Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Truman Capote and the Black and White Ball

"I don't care what anybody says about me
as long as it isn't true."

Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany is one of my all-time favourite films, it's a wonderful piece of escapism.  Audrey Hepburn is breathtakingly beautiful in it and George Peppard is gorgeous.  Truman Capote didn't want Audrey Hepburn for the role and never believed she was right for it, even after it's success.  He wanted Marilyn Monroe.  They both auditioned for the part and Hepburn won.  Personally I can't imagine anyone playing Holly Golightly apart from Audrey.

Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote

I've been interested in Truman Capote for a very long time. What he lacked in stature (he was five foot three) he more than made up in character.  When I came across Deborah Davis's book about his Black and White Ball in 1966, I had to do a post about it.

Truman Capote's Masked Ball

He invited five hundred friends but made fifteen thousand enemies.  When the author Truman Capote threw an extravagant ball to celebrate the phenomenal success of his book, In Cold Blood, everyone who was anyone vied for an invitation.  He hired the most beautiful ballroom in New York and wanted it filled with the most elegant and famous people in the world.  In Party of the Century Deborah Davis tells the story of the party that united - and divided - the elites of politics, showbusiness and money.

One morning in June 1966, at the height of his fame Truman was still riding the wave of adulation, he realised that he had at last he had the money to pay for a lavish party, his "great big, all-time spectacular present" to himself.

He would throw a Black and White Ball, a gimmick sure to galvanise and amuse his friends - and ask them to hide their fabulous and much photographed faces behind masks.  He laboured over the guest list for months, adding and editing names in a simple black and white notebook.  It was the greatest social triumph of the turbulent Sixties.

Photographs © Elliott Erwitt @ Magnum Photos
The ballroom at the New York Plaza Hotel

The invitations, of course printed by Tiffany & Co. specified black tie and black masks for men and white dress, white mask and white fan for women. It was the talk of New York and guest clamoured for an invitation, one man told the host that his wife had threatened to kill herself if she wasn't invited.  (Capote did invite her but then went around whispering to guests what she had threatened to do).  The sheer star power of the evening - Mia Farrow wearing long white gloves and a feline mask, staring into the eyes of Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall in a white satin gown gliding along the dance floor with choreographer Jerome Robbins - made it arguably the most glamorous party ever held in America.

Truman had to make out the ball was not to celebrate himself.  The women Truman considered his 'Swans', the fashionable, wealthy, see-and-be-seen coterie of society women who had taken him under their wings; Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Pamela Harriman, Babe Paley, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill.  As Davis describes them "They were women of a certain age, mature beauties who had spent decades turning themselves into works of art."  The winsome Capote had invited their friendship and their confidence, but he could not choose among them.

Guest of honour Katharine Graham and Truman Capote

Tallulah Bankhead

Gloria Guinness and Bill and Babe Paley

The Agnelli's

Photograph by Henry Grossman
Model Penelope Tree
"caused a stir with Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon at the party"

Truman Capote

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote

Photography by Harry Benson
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

"To this day it was the biggest party I ever shot.  Capote's ball was unique.  Everyone wanted to be there.  People who weren't invited went out of town.  I was at the top of the stairs at nine o'clock and caught Sinatra as he was walking in.  He couldn't get past me.  He felt really stupid in that mask.  Someone had just yelled to him, 'Hey, there's Frankie Batman.'  You can see the anger in his eyes behind the mask.  He was this tough guy thinking, 'What the hell am I doinig here?'  Mia Farrow had that precious, elfin look, but she was tough as nails too."
Harry Benson, Photographer

Truman Capote and Katharine Graham

He decided the guest of honour was to be the Washington Post President, Katharine Graham, plainer than the usual women he surrounded himself with.  She was a New York outsider but she introduced him to political and intellectual luminaries.

Rumours about Truman's ball on 28th November 1966 began to spread.  Well-placed items in magazines and newspapers tantalised those who wanted to be among the favoured 500.  He chose the Grand Ballroom at New York's Plaza Hotel for it's beauty and relative intimacy.

 Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow

All above photographs © Elliott Erwitt @ Magnum Photos
Candice Bergen

Capote's Swans and dozens of other women swung into gear, commissioning ball gowns and masks from designers who ranged from Dior, Givenchy, Halston, Adolpho and Betsey Johnson.  They borrowed jewels and crowded into hair and beauty salons.

Social snubs and prickly rivalries, swirled through the ballroom.  Tallulah Bankhead insulted Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall spurned eager dance partners, and host tried to physically block the exit when Frank Sinatra and his wife Mia Farrow departed at midnight, aided by the Secret Service.

The guests dined on meatballs and spaghetti (bet that was great with all those white dresses!) and Truman's favourite dish of Plaza chicken hash (chicken in a sherry, cream and hollandaise sauce) and the Taittinger Champagne flowed all night.  The party went on well past 3am with a lot of guests carrying on in clubs and casinos. I'm sure there were plenty of hangovers the next day!

Davis does not ignore the more serious issues of 1966 in her book, and there were many: "The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women's liberation and the unprecedented coming of age of seventy million teenagers, many of whom were eager for a revolution, created an atmosphere of discontent and instability," she writes.  "The night of the party there was a great contrast between the glittering and highly ordered world inside the ballroom and the simmering social and political revolution outside."

When Truman finally closed his eyes that morning in his Plaza suite, memories of the ball "whirled like a flurry of snowflakes" inside his head.  Random images stood out; the Maharani of Jaipur dressed in gold and emeralds; John Kenneth Galbraith, "tall as a crane, but not as graceful"; Babe Paley, "floating in a dress of the shearest white chiffon"; a "galaxy of masked black and white guests" having the time of their lives in the most beautiful room in the city.  "It was just what it set out to be," Truman told reporters at the end of the evening - "I just wanted to give a party for my friends."

Truman Capote

The chosen few:
A selection from the guest list

Mr and Mrs Gianni Agnelli, Count Umberto Agnelli, Edward Albee, Mrs W Vincent Astor, Mr and Mrs Richard Avedon, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Cecil Beaton, Mr and Mrs Harry Belafonte, Marisa Berenson, Candice Bergen, Mr and Mrs Irving Berlin, Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, Mr and Mrs Leonard Bernstein, Mr and Mrs William Buckley, Mr and Mrs Richard Burton, Prince Carlo Caracciolo, Lord Chalfont, Noel Coward, Mr and Mrs Walter Cronkite, Mr and Mrs Sammy Davis Jr, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mr and Mrs Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Mr and Mrs John Kenneth Galbraith, Greta Garbo, Ambassador and Mrs Arthur J Goldberg, Mr and Mrs Samuel Goldwyn, Henry Golightly, Hamish Hamilton, Ambassador and Mrs W Averell Harriman, Mr and Mrs William Randolph Hearst, Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz 2nd, Miss Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Hilton, Horst P Horst, Christopher Isherwood, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur, Senator and Mrs Jacob K Javits, Lynda Bird Johnson, Philip Johnson, Senator and Mrs Edward M Kennedy, Mrs John F Kennedy, Mrs Joseph P Kennedy, Senator and Mrs Robert F Kennedy, Mr and Mrs Joseph Kraft, Mrs Patricia Lawford, Mr and Mrs Irving Lazar, Harper Lee, Vivien Leigh, Mr and Mrs Jack Lemmon, Mr and Mrs Alan J Lerner, Mr and Mrs Alexander Leiberman, Mr and Mrs Robert Lowell, Mr and Mrs Henry Luce, Shirley MacLaine, Mr and Mrs Norman Mailer, Mr and Mrs Joseph Mankiewicz, Mr and Mrs Walter Matthau, Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Mr and Mrs Arthur Miller, Mr and Mrs Vincent Minelli, Mr and Mrs Samuel I Newhouse< Mrs Stavros Niarchos, Mike Nichols, Lord and Lady David Ogilvy, Mr and Mrs Gregory Peck, George Plimpton, Prince and Princess Stanislas Radziwill, Mr and Mrs Jason Robards Jr, Governor and Mrs Nelson A Rockerfeller, Philip Roth, Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy Rothschild, Theodore Rousseau, Mr and Mrs Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Mrs David O Selznick, Mr and Mrs Frank Sinatra, Steven Sondheim, Sam Speigel, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Penelope Tree, Mr and Mrs Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mrs T Reed Vreeland, William Walton, Mr and Mrs Edward Warburg, Andy Warhol, Mr and Mrs Robert Penn Warren, Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, Mr and Mrs Billy Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Darryl Zanuck.

