The inside story of Truman Capote’s masked ball (from The Independent; 25 April 2006)

Truman dancing with Princess Lee Radziwill at the Black & White Ball  

He invited 500 friends but made 15,000 enemies. When the author Truman Capote threw a lavish masked ball to celebrate the phenomenal success of ‘In Cold Blood’, everyone who was anyone vied for an invitation. Deborah Davis tells the story of the party that united – and divided – the élites of politics, showbusiness and money

One morning in June 1966, while Truman was still riding the wave of adulation, he realised that he had money in his pockets and time on his hands. This was an unusual state of affairs for a writer who was generally overworked and overextended. He wanted a reward for his hard work, especially the long, difficult years he had devoted to In Cold Blood. To celebrate his good fortune, he decided to host a party, his “great, big, all-time spectacular present” to himself.

Truman decided exactly what he wanted to do. He decided to throw a Black and White Ball. And he selected a gimmick that was sure to galvanise and amuse his guests and magnetise the media. He would invite the most famous people in the world – his friends – and impertinently ask them to hide their fabulous and photographed faces behind masks.

Cecil Beaton was appalled when he heard that Truman was planning a big party and candidly expressed his misgivings in his tell-all diary. “What is Truman trying to prove?” he wrote. “The foolishness of spending so much time organising the party is something for a younger man or a worthless woman to indulge in, if they have social ambitions.” Truman insisted this was not the case – his party had nothing to do with publicising his book or self-aggrandisement. But Beaton, who knew his friend very well, suspected otherwise.

“They rolled off the assembly line like dolls,” Enid Nemy wrote of the guests in The New York Times, “newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels and addressed to Truman Capote, the Plaza Hotel.” Ball-goers who had attended dinner parties beforehand arrived in small congenial groups. As Truman had hoped, they were in excellent spirits because the earlier part of the evening served as a warm-up, priming them for the festivities.

Many of the guests were surprised by the banks of cameras awaiting them at the hotel. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” said one guest when faced with the flashbulbs. After all, it was supposed to be a private party.

The crowd was not content to watch silently as the guests paraded past the flashing cameras. They were a lively group, quick to applaud and just as quick to make barbed comments. “Oh, dear, what a catastrophe,” remarked one critic (who turned out to be a maskmaker eager to belittle the handiwork of his competitors). “They should have made the masks bigger to cover their entire faces,” he whined. When one effeminate young man called the masked Senator Jacob Javits “the Lone Ranger”, the senator replied by saying sarcastically, “Thank you, ladies.” The actress Joan Fontaine, draped in an elegant fishnet gown and a matching mask, overheard a woman say, “The only people I can’t recognise are those with their masks off.” Frank Sinatra remarked to the Washington Post gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker: “I don’t know how anyone can recognise Mia with her mask on.” Suzy responded: “I think it has something to do with her haircut, Frank, honestly I do,” referring to the boyish new style Mia Farrow Sinatra had gotten for Rosemary’s Baby. Those who did recognise her speculated – incorrectly – that her white Directoire dress might be concealing a little secret.

People who were not famous were ignored by the media. Truman’s writer friends had to tell reporters their names. “Gunther, you know, I’m a writer,” insisted John Gunther, the acclaimed author of Death Be Not Proud. John Knowles, the author of A Separate Peace, said: “They turned on the [Klieg] lights and looked at us. Nobody. The lights went off again.” The literary bad boy Norman Mailer was an exception. Because he was well known, there was all the more reason to criticise him for wearing a rumpled trench coat. Reporters tried to bait him about In Cold Blood outselling his books, but Mailer retorted good-naturedly: “It just shows that I’m no longer the biggest thief in America.” Asked to identify himself, the movie producer Darryl F Zanuck said: “If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be here.”

For the most part, women seemed to enjoy wearing their masks. Some dutiful ladies even complied with Truman’s request to carry fans, although it was difficult to hold a mask and a fan at the same time. Predictably, most of the men were not as keen on covering their faces. Like disobedient children, they guiltily dispensed with their masks as soon as possible. “It itches and I can’t see,” grumbled Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt about his cat mask. George Plimpton, author of Paper Tiger, had a different complaint. The inside of his mask was covered with glue that gave off intoxicating fumes, and he was dizzy until it finally occurred to him to take it off before he passed out. Andy Warhol outsmarted everyone with his ingenious solution to the mask problem: he simply didn’t wear one.

