How Truman Capote Compiled the Guest List for His Famous Black and White Ball, According to Gloria Steinem

Vogue, January 1967, courtesy Yale Library

Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White Ball still stands as one of the greatest parties of all time. Hot off the success of In Cold Blood, Capote billed the party as an “all-time spectacular present” to himself, inviting everyone who was anyone and demanding they appear in masks and black-and-white attire, a color scheme inspired by Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scene for My Fair Lady.

What gave the Black and White Ball “its intoxicating piquancy,” according to Amy Fine Collins, was the fact that Capote’s guest list had “flung together, in a gilt-edged melting pot, the most alluring power brokers in the worlds of high society, politics, the arts, and Hollywood—disconnected universes that collided, if not for the first time that evening, then at least with unprecedented force.”

The Ball also found an unlikely chronicler in Gloria Steinem, an invited guest who had made Capote’s acquaintance after she interviewed him for Glamour the year before. Steinem wrote a feature on the party for Vogue in January 1967 in which she described the luminaries, feathers, masks, ball gowns, and jewels all whirling around the room: “The effect was like some blend of Hollywood, the Court of Louis XIV, a medieval durbar, and pure Manhattan.” (The full article is not online, but is excerpted below.)

Descriptions of unlikely collisions between worlds are one of the highlights of Steinem’s piece: the detective hired to guard the ladies’ jewelry asking Lee Radziwill to dance; Lynda Bird Johnson’s Secret Service men looking unmistakably Secret Service-y despite their black tie attire and requisite masks; and Beverly and Norman Mailer creating a dance move that involved balancing on an invisible tightrope. Also of particular interest is Steinem’s description of how the party’s legendary guest list came together:

The guest list of five hundred and forty—inscribed painstakingly and by hand, like all his writing, in a ten-cent lined notebook—reflected the full range of twenty years’ writing and travel: one Maharajah, a Kansas detective, half a dozen Presidential advisors, businessmen, editors, a lot of writers and performers, some artists, four composers, several heiresses, one country doctor, and a sprinkling of royalties, with defunct titles attached to very undefunct people. Thunderous publicity which leaned heavily on the Maharajah-heiress side of things, soon made it the Party of the Year—possibly of Several Years—leaving the host and everyone involved some combination of pleased and stunned.

As the day approached, there was a growing conviction—false but intriguing—that the invitation list was not just friends but a new Four Hundred of the World. Pressure from would-be guests became enormous, especially from those who were strangers to the host but felt their social status alone entitled them to go. Truman resisted, but the requests, even threats, finally forced him to cut off his phone and retire to the country.

The week before the party, international guests began arriving in New York like family-of-the-groom for a wedding and caused the same string of accommodation problems and pre-party parties. A whimsical rumor that we were all being called together for some purpose—probably the announcement of the End of the World—spread by magic or telephone. Jerry Robbins wondered if we weren’t the list of those to be shot first by the Red Guard. Kenneth Galbraith said no, not as long as he was on it.

See Also:

1. “A Night to Remember: Inside the Black-and-White Ball” (Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, July 1996)

2. “A Brief History of Epic Parties: A Reading List” (Michelle Legro, Longreads, December 2013)