Mr and Mrs Norman Mailer

"I have good memories of the ball. It was one of the best parties I ever went to.  So much action... so many people of a sort you'd never met before.  For example there was Tallulah Bankhead! It's probably hyperbole to say that everything there felt anointed that night.  Truman had certainly pulled it off.  It certainly was his greatest coup.  For some, and I might be one of them, that party was greater than any one of his books."
Norman Mailer

Sources: Harpers Bazaar, The Independent, The New York Times by Mary Jane Park, Party of the Century by Deborah Davis.

All above photographs © Elliott Erwitt @ Magnum Photos

Here's a poem I love by the wonderful Henry Normal.  I posted it when I first started blogging and have used it on a party invitation myself.  I think it's the perfect poem to go with this post.

The party to which you were not invited

'... was like no other party before.
What a party.
What a party.
Everyone was there.
Well, everyone that is, but you.
It was incredible.
You wouldn't believe what went on.
I mean let's face it if you weren't at that party
then you don't know what PARTY means.
What a party.
You just couldn't imagine a party like that.
There'll never be a party like it again.
Everyone's still talking about it.
Well, everyone, that is, but you.
A party like that can change your life.
I mean any other party
is going to seem drab now in comparison.
I mean, I've been to parties with a capital P
but this was a party with a capital PARTY
know what I mean?
No. I don't suppose you do.
What a party.
A party like that comes once in a lifetime, maybe. Still at least everyone can share the memory
well, everyone that is,...'

By Henry Normal

from Nude Modelling for the Afterlife

Photography by Andy Warhol

"But I'm not a saint yet.  I'm an alcoholic.  I'm a drug addict.  I'm a homosexual.  I'm a genius"

Truman Capote

Truman Capote: Our fascination with this elusive character continues.  One writer shares her intimate memories of the man so few people really knew

By Liz Smith for Harpers Bazaar, March 2006

Like everyone else I learned about Truman Capote when his controversial, erotically suggestive photo appeared on the jacket of his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948.  After I graduated I ended up in Manhattan, embarking on my own wannabe claw to the top, watching celebrities from afar, and scheming to meet or be like them.  For the next several years I glimpsed Truman going into the Colony with socialite Babe Paley or into La Cote Basque with Slim Keith (then known as Mrs Leland Hayward), or into El Morocco with Marilyn Monroe.  I followed his supersuccess closely.  At that time he was a talented, cute little guy.

Once I became the ghostwriter for the society column Cholly Knickerbocker in the now defunct New York Journal, I would often see Truman up close.  he came to know that I existed behind the scenes, and sometimes he'd say hello.  He'd sidle up to me and ask in his whiny purr, "What's new?"  I never had an answer, so he would proceed to tell me what was new.  This was thrilling.

As my career improved, I'd run into him at Gloria Vanderbilt's posh parties at her Gracie Square apartment with it's white floors and black-bear rugs.  I was now an editor and entertainment writer at Cosmopolitan, so Truman took more interest in me, supposing I might be useful.  And down the rocky road, I guess I was.

He began asking me out to lunch in the late Sixties, though I was not favoured enough at the time to be invited to his famous Black and White Ball in 1966.  (The event helped him  make social history and marked the peak of his fame).  Still there were those lunches at places I couldn't afford, with the two Martini preludes and and afterward Stingers and maybe Screwdrivers.

Truman loved the rich, but he would talk to anyone.  He was a beguiling imp with a mischievious gleam in his eyes.  He always had a juicy story or could repeat a fabulous anecdote or turn a bitchy remark.  He didn't give a damn what he said about anyone, and he was a veritable goldmine of voracious gossip; it was as if he couldn't help himself.  But invariably, when I checked what he'd told me, it often didn't stand up.  Still, he was a real historian with funny info on where all the bodies were buried.  He seemed to know everyone.

One day in the Seventies Truman took me to meet Tennessee Williams, an idol of mine.  Mr Williams and I hardly exchanged a word, even though he seemed amused by my ravings about his genius.  the fact that I was a Southern girl counted for a lot with Tenn and Truman.

