On Nov. 28, 1966, the writer Truman Capote invited 540 people to the grand ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel for the “Black and White Ball.”
The guest list for Capote’s extravaganza included a mix of artists and socialites, from Frank Sinatra and Andy Warhol to Gloria Vanderbilt and Lynda Bird Johnson. Capote threw the party in honor of his friend Katharine Graham, the recently widowed publisher of the Washington Post.
But in the process, Capote also helped invent our modern sense of celebrity.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young looks back on the ball with Deborah Davis, author of the 2006 book “Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball.”
On how Capote ‘democratized’ the ball
“That was Truman’s genius. If you really want people to focus on your party, give them an agenda. He told his guests that they had to dress in black and white, and that they had to wear masks. This of course prompted a frenzy of preparations, and made it what everybody was talking about for seven weeks before the ball.”
“…Washington society stayed with Washington and politics, New York stayed by itself, and the movie business, well they had their own kinds of parties. People from all different walks of life had never met each other before, and were very pleased and surprised to be in the same room together.”
On why Capote chose Graham as his guest of honor
“In 1966, Katherine Graham owned the Washington Post, but was a recent widow. Her husband had just committed suicide. And Truman was a friend of hers, and decided she was, as he said to her, ‘You’re sad and you need cheering up. So I’m going to have this fabulous party for you.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m OK.’ But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Everybody would come out for Katherine Graham, so she was his choice for guest of honor.”
On how the ball affected fame and celebrity culture
“There was no question that the party triggered an insatiable thirst in readers for the very, ‘who-wore-it-better’ coverage that is so popular today. But the distinction is that, at that moment in time, you had to earn your place on the red carpet. And celebrity had a different definition, it wasn’t the ’15 minutes of fame.’
“The thing about the Black and White ball was that it was a private party that we were given an insider peek at, and it did create a monster, and it also marked Capote’s demise in a sense, because, before the ball, he had always said that gregariousness is the enemy of art. When he was writing a book, he would go off into seclusion and he would never be interrupted by any element of social life. After the ball, he became the world’s best guest. And he just went from one event to another, and he lost his hold on his art. And that was very sad. The culture changed, and Capote changed as well.”