One of the most legendary social events in New York City history was the Black and White Ball on November 28, 1966. Hosted by author Truman Capote at the Plaza Hotel and honoring Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post Company, the Ball propelled Graham to the center of influential new networks and sent her social profile skyrocketing. Take a sneak peek inside the Center for Women’s History’s upcoming exhibition, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery from February 26 – July 18, 2021, as we celebrate this anniversary.
At the time, Katharine Graham (1917-2001) had not been president of the Post for long, and the newspaper’s world-famous coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate lay in the future. Her father, Eugene Meyer, had purchased the bankrupt paper in 1933 and made Katharine’s husband, Phil Graham, its publisher. Phil’s sudden death in 1963 forced the new widow to grow quickly into her leadership role at the Post. Yet in 1966, she remained relatively unknown outside of Washington, D.C. Capote changed that by naming a surprised Graham the honoree of his hotly anticipated Black and White Ball.
Capote announced the masquerade months ahead of time, prompting weeks of frenzied speculation—who, among his fashionable crowd of socialites, artists, intellectuals, and celebrities would receive the coveted invitations? On the date of the Ball, guests, onlookers, and journalists crowded around the Plaza Hotel. Graham recalled, “There was a slight note of insanity about the party.”
“Mr. Truman Capote Requests the Pleasure of Your Company…”
The year 1966 had already been a momentous one for Capote. In January, he’d published his book In Cold Blood, a “nonfiction novel” about a brutal quadruple murder in a small Kansas town. The author had spent nearly six years on the project, interviewing, and befriending investigators, lawyers, locals—and the two killers, even attending their execution. Capote planned his high-profile Black and White Ball towards the end of that eventful year to keep his name in the public eye. To avoid the appearance of crass self-promotion, he telephoned Graham over the summer. “Honey, I just decided you’re depressed and need cheering up, so I’m going to give you a party,” he announced. “What are you talking about?” Graham responded quizzically.
“…In Honor of Mrs. Katharine Graham”
“Why was I the guest of honor? Who knows?” Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. Capote was already close to many wealthy, fashionable society women, who were known as his “swans.” Among them were Barbara “Babe” Paley, who had introduced Capote to Graham in 1961 and who was married to the founder of CBS; Princess Marella Agnelli, married to the chairman of Fiat, who had hosted Graham and Capote on her Mediterranean yacht in 1965; and Princess Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister. “I suppose he chose me because I didn’t conflict with all the glamorous women he knew,” Graham acknowledged. As a relative outsider, she was an uncontroversial yet still-newsworthy choice. “Though I obviously appreciated it and loved the role, I was terribly nervous,” Graham later recalled.
Halston. Mask worn by Katharine Graham to the Black and White Ball, 1966. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Katharine Graham.
Graham, who wore hand-me-down clothes from her older sisters until her début at age 18, went to Bergdorf Goodman to purchase her dress for the Ball, a Balmain design. Her mask was one of many created for the event by Halston, at the time Bergdorf’s resident milliner and famous for creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hats. The celebrity stylist Kenneth Battale did her hair at his luxurious five-story salon on East 54th Street. She later wrote, “For one magic night I was transformed…. Of course, compared with the sophisticated beauties who blanketed the ballroom, my very best still looked like an orphan.”
“Grand Ballroom, The Plaza”
Capote never considered anywhere but the Plaza for his bal masqué. From the time of its opening in 1907, the Plaza has been one of the most famous hotels in the world, hosting visiting celebrities from the Prince of Wales to the Beatles. Frequently referenced in literature (The Great Gatsby, Eloise) and film (North by Northwest), by 1966 the Plaza was an iconic institution, signifying luxury and high society to generations of New Yorkers. Capote adored all of it, from the sumptuous Grand Ballroom that he called “the only really beautiful ballroom left in the United States,” to the chicken hash served to his guests, alongside platters of spaghetti, scrambled eggs, and 450 bottles of champagne. Capote probably appreciated the hearty food: for their private dinner beforehand, Graham mistakenly bought only a quarter pound of caviar, which was “barely a couple of spoons for each of us.”
