Forty-two years ago, on the 28th of November, a strange thing happened to Prince Bertil of Sweden on his way to the Plaza. On arriving with his aides at the hotel, the potential heir to the Swedish throne confronted a sea of paparazzi and TV cameramen who crashed in regular waves against the steps of the main entrance. However, His Royal Highness, who was accustomed to being the object of media attention, waded anonymously into the crowd as it parted to admit a steady pageant of masked creatures plumed and furred in sundry patterns of black and white. Even with their faces covered, many were recognizable: Frank Sinatra and his third wife, Mia Farrow; Candice Bergen; Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fonda; and Lauren Bacall. Luminaries of the business world also stepped out of their limousines and onto the curb—Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Gianni Agnelli—as did denizens of the highest strata of New York and international society. Others escaped the media fray: Security guards at the 58th Street entrance discreetly admitted the Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur, with their friends Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill.
The host of this spectacle was author Truman Capote (pictured, at center), and this stylish feat of social engineering was his Black and White Ball, putatively held in honor of Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. Yet the "Party of the Century" had sprung from the writer’s imagination long before he settled on a guest of honor. In reality, he wanted to flaunt the windfall of fame and fortune that his best-selling nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, had blown his way, and he could conceive of no more glorious triumph than a ball attended by the most famous faces and names in finance, the arts, literature, fashion, academia, and café society. Like his book, it was to be a magnum opus. As he later told Playboy interviewer Lawrence Grobel, who wrote the book Conversations with Capote, "The whole party was a statement of art. It really was very beautiful, spectacular to see—what I had done with it visually, not just who was there, because I had everybody there."
Everybody, that is, except those whom he did not have there. As any shrewd host knows, a party is given as much to include as to exclude. Armed with this knowledge, the diminutive author wielded his guest list like Thor’s hammer, and the social thunder rattled New York. For months, Capote added names to (and crossed them off of) the pages of a ruled composition book that would determine the fates of those socialites and celebrities who, not long before, had held dominion over his admittance to their inner circle. The former schoolboy from Monroeville, Ala., delighted in denying invitations to old friends and mentors like actress Ina Claire and novelists Grace Stone and Carson McCullers—as well as in entertaining desperate pleas, once the invitations had gone out, from others, such as Tallulah Bankhead, who feared the stigma that would surely attach to the uninvited. While a few of the chosen declined (among them Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy), those whom Capote had banished were compelled to abandon the Big Apple to preserve their dignity. "If you weren’t invited," orchestra leader Peter Duchin recalled in an interview for Vanity Fair in 1996, "you’d think you were nowhere."
The hysteria, however, did not end when the final bottle of Taittinger was drained. Capote’s omnipotence was established, but he would not dine out on it for long. "I made about a million and a half lasting enemies with that party," he later gloated to Grobel. He would add to this number by taking as the subject of his next literary effort the Beautiful People whom he had feted. When the first installments of Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire magazine in 1975, he realized how thoroughly he had misjudged his position. Thinly veiled airings of privileged laundry, the published chapters delved into the personal foibles and private crises of the society friends (Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Gloria Vanderbilt) who had so fawned over him. One, Ann Woodward, took an overdose of sleeping pills after reading his portrayal of her as the calculating murderess of her husband. Overnight, the gangplanks of megayachts that had once welcomed him were raised, and the front doors of Long Island’s manor houses were slammed shut. By 1984, the year of his death, America’s host of hosts—the man whose invitation book once decided the destiny of others—had, with the stroke of his own pen, crossed himself off society’s list.