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From The Editors: Lives of the Parties

Larry Bean

When Herb Caen, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, recalled Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball as being like the Super Bowl, he was not praising the event. “There was such buildup that by the time the game was played, it didn’t amount to much,” Caen told author George Plimpton for Plimpton’s 1997 biography Truman Capote. The New York Times, in its November 29 day-after coverage of the ball, which was held at a time when Capote was basking in the critical and commercial success of his book In Cold Blood, claimed that “it lived up to nearly all of its extravagant advance notices.” And the event has since gained renown in Manhattan as the Party of the Century, a moniker that also serves as the title of Deborah Davis’ recently published treatise on the evening and the unprecedented hype that preceded it. Nevertheless, other guests shared Caen’s sentiment. Broadway musical producer Harold Prince told Plimpton that he and his wife stayed for only half an hour. “The French Revolution came to mind and our place in the tumbrels,” said Prince.

Other objections to the ball—by journalists covering the event—also were conscientious in nature. As Davis notes in Party of the Century, Pete Hamill, in his column for the New York Post, interjected news reports from the Vietnam battlefields into a satirically sycophantic description of the event and its guests. Columnist Drew Pearson, in a piece he wrote for a Kansas newspaper, made an equally sobering observation when he noted that a party ostensibly celebrating In Cold Blood was exploiting the mass murder that the book detailed—a crime that Capote first read about in the Times. Indeed, although the Times’ coverage of the party included the entire list of the 500 people that Capote invited, it made no mention of Herbert Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, or their two teenage children—the Holcomb, Kan., farm family whose slaughter In Cold Blood chronicles.

Capote held his party at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, because, he said, “It’s the only beautiful ballroom left in the United States.” The Plaza also has been a favorite of Robb Report readers. In the previous decade, when readers made the Best of the Best selections, the Plaza topped the list of U.S. hotels from 1992 through 1997. This year, our editors chose the Private Residences at the Plaza as the best new real estate development (page 232).

As it undergoes a complete renovation, the Plaza is a flurry of construction activity, just as it was exactly 100 years ago, when crews were erecting the edifice on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. On July 12, 1906, the Plaza became a flash point for mounting tension between construction firms and organized labor. In this case, the parties were the hotel’s builder (and part owner), the Fuller Construction Co., and the Housesmiths union, a brotherhood of ironworkers. On that afternoon, on the eighth floor of the Plaza, two security guards were severely beaten and a third, a retired policeman named Michael Butler, was killed when he landed on the fifth floor, some 50 feet below the eighth floor. Police arrested seven union workers.

For a month or so, the Housesmiths had been working on the eighth floor, while non­union tradesmen labored on floors below them. The Fuller company stationed Butler and the other guards with the Housesmiths to prevent them from dropping red-hot bolts, iron bars, and tools onto the nonunion workers, as they had been accused of doing.

Contrary to The New York Times report, which said that Butler was thrown from the eighth floor, the Housesmiths claimed that he lost his footing and fell. At their hearings, the accused professed their innocence, and all of the witnesses claimed they had been too busy with their tasks to see any of the action described by the Times. Of the witnesses, the Times wrote, “Union ironworkers, deep of chest, strong of limb, and active as squirrels, are, nevertheless, shortsighted and hard of hearing.”

With no one to corroborate the Times’ account (the other two watchmen were unconscious and did not see what happened to Butler), city officials ruled the death an accident and exonerated the defendants.

On September 29, 1907, on the eve of the Plaza’s grand opening, the Times devoted two full pages to the event, describing in detail the hotel’s furnishings, restaurants, butler’s pantries, kitchen, electrical room, and apartments, and listing the names of all the Manhattan A-list members who planned to reside in those apartments. The newspaper never again mentioned Michael Butler, its writers and editors then being as active as squirrels and nevertheless shortsighted.

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