As the guests arrived, Graham and Capote formally welcomed each one. Jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane later recalled, “None of us really knew Kay at that point. In the receiving line we said ‘How do you do?’ to her instead of ‘Darling, how are you?’—kiss kiss.” Inside, the ballroom was decorated minimally with red tablecloths, vine-wrapped candelabras, and a cluster of silvery balloons. Capote understood that the guests were the only decorations that mattered.
After passing the battalion of photographers, guests mingled and danced to the music of the Peter Duchin Orchestra, alternating with Benny Gordon and the Soul Brothers. Afterwards, Gordon told JET magazine, “That party was out of sight. I was surprised there were so many hip people in society.”
“The Names Everybody Knows”
The enduring significance of the Black and White Ball lay in Capote’s innovative mixture of different elite circles: American “swans” and European aristocrats; writers, publishers and editors; academics, politicians, and diplomats; intellectuals, artists, and stars of Broadway and Hollywood—leavened with an investigator from Kansas, Capote’s doorman, and Graham’s personal assistant. Capote counted three presidents’ daughters among his guests, as well as several members of the Kennedy family, one Maharani, and five princesses—including Princess Luciana Pignatelli, whose 60-carat diamond headpiece required its own security detail. Surrounded by glamor, wealth, influence, and power, Graham later considered the Ball “a very big event in my life,” and very important to her. Although she had never met most of the guests before, many would go on to be life-long friends.
The women journalists who covered the Black and White Ball helped establish its lasting fame. Among them were Gloria Steinem, who wrote about the event for Vogue, Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Herald Tribune, Charlotte Curtis of the New York Times, Carol Bjorkman of Women’s Wear Daily, and nationally syndicated columnist Eleanor Lambert—all tastemakers and celebrities in their own right.
Society columnist Aileen Mehle was one of the most influential of all; as Frank Sinatra said, “A lady writer in her position has a great deal of power.” Mehle (1918-2016) began writing society gossip under the name “Suzy” for the Miami Daily News in the 1950s. The Daily Mirror brought her to New York in 1957, but when it folded in 1963, Mehle became “Suzy Knickerbocker” of the New York Journal-American. Within a decade, her column ran in over 90 newspapers, and reached approximately 30 million readers. During her 50 years in the business, Mehle was hailed as “the hottest columnist in the world” and “the biggest fund-raiser in New York.” With the ability to make or break the Black and White Ball, Capote (who considered her “one of only two or three columnists who ever wrote well”) gave Mehle VIP treatment. She arrived at the Plaza early, and Capote invited her to stand nearby as he and Katharine Graham received guests. Mehle noted each arrival: “540 undeniable stars of society, government, the arts, and the nobility, plus a passel of multimillionaires and their decorative wives… It was the most dazzling party I had ever been to. It was Truman, who meant so much then, it was Kay, a powerful woman, and it was the guest list, and it was the costumes.” Mehle’s verdict? “Truman Capote was the host of the year, the decade, the era.”
The Party of the Century
During the time that Charlotte Curtis published the Black and White Ball guest list in the New York Times, only White House state dinners had previously received such publicity. Within months the Museum of the City of New York had already established a collection of memorabilia from the event.
The Ball also had a lasting effect on Katharine Graham herself. The evening’s atmosphere of glamor lingered. She began frequenting the designers whose creations appeared at the Ball, particularly Halston and Oscar de la Renta, and her image appeared regularly in the fashion press. By incorporating the inclusive principle behind the Black and White Ball into her own parties, Graham also ultimately became Washington’s most influential hostess. As Secretary of State George Schultz recalled, “She was a convener… She had an impact because she brought together people who had something to say.” The Black and White Ball helped augment and consolidate Graham’s position as “The Most Powerful Woman in America.”
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History