The CBS television crew scrambled to film the guests as they arrived. Truman asked them to leave the coat-check area – he had strong feelings about uninvited press intruding on his evening – but he did not persist when they refused to move. Charles Kuralt, a young, folksy CBS newsman, stood in the hallway leading to the coat check, microphone in hand. As the Beautiful People walked by, he told his viewers: “This is how the other half lives… we know you were not rich, social, or beautiful enough to be invited, or you wouldn’t be up watching the news.” He added: “The ‘Henrys’ are here, Ford and Fonda… but not the ‘Edwards’… ” meaning the Duke of Windsor and Kennedy, both of whom declined their invitations.

Kuralt was filming in colour, but the footage appeared to be in black and white because of the guests’ attire. Occasionally, there was a splash of red or brown from a coat or a mink stole. Late-night viewers – the show was on at 11pm – observed that it was a night of high hair. Women wore multiple hairpieces, teased, tamed, and twisted by the hands of Kenneth Battelle – known as “The Mr Cool of the Haute Coiffure” – to create fantasy styles. None of it was supposed to look real. On the film, the women were young and beautiful. Leo Lerman told the Life photographer Henry Grossman that he “had never seen so many beautiful women in one place at one time “. Some of the loveliest – Babe Paley and Marion Javits, for example – were escorted by husbands who appeared prosperous, powerful, and older. Both men and women were awkward in front of the cameras, unused to being on live television. Many sailed right past the press, while a few mugged for the cameras.

CBS missed the arrival of Lynda Bird Johnson, who came with her McCall’s editor, Robert Stein, and a dozen sombre Secret Service men, all wearing black masks. When asked by a Washington Post reporter to name the designer of her checkerboard-patterned gown, the President’s daughter coyly retorted: “That’s the last thing I’ll tell you. I’m just here to have fun.” Yet they did catch Tallulah Bankhead, Henry and Shirlee Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Babe and Bill Paley, Gloria Guinness, and Carol Bjorkman in her feathery Halston gown and headdress.

Truman and Kay Graham [publisher of The Washington Post] stood at the entrance to the ballroom for two hours, shaking hands, air-kissing, and embracing the people who stopped to greet them. Since Kay did not know many of the guests, Truman had to make introductions. According to Eugenia Sheppard, at 11pm he mopped his brow and said: “Whew, we’re working hard.” Truman was delighted to see his characters – the names he had inscribed on his list with such care – come to life.

Spectacular masks, such as the golden-curled unicorn head that Gene Moore created for the interior designer Billy Baldwin, received special praise from the appreciative host. “Oh, Billy, that’s fantastic,” Truman congratulated him. Isabella Eberstadt’s fanciful black and white entwined swans, fashioned by the multi-talented milliner, writer, and photographer Bill Cunningham, created a sensation, as did the cartoonist Charles Addams’s grim executioner’s mask.

The hit of the evening, though, was the ingénue Penelope Tree. More naked than dressed in her flowing black tunic and form-fitting tights, Tree caught the eye of every person in the room. Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, the wife of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, described Tree’s ensemble as “stark, like a Halloween ballet costume”. Her entrance signalled the presence of a new generation at the ball. Tree was discovered by the fashion world that night. Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon were so enchanted by her unspoiled beauty that they conspired on the spot to turn her into a cover girl – which is what she soon became.

At one point, Truman halted the receiving line to introduce a very special guest to Kay. “Here’s Jack,” he said, presenting his longtime companion, Jack Dunphy. A few of Truman’s society friends knew Jack, but Dunphy was a cantankerous and reclusive figure who preferred to be on his own in Switzerland or in the Hamptons, where Truman had given him a little house on his property. Never one to appreciate high society, which he thought was a bad influence on Truman, Jack had his doubts about the entire evening but appeared nonetheless.

Upon entering the ballroom, Truman’s guests were escorted to their tables. Frank Sinatra told his friends: “I’ll get the table for us ’cause I know all the waiters,” and he commandeered one of the best tables in the room right by the stage. A happy Joe Evangelista was his waiter for the night. The Sinatras were joined by Pamela and Leland Hayward, Bennett and Phyllis Cerf, Claudette Colbert, Steven and Jean Kennedy Smith, and the playwright Harry Kurnitz.

