Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Once upon a time, there was a party of the decade - the Black and White Ball

The night the beautiful people died
Forty years ago Truman Capote threw a party that was meant to announce his arrival in society's best circles. Instead, he unwittingly made it clear that the world he so desperately wanted to be part of was in its death throes

They danced through the night, then walked out into the dawn and discovered that the world they knew was gone.

This Tuesday, Nov. 28, will mark the 40th anniversary of The Black and White Ball, a vain caprice that Truman Capote conceived one June night in the Hamptons, only to see it escalate six months later into the seismic social event of its decade.

By the time the last plate of scrambled eggs was cleared away the next morning by the bleary-eyed staff at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and the last of the 540 revellers had weaved homeward up Fifth Avenue, not just a party but a way of life had come to a close.

Never before had "The Beautiful People" seemed to matter so much, and never would they matter so much again.

The growing discontent over the war in Vietnam and the racial tensions simmering just beneath the surface of America's cities were about to take centre stage, turning the haute-coutured denizens of Capote's soirée into so many dress extras from a film they couldn't begin to understand.

And while society bandleader Peter Duchin played Irving Berlin tunes and the guests drank their way through more than 500 bottles of vintage Taittinger champagne, there was a younger generation outside rattling the gates, chanting "sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll."

When Capote first dreamed of the evening, he had no idea of the repercussions it would eventually have. He never set out to prove that the world he so desperately wanted to be a part of was empty and meaningless; it just happened that way.

In the words of T.S. Eliot, he somehow managed "to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Capote's good friend Slim Keith understood his real motives. "I think it was something a little boy from New Orleans had always dreamed of doing," she told Capote biographer Gerald Clarke. "He wanted to give the biggest and best goddamned party that anybody had ever heard of. He wanted to see every notable in the world absolutely dying to attend a party given by a funny-looking strange little man — himself."

Capote was riding high in the summer of 1966. His "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood was at the top of the bestseller lists and his name was on the tip of everyone's tongues.

His fly-on-the-wall account of how two sociopaths brutally killed a family of four in small-town Kansas, then made their way to the gallows, had earned Capote over $2 million.

But even more importantly, it had bought him credibility. The diminutive Southern jester with the voice that sounded like Scarlett O'Hara on nitrous oxide had suddenly fulfilled the promise he'd been flaunting for decades.

He was no longer just a witty gadfly with a few magnolia-scented novellas to his credit. He was the real thing now, a writer of substance, with money, power and reputation — the three things New York's elite would always bend a knee to.

So it was payback time for Truman, in every sense of the word. He would thank those who had helped him on the way up, he would embrace those whose rarefied world he felt he had now entered, and he would sneer at those who were somewhere below him on the rickety ladder called celebrity.

But before the guest list, he would pick a venue.

The choice was easy. From the moment it opened its doors in 1907 till the day it shut them in 2005, the Plaza Hotel was the place where Manhattan gathered to celebrate.

Alfred Vanderbilt had stayed there on its first night, F. Scott Fitzgerald had burnished it with the gold of his pen to stand as a symbol for "the Lost Generation," and later everyone from Marilyn Monroe to The Beatles had claimed it as their own.

No other place would do for Mr. Capote.

Once he had booked the Grand Ballroom for Monday night, Nov. 28, he settled on the style. A formal event, of course. But costume? Too campy. Yet he wanted something just a bit out of the ordinary...

Masks, of course! Let all the gods and goddesses hide their identity until midnight, and then watch the revels ensue.

And it was always good to be a bit stringent in matters of style, so Capote borrowed a page from the "Ascot Gavotte" scene in My Fair Lady and decreed that the colour scheme for the evening would be black and white.

Food would be simple. In the wee small hours, there would be the obligatory breakfast buffet, but before that, Capote's sense of wicked whimsy would hold forth.

Chicken hash would be served, despite its plebeian origins, because it was Capote's favourite dish at the Plaza's Oak Room Bar. And spaghetti and meatballs would also find their way onto the menu, because — as Capote later devilishly admitted — he wanted to see all those high society ladies trying to avoid getting red sauce on their glistening white gowns.

To drink, there would be vintage French champagne, a bottle per person, and Peter Duchin to provide the music.

Now, on to the guest list.

`The French Revolution came to mind and our place in the tumbrels' -- Harold Prince, Broadway producer

For most of the summer, Capote sat by various pools up and down the Eastern seaboard and scribbled names in a simple black-and-white composition book, the kind school children then used.

