Send in the Swans

Fifty years later, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, called variously the party of the year, the decade, and the century, proves his definitive final creative act.

Michael LaPointe lives in Toronto. He contributes to the Times Literary...

 

On November 28, 1966, guests of the Black and White Ball passed through a drifting rain into the Plaza Hotel. They wore masks; the women carried fans; cameras flashed on diamonds. Waiting to receive them at the entrance to the Grand Ballroom was a short, blonde Southerner with a high-pitched voice, the unlikely author of this bal masqué—Truman Capote. Hundreds filed past him from New York and Washington high society, from the worlds of fashion, film and literature, from middle-class Kansas and the European aristocracy. It was the party of the century, and Capote’s final masterpiece.

By the time of the Ball, fifty years ago, Capote had begun to conceive of himself as the American Proust. “I always felt he was a kind of secret friend,” he told his biographer, Gerald Clarke, citing the grand chronicler of France’s belle époque as a literary mentor. By any measure, Capote fell short of his secret friend’s achievement. For the last two decades before his death in 1984, Capote insisted that a work in progress called Answered Prayers would immortalize the luminaries of mid-century America with Proustian depth and dimension. But when Answered Prayers was gathered together and published posthumously, it amounted to 180 pages of scattershot gossip.

The Black and White Ball—his Proustian happening—was really the closest he ever came to writing a grand chronicle of American high society. “That party was even greater than any particular one of his books,” said Norman Mailer in George Plimpton’s oral history of Capote’s life. Indeed, the party was one of Capote’s books, and its place in his life tells us much about how one of post-war America’s brightest talents was extinguished.

“He was not merely planning a party,” wrote Clarke, “he was creating one.” Inspired by the Ascot ball scene in My Fair Lady, Capote envisioned a bal masqué at the Plaza Hotel, its ambience as austere as a game of chess. When he unfolded the idea to Condé Nast editor Leo Lerman, he did so with such fervour that Lerman misunderstood, and asked if he was outlining a new work of fiction. Capote said yes.

*

In 1966, Capote was probably the most famous writer in America. Published in January, In Cold Blood, his so-called “non-fiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas family, had over 300,000 copies in print inside a month. “A Book in a New Form Earns $2-Million for Truman Capote,” read a New York Times headline. Not only the book was ubiquitous: Capote’s face searched out from the covers of Newsweek and Saturday Review; eighteen pages were devoted to the writer in Life, while The New York Times Book Review ran the longest interview in its history. “A boy has to hustle his book,” Capote said of all the press.

When he signed a contract in 1966 for the manuscript of Answered Prayers, to be delivered in 1968, his editor at Random House, Joe Fox, anticipated “a contemporary equivalent of Proust’s masterpiece.” But Capote wasn’t in any hurry to get working. Deluged with fame and fortune, yet depleted by the six-year ordeal of composing In Cold Blood, Capote decided to give himself a “great, big, all-time spectacular present.” It wouldn’t be a mere indulgence. What would become the Black and White Ball could form a set piece in Answered Prayers. Like Proust, he would weave his new novel from the fabric of reality. Unlike his mentor, Capote would create that reality himself.

The characters for such a novel—and such a party—would be drawn from the society friends he’d been cultivating since arriving in New York as a child, having escaped poverty in New Orleans and Alabama. For years, Capote had been a regular fixture in the holiday homes and on the touring yachts of the global jet set. Central to his vision of glamour were his “swans,” women of legendary beauty and elegance such as Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Gloria Guinness. Charmed by his wit and candor, these women invited Capote into the inner sanctum of high society, and found in him an unusually receptive and amusing friend.

With the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote had money of his own, and he began to understand first-hand what he’d observed in the swans: how wealth enables you to “be your own living work of art.” That said, Capote had always enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with the truth. Just about the only thing he inherited from his biological father (Capote was his stepfather’s surname), who would spell out dazzling family holidays they would never take, was a compulsion to embroider a more beautiful reality: “in Truman’s mind, he doesn’t lie,” his friend, Joanne Carson, told Plimpton, “he makes things the way they should have been.” On the jacket of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, readers found the biography Capote should have had: he’d “written speeches for a third-rate politician, danced on a river boat, made a small fortune painting flowers on glass …” Even the rigorously researched In Cold Blood would have its veracity questioned.