Mia did not spend much time sitting – she danced with energetic young partners such as Christopher Cerf, while her husband (“Frank never dances,” said Pamela Hayward) talked and table-hopped. Joe Evangelista saw to it that there was always a bottle of Wild Turkey, Frank’s favourite drink, within reach.

The evening was off to a fabulous start, although the historian Arthur Schlesinger commented knowingly: “History begins after midnight.” The room “was always shimmering” said the producer David Merrick, who thought the ball deserved “a rave review”. Jean Harvey Vanderbilt compared the party to the court of Louis XV because “people promenaded around the perimeter of the room in their finery, looking at each other”. One guest commented: “It’s weird, there are only black and white and red in this room, and yet everything’s so … so colourful.” Everyone was in constant motion, walking around and around to the strains of Peter Duchin’s intoxicating music.

Vogue reported that the newspaper editor Clifton Daniel “jitterbugged with an expertise that increased one’s respect for The New York Times,” and Norman Mailer and his wife, Beverly, made up a dance that mimicked walking on a tightrope. Ann Birstein danced all night with various partners, once memorably with Al Dewey [the detective who led the In Cold Blood investigation], while Kansas’s dashing banker Odd Williams proved to be an indefatigable hoofer. The UN Plaza doorman twirled Kay Graham around the floor and thanked her for “the happiest evening of my life”. McGeorge Bundy [President Johnson’s special assistant for national security] showed off his waltz. And the former professional dancer Jack Dunphy dazzled even world-weary Gloria Guinness with his fancy footwork. “You cut a mean rug,” she told him admiringly.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith was a sensation on the floor, mainly because he was tall (six feet eight and a half inches) and fiercely independent in his moves. He even danced alone.

Lauren Bacall rarely had a moment to sit. When she danced with the choreographer Jerome Robbins “in a fashion that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might have envied”, Truman said, all eyes were upon them.

Don Bachardy did not dance, because he was alone and felt a little shy about finding a partner. An artist, he appreciated the beautifully lit room and was “happy to observe rather than participate”. His only problem was his perfect mask. Bachardy had no idea how painful a mask could be until he had worn his for an hour. He wanted to rip it off his face but dutifully kept it on until the proper moment.

Photographers shot Truman dancing with Kay Graham; Gloria Guinness; Lee Radziwill (who gave up because beads from her gown showered the dance floor); Kay’s daughter, Lally Weymouth; and Kay Wells. But Truman was too busy being the host to spend a lot of time on the dance floor. Instead, he hopped, skipped, and jumped from table to table, saying: “Aren’t we having the most wonderful time? I love this party.”

When the midnight supper was served, including the Plaza’s famous chicken hash, Truman was not one of the appreciative diners. There were too many people to admire and too many stories to tell. He was his usual impish self, whispering to Joan Axelrod, the wife of the playwright and screenwriter George Axelrod, the name of the woman whose husband had wangled an invitation by telling Truman his spouse had threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t get one.

When the Soul Brothers had their turn at the bandstand, the dancers proved they knew their stuff. The leader Benny Gordon said that the party was ” out of sight” and was “surprised there were so many hip people (especially the oldsters) in society”. Songs like “Twist and Shout” and “Up and Down” had everybody on their feet boogalooing. One of the Brothers had a single appreciative word for Babe Paley: “Wow!”

As predicted, crashers stormed the gates. One pleasant, well-dressed couple was caught and politely turned away. A not-so-well-dressed woman managed to intrude and spoke to Truman. “I’m sorry… I just wanted so much to see what it would look like,” she explained.

Truman softened at her words and invited her to enjoy a glass of champagne, at which point she became surly. “Spending all this money,” she criticised, “when there are people all over the world starving to death. ” He called over a security guard and instructed him to ask the interloper to dance and then to waltz her out of the room.

Despite Truman’s eagle eyes, two trespassers eluded him. Susan Payson, a beautiful young public relations executive at Bergdorf Goodman, and her date, Jerry Jones, an up-and-coming staffer at McKinsey, sat by the Plaza fountain after having left an unexciting party at a nearby hotel. A plucky young woman who excelled at athletics and loved a challenge, Susan mentioned to Jones that she’d love to go to Truman Capote’s party at the Plaza, and he said: “You’ll never get in,” – words guaranteed to spark mischief.