Friends recall seeing him wrapped in thought more intent than that which ever accompanied his creation of a piece of fiction, writing a name in pencil, erasing it violently, smiling wickedly, then adding another name instead.

Of course, he would invite his "swans," the rich society women who lunched with him constantly, stroking his ego and feeding him gossip. Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli — they would all be there.

As a guest of honour, to tie the whole thing together, he chose Katharine Graham, president of The Washington Post Company, still dealing with the 1963 suicide of her flamboyant husband, Philip.

Having nodded towards the nation's capital with Graham, Capote then decided not to invite President Lyndon Johnson ("He's such a bore!") but did ask his daughter, Lynda Bird ("much more fun"). The daughters of former presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman made the cut, as did various lords, ladies, barons, baronesses, dukes, duchesses, counts, countesses, a maharaja and a maharani.

(The closest thing America had to royalty, Jacqueline Kennedy, the late President Kennedy's widow, was of course invited, but she declined.)

For the first time, but not the last, the metaphor of the French Revolution was summoned, as author Leo Lerman commented "the guest book reads like an international list for the guillotine."

Storm clouds were gathering, but Capote, busy playing the happy host, either couldn't or wouldn't see them. He whizzed his way through the worlds of industry, politics, academia, fashion and show business, adding names like John Hay Whitney, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Avedon, Frank Sinatra and Oscar de La Renta.

Some people who found themselves off the list threatened suicide, though no one actually followed through on the threat.

In this pre-Internet era, it was the various society columnists of the daily New York papers that helped billow the sails of rumour, and they spent September, October and November of that year devoting an almost immoral amount of space to Capote's upcoming event.

Every time someone ordered a new gown or switched hairstylists because of the event, it became the occasion for another shrill headline.

But other voices began to be heard as well.

Respected political columnist Drew Pearson raised a chill when he wrote that a party funded by the success of In Cold Blood was, in effect, a party funded by the murder of the Clutter family.

And designer Cecil Beaton (whose costume-design work on My Fair Lady inspired Capote's black-and-white motif for the evening) went further, invoking the spirits of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the murderers who gave Capote so much of the material for his book.

Beaton asked, "While the band is blaring and the champagne drunk, who will remember the two murderers but for whose garrulous cooperation the book could not have been written?"

When the night finally arrived, a chill rain was falling, but it didn't stop thousands of people from clustering outside the Plaza.

Some were there to gawk at the celebrities, but others had come to protest an event like this taking place during the year in which Lyndon Johnson had increased the American military personnel in Vietnam from 205,000 to 385,000, with no end in sight.

A 19-year-old Candice Bergen remembers being stopped by a reporter who asked her if attending an event like this wasn't inappropriate and hearing someone shout out, "The war's inappropriate."

And inside, while some were content to smile as Lauren Bacall and Jerome Robbins glided around the dance floor to "Top Hat," author Norman Mailer and former national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, nearly came to blows discussing the war in Southeast Asia.

The next day, the old-school journalists raved about the event, and The New York Times even printed the complete guest list. But Pete Hamill in the New York Post wrote a devastating column in which he alternated a tongue-in-cheek rave over the night's event at the Plaza with news reports of the casualties in Vietnam from the previous day.

And Hamill wasn't the odd man out. The rest of the cultural world was moving far away from Capote and his ilk.

Eight days before the party, Harold Prince's groundbreaking production of Cabaret — which linked the decadence of 1930s Germany with allowing the Nazis to come to power — opened on Broadway. (Prince was a guest at the ball, but he left after only half an hour saying, "The French Revolution came to mind and our place in the tumbrels.")

As Capote's guests were arriving at the Plaza, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were on location in Texas filming Bonnie and Clyde , the movie that would be released the following summer and make American audiences confront a new face of violence for the first time, one that couldn't be hidden behind the gossamer webs of Capote's prose.

And while the New Yorkers who had stayed up all night at the Plaza were sleeping it off on the morning of Nov. 29, George Martin and the Beatles were in their Abbey Road studios, recording "Strawberry Fields Forever," the dense, multi-tracked masterpiece that would stand as a symbol of the new era of complexity in pop music.

Seven years later, Capote was to publish a collection of short pieces with the title The Dogs Bark . He claimed his inspiration was the old Arabic proverb, "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

What Capote never realized on the night of his Black and White Ball was that the dogs may have been baying loudly at the late November moon, but the caravan had quietly moved on long before.


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