The process of fabrication worked both ways. Just as Capote wove reality into fiction, so he brought fiction into reality. “Pygmalion was his favourite role,” wrote Gerald Clarke, referring to the story from Ovid about a sculptor whose ivory carving of a woman comes to life. “Any woman who took his advice, whatever her age or position in life, he looked upon as his protégée, a work of art that needed only his word or hand to bring her to perfection.” Capote’s meddling wasn’t always benevolent; it has been said that he was responsible for scores of New York divorces. But there was an amoral, experimental quality to his fibbing. Capote grafted imagination to reality as surely in the world as he did on the page, hoping for similarly original results.

From the very start, the Black and White Ball was an act of imagination.

*

All through the summer of 1966, Capote could be seen lounging poolside with a black-and-white composition book, the word DANCE on its cover. Inside, he was elaborating a novel in names: Frank Sinatra, Marella Agnelli, Andy Warhol; princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, a maharajah and maharani; the daughters of presidents, some detectives from Kansas; Astors, Rothschilds, and Vanderbilts. In the lines of his book, literary figures—James Baldwin, George Plimpton, Tennessee Williams—rubbed shoulders with Oscar de la Renta, Greta Garbo, and Jackie Kennedy. Generals would dance with models; critics with marchesses; swans with senators.

To Plimpton, Lerman called Capote’s guest book “an international list for the guillotine” and everyone lined up for the blade. Capote was a master of publicity, and one inspired notion was to invite society columnists eager to trumpet their access. “Truman Capote is giving a party. A big party,” reported Women’s Wear Daily, which set the tone of ruthless exclusivity: “If you haven’t received your invitation by the time they are sent out in October, sweetie, you are out.”

The only joy greater than adding a name was eliminating one. In the guest book, the lonely, impoverished boy who grew up in Alabama could strike through the name of Winston Churchill as though the statesman were riff-raff. As the date of the party neared, increasingly desperate requests for invitations streamed in from all over the world. Capote later said that he invited 500 of his friends and made 15,000 enemies; the party, he joked, should have been called In Bad Blood.

In a very real sense, people had been sacrificed for his art, and it couldn’t have been lost on Capote that the Black and White Ball was ultimately founded in the blood of Smith and Hickock, and the murdered Clutter family.

The Ball was by Capote, but for reasons of etiquette, it couldn’t be for Capote. He needed a guest of honour. Not wanting to elevate one swan above another, he called on his friend Katherine Graham, who had become the owner of Newsweek and The Washington Post after her husband’s suicide. “Honey, I just decided you’re depressed and need cheering up,” he told her, according to Gerald Clarke. “So I’m going to give you a party.”

Invitations went out to the anointed:

In honor of Mrs. Katherine Graham

Mr. Truman Capote

Requests the pleasure of your company

At a Black and White Dance

For men, the dress code was black tie and black mask; for women, black or white dress, white mask, and a fan.

Preparations began in a flurry. “This city’s normally blasé social set is flapping like a gaggle of geese,” reported The Washington Post. “The New York newspapers are calling it variously the party of the year, the decade or the century.” Gowns were commissioned from Bergdorf’s and Christian Dior. Babe Paley chose sleeveless white zibeline faced in cardinal red; Amanda Burden actually borrowed a costume from My Fair Lady.

Meanwhile, milliners such as Halston and Adolfo worked through the night to keep up with the sudden demand for masks: white mink rabbit ears for Candice Bergen, a golden unicorn’s head for Billy Baldwin, cat whiskers for Mia Farrow and Sinatra. From Harry Winston, Princess Luciana Pignatelli borrowed the Schwab Diamond, a sixty-carat, pear-shaped stone, to dangle from her forehead. Capote bought his mask at F.A.O. Schwarz for thirty-nine cents.