“Watch,” said Susan.

Following her, Jones walked into the lobby of the Plaza, where they joined a group of latecomers. Susan thought they would drift into the dance with the others – she was dressed appropriately in a black scoop-necked gown and Jones was wearing a tuxedo – never imagining that Truman himself would be standing guard at the door. He saw them, and it appeared they would be the couple committing social suicide by getting publicly removed from the ballroom. Instead, Truman greeted them warmly. He feigned familiarity, then ushered them to a table. Payson and Jones were astonished that they had engineered such a coup – they had actually crashed the Black and White Ball.

Truman seated them with the personable Kansas contingent. Susan did not make the connection that the tall man sitting next to her was Al Dewey until she asked his profession and he answered: “Detective.” In fact, the guests from Kansas did not look any different from Truman’s other friends. Time described them as “chic, bright, attractive people of quick humor and engaging charm” and said that “only their regional accents… certainly not their clothes or manners, set them apart from the New Yorkers.” One thing they had in common was that they were Truman’s greatest fans. Vi Tate told Time, “I think there’s nothing Truman can’t do. He writes like an angel, he’s the dearest and most understanding friend – and now this party, the most superb thing I’ve ever seen.”

Noteworthy scenes occurred throughout the ballroom. The daughters of three presidents, Lynda Bird Johnson, Margaret Truman Daniel, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, traded White House stories. Longworth, who called Truman ” one of the most agreeable men I know,” was delighted to learn that her domino mask cost four cents less than her host’s 39-cent bargain. Gloria Guinness, who wore only pricey accessories, complained that her diamond and ruby necklaces were so heavy, she would have to stay in bed the next day, a comment that made Truman laugh out loud.

Truman introduced Rose Kennedy to Brendan Gill, the editor of The New Yorker. Gill politely led the 76-year-old Kennedy matriarch to the dance floor. When the number was over, they sat together and found common ground in their lives, specifically large families: Gill and his wife, Catholics like the Kennedys, had seven children. Mrs Kennedy marvelled that all Gill’s children were alive and talked about her own sad experiences with death.

Norman Mailer exchanged harsh words about Vietnam with McGeorge Bundy. Mailer was offended because Bundy, who had worked in government until taking charge of the Ford Foundation, implied condescendingly that the writer didn’t know much about the war. Mailer wanted to take their conversation outside to the street, but good manners prevailed.

Beautiful Benedetta Barzini, who was wearing a Kenneth Jay Lane necklace as a mask, had an uncomfortable moment when Lane attempted to introduce her to the producer Sam Spiegel. Both men were surprised when she rudely snubbed the man responsible for the Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Later, she explained to Lane that Spiegel had been one of the first people she visited when she moved to America at age 17. Even though she had presented a letter of introduction to Spiegel from her father, an old friend, he tried to seduce her. Benedetta was not planning on talking to him that night or any other.

One famous actress danced the night away with a tuxedoed young man, mesmerised by his brawny good looks. Truman did not have the heart to tell her she had fallen under the spell of his elevator man from the UN Plaza. But Cupid refrained from shooting an arrow at the young film-maker Al Maysles. Al circled the room, not knowing that his future wife, Gillian Walker, was one of the lovely women at the ball.

At about 2:45, Sinatra asked the people at his table if anyone wanted to join him at Jilly’s, his favourite bar. Truman begged him not to leave the party, knowing that its high wattage would be diminished, but Sinatra was ready to move on. He tipped Joe Evangelista with a hundred-dollar bill, called on the Secret Service men for help, and made a speedy escape, leading Mia, the Haywards, and Herb and Theresa Caen through back passageways to the street below. As Joe cleared Sinatra’s table, he vowed that he would save the bill to commemorate the wonderful night.

By 3am, the ball was winding down, but Truman’s guests lingered even as their host resumed his position at the entrance. He and Kay said good evening to each departing guest.

For some, the night was just beginning. Gianni Agnelli and his cronies proceeded to Elaine’s restaurant for a game of poker. The fun-loving Kansans were the last to leave. They helped a forlorn woman find a pearl that had fallen off her shoe and decided to continue their festivities by going to a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Bandleader Peter Duchin, a veteran of many late nights, headed home, too wired to even think about sleep.

