Truman Capote's Black and White Ball: An American Exhibit
A close look at the guest list for this famed "party of the century" inspired a museum studies scholar to capture the ball's essence.
A strange and mesmerizing event took place in New York City on November 28, 1966. Hundreds of influential men and women of the day donned masks, slipped into their finery, and went to a ball hosted by author Truman Capote. The fashion of the era called for splashy colors. But the guests only wore two that evening: black and white.
For an age in American history that was rife with conflict and complexity, the simple, two-toned theme is striking. Unfolding across the country were race riots, civil rights marches, Vietnam war protests, and cold war anxieties. But the 1960s were also a progressive time for art, music, and literature. And, in its own way, Capote’s Black and White Ball was a microcosm of the times.
When alumna Sarah Jane Rodman (’14) took a close look at the iconic event for her master’s thesis in museum studies, she was particularly drawn to the diverse guest list. In attendance were many movers and shakers who were integral to shaping the Sixties.
“You could tell the whole story of midcentury America by researching the people in that room,” Rodman says. She frequently touches on this idea in her thesis, Party of the Century: Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, which presents the framework for a hypothetical museum exhibit showcasing the ball and its historical significance.
Capote’s Guest List
Capote conceived of the ball in June 1966. After the success of his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, the author wanted to celebrate with a large party for his friends.
But Capote hesitated to throw a party for himself. “I think Capote was savvy enough to realize he didn’t want the spotlight on him,” Rodman says. After deciding on Katharine Graham, the Washington Post publisher, as his guest of honor, he moved onto choosing his invitees based on a simple criterion: people he liked.
Between Capote and Graham (who invited prominent government affiliates), the masked ball included many iconic figures. There were artists (Andy Warhol, Gordon Parks), musicians (Frank Sinatra), political figures (Lynda Bird Johnson, Rose Kennedy, and Sargent Shriver), and authors (Norman Mailer). Alongside such luminaries were little-known personalities, such as one of Capote’s former schoolteachers, a doorman from the UN Plaza, and his “Kansas contingent,” the friends he made while researching In Cold Blood.
The masks made for a mix of delight and disdain, as the faces of both the famous and unknown were obscured behind feathers, sequins, and satin. Capote saw such a leveling plane as an opportunity for his guests to interact freely, outside the bounds of social constructs.
Capote elaborated on this sentiment in an interview for Esquire: "I have always observed, in almost every situation, and I have been in almost every situation, that people tend to cling to their own types. The very rich people, for instance, tend to like the company of very rich people. The international social set likes international socialites. Writers writers, artists artists. I have thought for years that it would be interesting to bring these disparate people together and see what happens."
An Exhibit of Glamour
Rodman is a self-professed “immersive and engaging museum person at heart.” When designing her hypothetical exhibit, she wanted to venture beyond “art on white walls” to evoke the spirit of the ball for museum-goers.
Through a rich array of artworks, clothing, and artifacts, the exhibit immerses visitors in the fashion and art of the era. She also sought to illuminate the relationship between the artifacts on display and the people they represent.
The attendees’ clothing is a crucial element of Rodman’s display, starting at the gallery’s entranceway. There, a large image of Capote and Graham is displayed alongside Capote’s tuxedo and Graham’s white wool-crepe ball gown.
Throughout the exhibit, Rodman features the ball’s outfits and masks, such as Carol Bjorkman’s black, feathery organza dress and Billy Baldwin’s darkly fanciful unicorn mask. Rodman chose to accompany the dresses with textile swatches that replicate the garment’s texture so that a viewer can touch the fabric.
Dozens of photographs of the ball appear alongside the garments. And the textures, artifacts, and images bring the ball’s energy and guests to life.
Art and Advocacy
Naturally, artwork by the ball’s attendees is also heavily featured. Rodman displays pieces by guests like Andy Warhol, Charles Addams, Gordon Parks, and Cecil Beaton.
Parks was an African-American photographer who focused on high fashion and the social activism of the 1960s. Rodman features several of his photographs capturing the civil rights movement, along with Warhol’s print Race Riot.
Parks’ and Warhol’s works in particular reflect the artists’ consciousness of the civil rights era. In some cases, the guests brought race to the forefront of their attendance. Rodman recounts in her thesis, “Parks took off his mask before entering the grand ballroom and later commented, ‘I didn’t wear a mask. With a mask people wouldn’t know that I was black. After all, I was there to make it a real black-and-white ball.’”
The ball and the exhibit reveal other truths about the era. According to Rodman, “The American intelligence community and American media were the best of bedfellows in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and nobody thought twice about it.”
After her initial research, Rodman returned to the guest list and was surprised by the various roles that Katharine Graham’s guests played in World War II, Cuba, and the growth of the security network. “The men who planned Cuba, the men who planned Guatemala and Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam—they were all there at that party in tuxedos!” she says.
A Dark Aura
Rodman also surfaced other uncomfortable themes, such as death and violence. In recognition of how these particular guests influenced modern military interventions, she included Warhol’s Orange Disaster #5 in the exhibit, which is a somber reflection of the death penalty.
The specter of the Clutter family murder, the gruesome story Capote told in In Cold Blood, hung over the ball as well. “The money he made off of that story is what paid for the black and white ball,” Rodman says. Death also indirectly influenced Graham’s role in the ball. Officially, Capote invited her because she needed cheering up after her husband’s suicide three years prior.
“The Last Great American Party”
Fashion icon DD Ryan called the ball the “last great American party.” Many more have referred to it as the “party of the century.”
It indeed occurred at the close of an era filled with hope about change and transcendence. The next few years would see the tragic spiral of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the steady decline of the ultimate host: Truman Capote.
“The Party of the Century” invites us to marvel at its splendor and the brilliant minds at its center. The darkness just beneath might evade our initial glance. But Rodman’s exhibit coaxes us into this beautiful world and shows us how much it reflects the era, in all its glory and turmoil.
“I really wanted to give the visitor the experience of being at the ball,” she says. The gorgeous, immersive, unsettling experience suggests that she achieved her goal.
– by Rosa Hargrove