The holiday party season has culminated, and many of us hopefully went to at least one memorable party – perchance one we might even refer to as the “best party ever.” Of course, so much of what makes a party great hinges on individual taste and social milieu. An all-night techno blowout might be one person’s party of choice, and an intimate cocktail gathering another’s. But if we were to gage a party’s magnitude by the publicity it garnered, then there is no contest: the greatest party of all took place half a century ago. Not only is it the stuff of legend; it became legendary even before it happened.
In 1966 Truman Capote (1924-84) published In Cold Blood, which became a literary blockbuster. Already famous for Breakfast At Tiffany’s, he had attained a level of stardom few writers ever see. His contemporary, renowned writer Norman Mailer, called Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation.” To celebrate his success, as well as to further publicize it, Capote decided to throw a party of unequaled status. He wanted it to be the most posh party New York and the attending high-society had ever seen. His “Black and White Ball” would be held in the lavish ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel. A ubiquitous celebrity among the New York and Hollywood elite, Capote was arguably as brilliant a self-promoter as he was a writer, and he knew just how to titillate members of high society. The ballroom’s capacity limited attendance to 540, ensuring that an invitation to the party became highly coveted. Capote taunted potential guests, telling them, “Well, maybe you’ll be invited, and maybe you won’t.” Thus an invitation became a status symbol for the rich, the famous, the noble, and anyone who was anyone.
Who made the cut? Capote slyly “leaked” the final list to The New York Times, generating even more brouhaha. Comprising a super-cocktail of socialites, Hollywood stars, famous artists, writers, and political moguls, the attending guests included Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Vincente Minnelli, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Cecil Beaton, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Vanderbilt, Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Candace Bergen, Jason Robards, Lauren Bacall, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Halston, Billy Baldwin, Harper Lee, David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones, Tallulah Bankhead, Babe Paley, and many other of the best-known names of the time. As the guests arrived, The New York Times said that, “They rolled off the assembly line like dolls, newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels and addressed to Truman Capote, the Plaza Hotel.” The media presence outside the Plaza was enormous, flashbulbs going non-stop, as well as crowds of gawkers – as if King Kong had come to New York again.
Inside the Plaza ballroom, the ornate white and gold walls were set off by red drapes and tablecloths adorned with gold candelabras. The homey menu was to Capote’s taste, and included chicken hash (a specialty of the Plaza) scrambled eggs, sausages, biscuits, spaghetti and meatballs, and pastry – all to be served at midnight. For imbibing, Capote ordered 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne – almost one per guest. Many of the guests wore masks made for them by name designers such as Halston and Adolfo – some elaborately jeweled and/or feathered, some modern and artsy, or cute and fuzzy. Warhol of course wore none. Legendary Eddy Duchin's orchestra played until 3:30 in the morning. Among the highlights of the night, New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins and Lauren Bacall did a waltz that cleared the floor and held everyone spellbound.
It’s arguable whether any party could have lived up to all that hype, though many indeed praised it lavishly. But there’s more as to why it was dubbed “The Party of the Century” as well as “The Last Great American Party.” For many, it marked the culmination of an era – of an elite culture of old money, as well as of the wild and swinging 60s. “Camelot,” as America envisioned itself during the Kennedy era, was about to come to an end, and Capote’s party was perhaps both literally and figuratively, its last hurrah. On that note, we hope that everyone’s New Year got off to a memorable start.