Thoughts on Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, Vol. 16, Issue 52

November 28, 1966. Some consider that night Society's Last Stand, for it was the night of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, an event for the Jet Set that Truman, rather disingenuously, said was just a private party for his friends. The way he carried on about who he was - and was NOT - going to invite made it the most talked about event of the year. On its 50th anniversary*, let's reflect a moment about what's changed about entertaining, and what's stayed the same.


First, let's consider the invitation, especially the dress code:

Gentlemen: Black Tie; Black Mask
Ladies: Black or White Dress
White Mask; Fan

You know what's so wonderful about that dress code? It doesn't leave you wondering what to wear! There is zero ambiguity about it. Unlike "festive attire" or "creative black tie" or "Happy and Peppy Wear," this dress code supplies all the answers about the style of the event and the expectations of the host. Could we please return to the classic simplicity of dress codes like this?

What's also notable about the dress code is that all the guests obeyed it. There was none of ths "Oh, I don't feel it dressing up but I really want to come to your party" or "Gosh, I don't have a tuxedo" nonsense. Guests honored the host, the occasion, and themselves by honoring the dress code. In this case, it's one of the reasons we're still talking about this party so many years later. Once upon a time if you didn't have the right clothes, you didn't go.** Etiquetteer agrees.

But what's important to acknowledge about wearing masks is that people are going to take them off well before they're supposed to, even when they know they aren't supposed to. They did it at the Black and White Ball (one at least had a medical excuse - the toxic fumes from the glue inside the mask were about to make him faint), and they've certainly done it at every costume party Etiquetteer has ever attended. C'est tant pis. But Etiquetteer will admit to enjoying a Big Unmasking at Midnight. In the words of Zippy the Pinhead, "Frivolity is a stern taskmaster."

You know what else Etiquetteer likes at midnight, especially at a ball or late party? Midnight supper! Truman was excited to serve the Plaza's famous chicken hash at his ball, in keeping with the tradition that a supper should be both simple and good. The late Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, in her wonderful memoir Wait for Me!, recalled her mother departing from tradition at her debutante ball and serving kedgeree (a breakfast casserole) instead of everyone else's chicken a la king. Truman also served spaghetti and meatballs, which is not what Etiquetteer thinks of as user-friendly for ladies in white ballgowns. But even today, the best food at parties is the simplest - as long as it's also the most delicious.

Party of the Century, by Deborah Davis, is perhaps the best and most reliable history of this event, and the author explored Truman's evolution of the guest list around "extra men." Who are "extra men," you ask? They are gentlemen invited by themselves to be sure that the ladies at the party don't lack a dance partner (since their husbands might be stuffy, or simply not dancers). Long before the Black and Whilte Ball, "extra men" were rare and eagerly sought after - candidly, because many gentlemen didn't want the responsibility.

Truman got pushback from some of these gentlemen, who wanted to bring their girlfriends - or at least a Girl of the Moment. It should be noted that the host was not always aware of these relationships before invitations were sent. Truman, for the most part, stood his ground. An "extra man" had to be truly extra, and that meant unencumbered by a date. Most accepted their invitations without further protest.

Nowadays, this sort of thing causes Entitled Outrage among all sorts of single people*** who believe they should be able to bring the same number of guests as people in a relationship do. That's nonsense. Etiquetteer is probably in the minority, but is on record as NOT being a fan of the "plus one" on an invitation. The best excuse is when an elderly guest requires a driver or attendant in order to participate.

Back to the invitation. Very few private people hold balls any longer (as such) - at least they aren't publicized as this one was. You'll notice that the invitation says "dance," not "ball." Neither was Perfectly Proper for private balls. The words "At Home" were used in the invitation, with "Dancing" added at bottom right, and it was understood that this was for the most formal ball possible.

And what's the difference between "ball" and "dance" anyway? According to Emily Post, a dance would be confined to one age group while a ball would welcome guests of all ages. And Truman  was very careful to do at his ball, often inviting the sons and daughters of friends who were already prominent on their own.

Truman and his guest of honor, Katherine Graham, formed a receiving line of two at the beginning of the ball, and they greeted all the guests personally at the ballroom entrance. That's just how it should be - even though it took two hours for the steady arrival of approximately 400 guests. Truman was back at the door to bid farewell to parting guests about 3:00 AM, and that's also how it should be. Hosts make it easy for guests to thank them at the end of a party by stationing themselves near the exit, or at least the coat room.

Most poignantly, in 21st century America, the invitation could have read

Mr. Truman Capote and Mr. Jack Dunphy
request the pleasure of your company . . .

Truman's long-term relationship would not have had to remain in the closet.

The next year the Black and White Ball was swept from the headlines by Woodstock - and that speaks volumes. Certainly there was no dress code there!


*Well, yes, it was 51 years ago! You know, Etiquetteer just adores historical precedent, and as usual, is going to trot out the one-year delay in opening the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was held specifically to commemorate Columbus' discovery of America in 1492.

**This is, of course, one of the central plot elements of Meet Me in St. Louis.

***While "bachelor" is still hanging on in current usage, the terms "unattached ladies" or "unescorted females" have been justly swept into the Dustbin of Language.