Photograph © Irving Penn

In the late Sixties and Seventies I saw more of Truman out in the Hamptons.  He was working with the cinema team of Eleanor and Frank Perry, and they were pals of mine.  Truman and I both had houses in bucolic Sagaponack and I'd see him tooling around the back roads in his Jaguar convertible, his scarf snapping in the wind.  His bulldog would be in the front seat, slobbering at the window.

I'd go to Truman's house in the potato fields, where he'd lecture about his friendships with Greta Garbo, Alfred Lunt and Joan Fontaine, Charlie and Oona Chaplin - you name them.  Once, when I interviewed Truman at my own house about Jacqueline Onassis, I was amazed to hear him say she was a "cow" hile he went on a blissful riff about how beautiful, how divine, how fabulous her younger sister, Lee Radziwill was.  I would come to hear this often and concluded for all Truman's open homosexuality, he was quite literally in love with Lee.  He was willing to take a bullet for her and later would, in a matter of speaking, when he risked his reputation and tried to turn her into a star.  He put her in a Chicago production of The Philadelphia Story and in his TV adaptation of the Hollywood film Laura.  Lee was no actor.  And Truman was no Svengali.

Lee would later refuse to testify in Truman's defence in a libel suit brought against him by Gore Vidal in the mid Seventies.  Lee was one of the first to betray him, in the same way he had betrayed her and the other "swans" (the wealthy, stylish women who fell prey to his charms) by writing the bitter truth about them in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.  In 1975 the infamous publication of excerpts from the book in Esquire marked Truman's downfall.  At the time, I wrote about this big literary controversy for New York magazine, then joined Truman in Hollywood where he was starring in the ill-fated Neil Simon movie Murder By Death.  He didn't look well, and the palms of his hands were bright red.  In the El Padrino bar one night he forced me to phone legendary magazine editor Diana Vreeland so he could ask her if he was persona non grata in New York.  She refused to answer instead cleverly congratulating him on how well he'd written in his piece about the wealthy set's gastronomic preferences: "the tiny vegetables of the rich - baby carrots and peas and other such."

Truman had become a pariah, but we continued to meet; we dined, we gossiped.  Truman loved to cause turbulence and stir the pot.  But he was heartbroken about being an outcast in the society he'd helped create, finding himself blackballed by the women he had cosseted, advised and listened to in ways their husbands wouldn't.  He then began to go on talk shows and self-destruct in public.  This was horrible to watch, but I always felt he was a brave little guy, ready to fight for his rights and his revenge.

By now drugs and alcohol were eroding Truman's character.  I was in his United Nations Plaza apartment with the writer John Berendt; Truman came into the room with a big salad bowl of cocaine, showed it to us, said how much it had cost ($10,000), and then whisked it away, saying "It's too good for you!"  John and I were already freaked by the many stuffed reptiles surrounding us as decor; we got the hell out of there and later ran into Truman, stoned out of his mind on the dance floor at Studio 54.  I'll never forget; he was wearing a pork pie hat, as if he were some character from the 40's.  He was a big part of that Gotterdammerung scene of sex, drugs and rock n roll; he was always in the DJ booth or down in the private basement doing whatever.  On the dance floor he'd scream with laughter every time the Studio's man in the moon brought the cocaine spoon up to his nose.

Around this time Truman had pitifully invoked my help in pleading with Lee to testify for him in the Vidal libel suit.  I asked; she refused.  He had also talked me into begging Slim Keith and Gloria Vanderbilt to see him, to take him back into their good graces.  Fortunately I did not know the Paley's, so I ducked that mission.  But I remembered once meeting Bill Paley, the founder of CBS with Truman in Herberts, the famous Southampton grocery store.  Mr Paley waved at me with a big salami in his hand, which seemed rather fitting considering what Truman had insinuated about him in his offending social history (the character based on Mr Paley was described as well endowed).

Lorna Luft, Jerry Hall, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Truman Capote and Paloma Picasso

I tried to help Truman but our mutual friend C.Z. Guest finally told me to desist.  "He is a writer; he wrote about what he knew, or thought he knew," she said.  "They aren't going to forgive him!"  They didn't, and Truman died in 1984 at 59, with none of the fine, high-flown pals that had meant the world to him.

