Icons / November 2016

Invitation Only: Truman Capote's Black and White Ball

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball was quite possibly the most extravagant party of the 20th century, only fitting then that The Rake should dissect it.

Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York, November 1966. Photo by Elliott Erwitt courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Even before a single cork had been fired, it was obvious that Truman Capote’s Black and White dance would be a party for the ages. A fever-dream collage of diplomats and dilettantes, movie stars and Maharajahs, the ball’s guest list was an Encyclopedia Britannica for name droppers, while its host was both the most celebrated writer of his era and an acknowledged social chessmaster with a carnival eye that made The Great Gatsby look like The Sort Of Just Okay Gatsby. A Last Days of Rome bacchanal for the American Golden Age, the greatest party in the history of the world took place 50 years ago this month. But for those who were passed over for an invitation, it probably still stings like it was yesterday.

“One man told Truman his wife had threatened to kill herself if she weren't invited”, remembers editor of The New York Review of Books Robert Shivers. Property baron and ‘man-about-everywhere’ Jerry Zipkin (who Capote famously described as having “a face like a bidet”) pretended to be called away to Monte Carlo when he realised he was in for a snub, while Upper East Side brahmin John Gallihan recalls how dozens of international jet-setters attempted to “bribe Truman with great sums of money” in order to get their name on the sacrosanct list. As Parisian aristocrat Étienne de Beaumont once put it: “A party is never given for someone. It is given against someone.”

And that was precisely how Capote liked it: all murmurings and histrionics and subplots and scrabbling in the margins. Things had been much the same in the months that led up to the release, in January 1966, of In Cold Blood, the novel that had catapulted him simultaneously into the literary world’s limelight and into the laps of a dwindling American high society (sometimes literally, in fact: at five foot two, Capote was often labelled the ‘lapdog’ of the great society hostesses; they in turn referred to him cooingly as ‘Tru Love’ and ‘Tru Heart’.) It also scraped him “right down to the marrow of my bones”. After half a decade in the Stockholm Syndrome clutches of a gruesome murder case, Capote knew that this would be his last book for some time. If the circus was to continue, then the carousel would have to keep spinning of its own accord. The Black and White dance was its jet fuel.

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