What Really Happened at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball

28th november 1966 american socialite lee radziwill and american writer truman capote 1924 1984 pose together in the grand ballroom of the plaza hotel during capotes black and white ball in honor of publisher kay graham photo by hulton archivegetty images
Behind the Scenes of Capote's Black and White BallHulton Archive

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"It was quite a modest party."

Yes, Crystal Laurence, the sales and marketing director of the Plaza (and the hotel's unofficial historian), is referring to one of the most legendary parties to have ever been held in the 134-year-old institution, maybe even in all of 20th-century New York: Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

It has been more than 50 years since it took place, but the event still lives up to its title as the "party of the century," remaining a glittering paragon of high society gatherings—and an endless source of inspiration for the creative class. Books have been written about that one rainy Monday night in November 1966. A musical is in the works. And, naturally, it was a plot point in a recent episode of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, the sophomore chapter of Ryan Murphy's Feud anthology series that dives into the author's relationship with his coterie of fabulous swans—and the infamous fallout between them.

frank sinatra and mia farrow wearing masks
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra at Capote’s Black and White Ball. Bettmann - Getty Images

By now, the most iconic details about the Black and White Ball are well-embedded in the collective conscience. We know that Capote decided to throw a masked ball in honor of Kay Graham, scion of the Washington Post publishing dynasty, but that really, the party was for him—he was, after all, at the height of his fame thanks to the immense success of In Cold Blood. We know that Candice Bergen wore a Halston bunny mask and Italian aristocrat Luciana Pignatelli put a 60-carat Harry Winston diamond on her forehead. We know that Peter Duchin and his band entertained. We know that this was the rarest of fêtes that brought together the worlds of high society, media, politics, Hollywood, and the arts, with a 540-person guest list that included Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, Ben Bradlee, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Lauren Bacall, Gordon Parks, Gloria Steinem, Lady Bird Johnson, the Kennedys, Agnellis, Vanderbilts, and Astors. "As spectacular a group as has ever been assembled for a private party in New York," according to the New York Times.

mr and mrs fonda
Henry Fonda and Shirlee Mae Adams.Harry Benson - Getty Images

Few would think to call this a modest affair but Laurence might have a point. If you look past the starry wattage of those who filled the Plaza's ballroom that night, you'll notice the minimalism of the decor. Not an ornate floral arrangement in sight, just a candelabra on each table and a cluster of clear balloons resembling an inverted champagne tower floating next to the chandelier. The only pop of color, aside from the room's gilded trimmings, came courtesy of the red tablecloths, which may have simply been a practical choice. "When you had a party at the Plaza, they came complimentary with the space," Laurence says. The late jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane, who was a party guest, said it best: "In those days, the people were the decoration," he recalled to T&C in 2016.

capote's ball
Lee Radziwill and Capote.Hulton Archive - Getty Images

There is also the fact that Capote managed to put on the whole affair for just $16,000 (about $150,000 in today's currency). Sure, he had 450 bottles of Taittinger, but everything else on that midnight supper menu was no-frills—a nod, perhaps, to his humble Southern roots—with things like biscuits, sausages, chicken hash (the author's favorite), and spaghetti. (A note for the Capote superfan: a bottle of the 1966 vintage is currently for sale at the Plaza's Champagne Bar for $16,000, and comes with a complimentary one-night stay in the Grand Penthouse Suite; for enthusiasts on a budget, chicken hash and spaghetti are on the menu until February 13.)

model penelope tree attending costume ball
Penelope Tree. Bettmann - Getty Images

But who needs frills with a venue like this? "I wanted it at the Plaza," Capote told the New York Times, "because it's the only really beautiful ballroom left in the United States." He knew there was no other status symbol quite like it; no better way to signal that he had arrived.

"He chose the Plaza because it would signify his legacy," Laurence says. But little did Capote, or anyone else blinded by his star back then, know: the Black and White Ball would turn out to be as much a sign of his arrival as his swan song. Not long after the party he would fall into a spiral of alcoholism and drug addiction—and face the icy rejection of his beloved swans following the publication of "La Côte Basque, 1965"—from which he would never recover. Maybe this is what accounts for the enduring appeal of the Black and White Ball. It's a fabulous snapshot of a bygone era—and one we'll never tire of revisiting again and again.

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