When Truman finally closed his eyes that morning in his Plaza suite, memories of the ball “whirled like a flurry of snowflakes” inside his head. Random images stood out: the Maharani of Jaipur dressed in gold and emeralds; John Kenneth Galbraith, “tall as a crane but not as graceful”; Babe Paley, “floating in a dress of the sheerest white chiffon”; a “galaxy of masked black and white guests” having the best time in the most beautiful room in the city. “It was just what it set out to be,” Truman had told reporters at the end of the evening: “I just wanted to give a party for my friends.”

This is an edited extract from ‘Party of the Century’ by Deborah Davis (John Wiley & Sons, £16.99). Readers can order it for £15.99 (including post and packaging) from Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

On the menu

Recipe for Plaza chicken hash (serves 4-5)

4 cups finely diced cooked
chicken (white meat only)
11/ 2 cups heavy cream
1 cup cream sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup Hollandaise sauce

Mix chicken, cream, cream sauce and seasonings in a heavy skillet. Cook over moderate heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. When moisture is slightly reduced, place skillet in a moderate oven (350F), and bake for 30 minutes. Stir in sherry and return to oven for 10 minutes. Lightly fold in Hollandaise sauce and serve at once.

The chosen few: a selection from Capote’s guest list

Mr and Mrs Gianni Agnelli, Count Umberto Agnelli, Edward Albee, Mrs W Vincent Astor, Mr and Mrs Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Cecil Beaton, Mr and Mrs Harry Belafonte, Marisa Berenson, Candice Bergen, Mr and Mrs Irving Berlin, Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, Mr and Mrs Leonard Bernstein, Mr and Mrs Benjamin Bradlee, Mr and Mrs William Buckley, Mr and Mrs Richard Burton, Prince Carlo Caracciolo, Lord Chalfont, Dr and Mrs John Converse, Noël Coward, Mr and Mrs Walter Cronkite, Mr and Mrs Sammy Davis Jr, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mrs Marshall Field, Mr and Mrs Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Mr and Mrs Henry Ford 2nd, Mr and Mrs John Kenneth Galbraith, Greta Garbo, Ambassador and Mrs Arthur J Goldberg, Mr and Mrs Samuel Goldwyn, Henry Golightly, Hamish Hamilton, Ambassador and Mrs W Averell Harriman, Mr and Mrs William Randolph Hearst Jr, Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz 2nd, Miss Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Hilton, Horst P Horst, Christopher Isherwood, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur, Senator and Mrs Jacob K Javits, Lynda Bird Johnson, Philip Johnson, Senator and Mrs Edward M Kennedy, Mrs John F Kennedy, Mrs Joseph P Kennedy, Senator and Mrs Robert F Kennedy, Alfred Knopf, Mr and Mrs Joseph Kraft, Mrs Patricia Lawford, Mr and Mrs Irving Lazar, Harper Lee, Vivien Leigh, Mr and Mrs Jack Lemmon, Mr and Mrs Alan Jay Lerner, Mr and Mrs Alexander Lieberman, Mr and Mrs Robert Lowell, Mr and Mrs Henry Luce, Shirley MacLaine, Mr and Mrs Norman Mailer, Mr and Mrs Joseph Mankiewicz, Mr and Mrs Walter Matthau, Mr and Mrs Robert McNamara, Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Mr and Mrs James Michener, Mr and Mrs Arthur Miller, Mr and Mrs Vincent Minnelli, Mr and Mrs Samuel I Newhouse Sr, Mrs Stavros Niarchos, Mike Nichols, Lord and Lady David Ogilvy, Mr and Mrs Gregory Peck, George Plimpton, Prince and Princess Stanislas Radziwill, Mr and Mrs Jason Robards Jr, Governor and Mrs Nelson A Rockefeller, Philip Roth, Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild, Theodore Rousseau, Mr and Mrs Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Mrs David O Selznick, Mr and Mrs Irwin Shaw, Mr and Mrs Frank Sinatra, Steve Sondheim, Sam Spiegel, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Gloria Steinem, Mr and Mrs William Styron, Mr and Mrs Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Ambassador and Mrs Llewellyn E Thompson, Penelope Tree, Mr and Mrs Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mrs T Reed Vreeland, William Walton, Mr and Mrs Edward Warburg, Andy Warhol, Mr and Mrs Robert Penn Warren, Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, Mr and Mrs Billy Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Mr and Mrs Edmund Wilson, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Darryl Zanuck…

Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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