The last time I saw him was at a party at Liza Minelli's.  For an hour I encouraged him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  he would nod and agree and then doze off.  I talked other guests, socialites Barbara Davis and Lynn Wyatt, as well as Liza herself into sitting with Truman until someone finally took him home.

Truman was a giant talent with true courage undermined by his addiction.  His story is an all-too-typical tragedy engendered by lack of childhood love and security, and by too much success too soon.  After so much fame and fortune he slid, not gently, downhill in a miasma of fear, despair, horrible love affairs with sleazy guys, writers block, and I think, a broken heart.  He had loved all those beautiful society women so much, but they hadn't really loved him back.

I still miss him.  New York doesn't have epic characters like Truman Capote anymore.

Photography by Carl Van Vechten

"Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act"

Truman Capote


Karena said...

Christina, what a fabulous posting about such an iconic character in history. I would have loved to have peeked into the party,just watch & listen.

Art by Karena

Wildernesschic said...

What an amazing post..and what a party.. Its so sad when after such success a person becomes a social nightmare.
Again he is a new character to me.. but I loved all the photos and although described as "tough as nails" I thought Mia Farrow looked stunning.
A little glimpse of Candice Bergman too reminds you of what a social beauty she was.
Wonderful story and I loved all the images xx

little augury said...

Truman Capote should have had all the access to the internet, social networking, Just imagine. He must have been constantly in conflict. Truly brilliant, his In Cold Blood is chilling, Breakfast at Tif's the same in a dif. way, (much dif from the book indeed) Another great Southern writer, we seem to breed the highly strung.there are so many wonderful stories within the Ball-Pen Tree stunning to Diana Vreeland and Avedon-supposedly she was called into DV's offices the next day. A wonderful post.pgt

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I love this post, Christina. Thank you.

I have a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and took many courses on Capote. I loved reading all of his books (except for In Cold Blood, which oddly I did not read).

Love you!

Jill said...

Oh, I've missed your blog. I must come back when i have more time to catch up on all of your fabulous posts!

Jill said...

Well, I certainly enjoyed that!

PinkJack said...

Great post Christina. The Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of him in front of the giant plant leaves is one of my all time favourite images and inspires me.

Nostalgically Yours said...

I'm not sure if they mention this in the book, but Roy Halston Frowick was the head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman at the time. He designed many of the masks and gowns worn at the ball! I thought that was one of those fabulous connections there are in time...

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

Apologies to everyone for not answering your comments sooner!

Dear Karena, I would have loved to have gone! Wouldn't that have been marvellous! xx

Dear Gaye, yes, can you imagine TC firing off unsuitable emails and getting himself into more bother! The mind boggles! xx

Dear SB, another very interesting fact about you! I adore English literature. I haven't read Cold Blood either. Love you too xx

Dear Jill, I'm delighted you enjoyed that. Hope you're good xx

Dear David, thank you! Yes what a great image xx

Dear Nostalgically Yours, I knew Halston designed some of the dresses but I had no idea about the masks, what a wonderful fact. Thank you xx

Shah Ezani said...

fabulous post! i will have to repost this on my blog.

with thanks,

Lara Platman said...

What an amazing post, I visited the blog after watching Infamous on BBC2 at the moment. I love all the photos and the details you have collected. Thank you so much for an informative account of his life. you have made me want to go and read Breakfast at Tiffanys, a film I have seen 14 times, and I will take a crack at Cold Blood. But what a party and whoah what a guest list.

Anonymous said...

Well, well, well...he paid the price of gossip, drugs and drinks...so many crap coming out of his mouth...
Past is history...future is mistery....who cares anyway???

TheBPlot said...

great and interesting post about a legend. i wish i was old enough to know that time and those characters better. cheers!

sidra ali said...

My first post on your blog and really it is just to say thanks for your Nice Post And Shairing
You always pick such interesting i visit your blog regularly for updates!
Loved your description of it.
Thank you for picking this one.

rex danim said...

The very top wedding dress is the best in this post :) I adore looking at these ball gown under 100