And you thought selecting the right salsa was a big deal. It takes a little bit more than that to plan a truly memorable soiree, as author Deborah Davis details in Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (Wiley, $24.95). It’s an intoxicating book that touches on the history of everything from masked balls of the 1300s to ’60s socialites, one of whom loved Pilates. You won’t mind the champagne hangover.
Giddy with the success of his groundbreaking In Cold Blood, Capote planned the ultimate party in 1966 — not so much to celebrate, but to solidify his standing in society. The ball was all anybody would talk about for months beforehand, and it filled newspapers afterward. A year later, it was on the cover of Esquire magazine.
No event since has surpassed the Black and White Ball (although Davis points out that Sean “Diddy” Combs has tried).
Where did Capote’s party go right — and what can you take away for your next bash?
IT HAD A SMASHING THEME
The nation was still charmed by the black-and-white Ascot scenes from “My Fair Lady,” and Capote gave his guests a chance to costume themselves. Requiring masks was a sadistic challenge. How were New York’s most legendary beauties supposed to obscure their faces while still ensuring they were seen by the right people? (Capote paid 39 cents for his plain black mask at FAO Schwarz.)
IT HAD AN IMPECCABLE GUEST OF HONOR
Capote named Katharine Graham the honoree. The publisher of the Washington Post was recently widowed and needed cheering up. Of course, everyone knew that the evening was all about Capote.
IT WAS EXCLUSIVE
The ballroom at the Plaza Hotel could accommodate 540 guests, so Capote estimated that he made 15,000 enemies. Greta Garbo was invited; Capote’s own father was not. Tallulah Bankhead had to beg for her invitation. Jackie Kennedy declined, but her sister, Lee Radziwill, was there. There were Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, the newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, and Andy Warhol (who refused to wear a mask). The guest list was a “tour de force of social engineering,” writes Davis.
IT HAD BUZZ
Capote was always his own best promoter. He teased the press with tantalizing tidbits about who would and wouldn’t be at the ball — and then invited the most important columnists as guests themselves, so they’d be sure to write about it.
IT WASN’T PERFECT
Capote’s engraved invitations from Tiffany’s came back with typos, but there was no time to fix them — so he just crossed out the wrong address in pen and scribbled in the right one. And then there was the buffet. For such a fancy occasion, he chose some interesting dishes: his favorite chicken hash, and spaghetti and meatballs. Needless to say, the socialites in couture white gowns didn’t go near the spaghetti.