*

Capote told the journalist Charlotte Curtis that he chose the Plaza Hotel because “it’s the only beautiful ballroom left in the United States,” but Phyllis Cerf saw the Plaza as emblematic of social triumph in Capote’s mind. His abandoned first novel, Summer Crossing, opened with a scene in the Plaza dining room, as if to signify the arrival of a major new literary talent in the very heart of American society. By hosting a ball at the Plaza, Capote would assert himself at the absolute centre.

When guests finally arrived around 10:30, and navigated through the swarming journalists, they found a sparsely decorated Grand Ballroom. The white and gold walls were left bare, red cloth covered the tables, and the room was illuminated by white tapers in vine-entwined golden candelabra. The focus was trained on the guests themselves, who stood like art objects thrown into relief on white gallery walls.

It was Capote’s consummate Pygmalion act. Names incarnated from his notebook now stepped forward to be received. “The ball was one of his major works,” Lerman told Plimpton, and even the guest of honour was aware of her function in a living artwork: “I was part of the props,” said Graham in Plimpton’s book.

The night unfolded in a nexus of reality and fantasy. Everyone stood back to watch Jerry Robbins dance with Lauren Bacall. The daughters of three presidents swapped White House anecdotes. George Plimpton and Kenneth Galbraith played football with a top hat. “It was always shimmering,” said the Broadway producer David Merrick in Plimpton’s history. “It was never still.” Capote flitted from table to table, as if gathering up the magic pollen for Answered Prayers. “Aren’t we having a wonderful time?” he asked. “Aren’t we having the most wonderful time?”

For some guests, bad blood really did seem to hang in the air. A dissonance between the ostentatious wealth and the horrors of the Vietnam War continually summoned visions of the French Revolution. “I felt as though we were in Versailles in 1788,” John Knowles recalled to Plimpton. Journalists outside fed the rancor: Lewis Lapham recalled them “shouting at me that this is the beginning of the end, that the tumbrels will soon be rolling.” Norman Mailer brought the rage inside, challenging McGeorge Bundy, then serving as National Security Advisor, to a fight over the war. The author was repaid by being voted the worst dressed man by Women’s Wear Daily.

Capote’s guest list defied social convention. At his party, to be beautiful or talented was as good as being powerful or rich. Yet cliques prevailed. “I’ve never seen such ghettoizing in all my life,” complained Jack Dunphy, Capote’s long-time partner. “No group mixed with another group.” Alan Pryce-Jones left with Marianne Moore after an hour. Farrow and Sinatra wandered out for chow mein.

In general, however, the Black and White Ball was a grand success—especially to Capote. “Truman had certainly brought it off,” said Mailer. “It certainly was his greatest coup.” Around four o’clock, the Plaza served a breakfast of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and caviar. Alongside Graham, Capote said farewell to each guest with a solemn, “Good evening,” and after helping to locate an immense pearl on the ballroom floor, he retired to the rooms of his friends from Kansas. “He was just so excited,” one of them recalled to Plimpton. “He wanted to talk to us all night.” Spun in Capote’s jubilance, the Ball began to acquire the distorting glaze of legend.

“Now that it’s all over … what did it all mean?” wondered Women’s Wear Daily. The Black and White Ball, which literary critic and author Diana Trilling called “a very complicated social moment in this country’s life,” has exerted an enduring fascination, seeming to represent a major transformation. As Amy Fine Collins wrote in Vanity Fair, an assortment of memorabilia from the night is preserved in the Museum of the City of New York, alongside pieces from George Washington’s inaugural ball. Some see it as the moment of merger between American politics and entertainment. Although Dunphy observed ghettoization, the Ball’s guest list, leaked to The New York Times, gave at least the public the impression that the various spheres of American influence had converged. Others perceive Capote’s party as the last gasp of Camelot-era optimism before the escalation of war in Vietnam, while still others see its impact as mainly aesthetic, the 1950s-style ball inadvertently ushering in the epoch of the flower child.

*

Whatever its cultural significance, the party marked a clear turning point for Capote himself. “I think the ball, in many ways, was the beginning of the end,” Joel Schumacher recalled. Set in the broader context of his life, and read like the fiction he intended it to be, the Black and White Ball forms a transitional scene for Capote. Having triumphed at the centre of society, over the coming years he conspired against himself to become an outsider again, indeed, a hated one.

