:45 a.m. Frank Sinatra, who had grabbed a table up next to the stage, decided it was time to move on. Capote implored him to stay, knowing this would be a signal. But Sinatra did leave. And Capote had been right. The ball began winding down.

The tale of the party-of-the-century as a major, occasionally malicious artwork was not over though. Very far from that. Those who had been unable to attend, they claimed, because they had been called out of town, came trickling back, only to find that the journalist Charlotte Curtis had secured the actual party list.

It was published in The New York Times. True, the list contained some names of people who had been invited, but chosen not to be there—such as the Windsors, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Jackie Kennedy—but it was the names NOT on, the Out Crowd, that got attention. Like Jerry Zipkin.

Truman Capote was quoted saying how sorry for them he felt. Right.