Hats and gloves were on their way out by the late 1960s, the casualty of the post-Kennedy era and the Swinging Sixties’ new, more laid-back fashions. But in late 1966, just as the era of old-fashioned millinery began to die, there was a spike in demand for elbow-length gloves, masks, and custom-made headpieces in the upscale department stores of New York City.
These well-heeled women mobbing once-deserted millinery departments weren’t chasing the next fashion fad. Rather, they possessed sought-after invitations to what would end up being the 20th century’s most famous party: the Black and White Ball. The epic fête, given by author Truman Capote in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, would go down as one of history’s most lavish and singular celebrations.
The over-the-top party, which took place on November 28, 1966, was the brainchild of Truman Capote, the American novelist best known for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons, was a product of Depression-era Alabama, where he grew up alongside literary legend Nelle “Harper” Lee. So it’s no wonder that when he finally acquired wealth, fame and social prestige, he decided to throw an unforgettable blowout.
The ball was “a party its host had in some ways begun to plan as a precocious, lonely 8-year-old,” according to The New York Times. By 1966, Capote’s life couldn’t be more different than the one he had turned to writing to escape. His “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, about a quadruple murder in small-town Kansas, was published to wide literary acclaim in early 1966, offering an entrée into the society he had longed to enter for years.
Finally famous and able to afford to treat his new friends, Capote decided to throw a party for 540 guests from radically different backgrounds, professions, and even continents (at least four were represented at the ball). Capote knew that an elaborate soiree would gain him even more publicity and fame, but he also knew he couldn’t just give it for himself. So he made a savvy calculation and invited Katharine Graham as his party’s purported guest of honor.
Graham had assumed leadership of The Washington Post and Newsweek after her husband’s suicide in 1963. Capote told her he wanted to cheer her up and said he’d give the party in her honor. However, his invitation was strategic. It was “guaranteed to arouse the most curiosity and reap the most publicity,” notes Vanity Fair. Capote capitalized on social and media interest in the mysterious Graham—now the scion of a major media conglomerate—before turning the question of who else would be invited to the party into a media circus.
A confused, flattered Graham accepted. “I really was a sort of middle-aged debutante—even a Cinderella, as far as that kind of life was concerned….[Capote] felt he needed a reason for the party, a guest of honor, and I was from a different world, and not in competition with his more glamorous friends,” Graham later wrote in her biography, Personal History.
Now that Capote had an excuse to celebrate, he set about planning one of the most profligate parties of its age. Capote had plenty of money thanks to his bestseller, and he wanted to show his guests a good time. So he rented out the Plaza Hotel’s grand ballroom. Guests were asked to wear black and white and to dress in masks, which they would remove at midnight—and the society pages of newspapers and magazines became places to speculate about who would attend and who would design their sumptuous clothing. Capote said he’d gotten the idea from a scene in the movie My Fair Lady where the guests at the Ascot ball dress in black and white.
The party cost $16,000 to throw—the equivalent of over $120,000 in modern dollars. But the main attraction was not the relatively simple decorations, the orchestra or the 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne—it was the guests.
Capote challenged the still strict social codes of the day by inviting people both famous and unknown. He invited people from the Kansas town where he had researched the book, along with royals like the Maharani of Jaipur and cult artists like Andy Warhol. Graham’s secretary was invited; so was one of the hotel’s doormen. But so were Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady at the time, and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. Capote spent months creating the guest list, and speculation about the list became a public preoccupation. Just as important as the list of invitees was the list of who didn’t get invited, like any writers who had ever reviewed Capote’s work unfavorably (and Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne, who claimed Capote copied the party’s theme from one of his events.)
Later called “a tour de force of social engineering,” the party was seen as a moment on the cusp of radical social change. Given in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, the party’s guest list represented a carefully curated cross-section of important people in American culture—a kind of who’s who of influential figures in fashion, literature, politics, society, and art. “This was the last possible moment such a party could take place and not be widely excoriated,” Graham wrote.
The party itself was a wild success. Couture-clad women and tuxedo-wearing men pushed through a massive crowd of media—up to 200 cameras in the hotel’s lobby alone—to participate in a receiving line, then drank champagne, danced to live music and mingled with one of the most unusual groups of people ever assembled. At midnight, the attendees unmasked themselves, then ate a buffet dinner and started dancing again.
The party ended around 4 a.m.—and the day-after media maelstrom was even more intense than earlier coverage. So what did Graham think of the party thrown in her honor? Though dazed, she was also touched. “Why was I the guest of honor?” she later wrote. “Who knows?” But though she was baffled by the gesture, she later said that it had relaunched her into society. “I was flattered, and although it may not have been my style, for one magic night I was transformed.”
In the words of Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke, “[Graham] was arguably the most powerful woman in the country, but still largely unknown outside Washington. Putting her in the spotlight was also [Capote’s] ultimate act as Pygmalion. It would symbolize her emergence from her dead husband’s shadow; she would become her own woman before the entire world.”
Even more, it solidified Capote as a social icon—a man who dared to turn his social life into fine art.