Such a reversal was foreshadowed during the research for In Cold Blood. Following a welcome-home party thrown by Babe Paley in his honour, Capote wrote to a friend: “Somehow they, it, the whole thing seemed quite unreal, remote. The only thing that seemed real was Kansas, and the people there.” Things had gotten all too real for Capote during his time writing the book. He had faced a moral crisis toward the end of his research. He desperately wanted to finish the manuscript, but that necessitated the executions of the murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, with whom he’d formed an intimate bond. “That book started the unsettling of his life,” said Phyllis Cerf.

In a very real sense, people had been sacrificed for his art, and it couldn’t have been lost on Capote that the Black and White Ball was ultimately founded in the blood of Smith and Hickock, and the murdered Clutter family. It wasn’t lost on others. A friend of Katherine Graham’s wrote a column condemning the Ball on precisely those terms: “While the two bands are blaring and the champagne drunk, who will remember the two murderers?”

A push-pull pattern—of desiring to be inside, and then violently asserting his status as outsider—began to characterize Capote’s relationship to high society. In many ways, that pattern echoed his relationship with his mother, Lillie Mae, who would leave her infant son locked in hotel rooms when she went out with men at night. At once an emblem of beauty and glamour, and the source of constant tension and fear, she formed the primal presence in Capote’s life. “Every day was a nightmare,” he later recalled, “because I was afraid that they would leave me when it turned dark.” Alternately desiring and rejecting her affection, Capote feuded with his mother to the day she died.

Likewise, having secured high society’s affection, Capote soon began deliberately offending it. His first act was the violatation of the principle of refined exclusion that had made his guest list such a sensation, by initiating relationships with men who reminded him of figures from his childhood. One such man, an air-conditioner repairman, Capote continually brought along on his excursions with the jet set. “I was horrified,” Graham told Gerald Clarke. “I didn’t want an air-conditioning man for a friend.” Whereas once he’d collected swans, now he began, in Clarke’s words, “reaching out for the absolutely average”—a rebuke of high society’s values.

Such a rebuke was subtle in comparison to “La Côte Basque,” an excerpt from Answered Prayers published in Esquire in 1975. The story centres on a conversation at the eponymous restaurant between the novel’s narrator, P.B. Jones, and Lady Ina Coolbirth, a society woman. Names have been changed, but otherwise the characters wear only the merest negligée of fiction. Coolbirth is undoubtedly modeled on Slim Keith, while the stories she tells amount to a public airing of Babe Paley’s dirty laundry. “It seemed to me an act of willful destruction,” William Styron said of the excerpt’s publication. If Capote had trouble discerning truth from fiction, his friends certainly didn’t. All at once, society closed its doors on him.

Answered Prayers became the lever with which he forcibly ejected himself from the company he’d once coveted. In a perversion of his guest book, which everyone wanted to get into, he’d warn people about his manuscript: “You’d better be careful, or you’ll be in it!” But his talk about Answered Prayers seems to have been more concerted than his actual work on it. What he wrote makes it difficult not to share Gore Vidal’s unkind verdict, as recorded by Plimpton: “Truman thought Proust accumulated gossip about the aristocracy and made literature out of it. Truman clung to that fantasy.”

Equally fantastical was the notion that he’d ever deliver the long-promised book. For one thing, he didn’t learn from his mentor’s work habits. At night, Proust retired to a cork-lined room and wrote. Capote went to Studio 54. But more importantly, Capote seemed to lose the requisite sympathy, the capacity to imagine himself back into the wonder that had once captivated him—the wonder of the Black and White Ball. As Answered Prayers demonstrates, venom thwarted sympathy: “It’s as though, by writing that, I was saying to them: ‘Everything you lived for, everything you did, is a lot of shit!’” he wrote to his friend, Cecil Beaton.

Read fifty years on, the Black and White Ball appears as the afterglow of Capote’s ambition. For one night, he danced through that glow, and from then on, his once sacred symbols were void of meaning. Capote’s beloved Plaza Hotel appears in the fragments of Answered Prayers. In the room of a destitute playwright, the narrator slips in dog shit, and falls right into another pile.

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