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Parties: Truman’s Compote

6 minute read

“They just don’t understand,” said Novelist Truman Capote, not deigning to identify “they.” “This is purely and simply a party for my friends.” The trouble was that no one could quite believe that Truman’s 540 most intimate friends could be composed of the likes of Averell Harriman and Sammy Davis Jr., Walter Lippmann and Frankie Sinatra, William Baldwin, James Baldwin, Tallulah Bankhead and the Marquis and Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. Yet the fact is that he possesses an almost endless entrée into the world of the great and the glamorous; as he modestly puts it: “I have an awful lot of friends all over the world.”

When in London, he puts up with U.S. Ambassador David K. E. Bruce; in Manhattan he lunches at the St. Regis with “Babe” Paley, wife of the CBS board chairman. And when time comes to cruise the Greek isles, he goes shipmate with Gianni and Marella Agnelli, Prince Adolfo Caracciolo and Kay Graham, the peripatetic but serious-minded owner of the Washington Post.

A Mess of Piranhas. Capote’s friends are nothing if not loyal—in fact, some of them feel he has changed their lives forever by opening new vistas. When his latest book came out, Kay Graham threw a big party for him in Washington and he promised her last spring, “I’m going to give a party for you because you gave one for me.” The place would just have to be the Plaza Hotel, “because it has the only truly beautiful ballroom left in New York.” And the decor would be straight out of Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scene in My Fair Lady; everyone must come in black and white.

Most fun of all for Capote, who has played at giving fantasy parties since childhood, was to decree that everyone should wear a mask. The whole point of a bal masqué, he explained, “is to ask anyone you want to dance and sit wherever you want, and then, when the masks come off at midnight, you can find out who your new chums are, or join your old chums.” In October the invitations went off, and suddenly Capote was swamped with pleading messages from those whom he had left out. “I feel like I fell into a whole mess of piranha fish,” he moaned to Women’s Wear Daily. Supposing someone tried to crash? He would have bouncers to throw them out.

Came the Deluge. For days preceding the party last week, jets from London, Paris, Rome, Washington, Los Angeles and Garden City, Kans., flew in the guests.* All day before the ball, fashionable East Side hairdressers fought off nervous breakdowns, and the 16 hosts and hostesses who had volunteered to give pre-ball dinners simmered on the verge of hysteria. Capote and Kay Graham had a quiet little “bird and bottle” picnic supper in his Plaza suite. As the hour for the party approached, Capote’s chums became as anxious as he. Said Mrs. Leland Hayward: “We’re so dearly fond of Truman, and we were afraid that with all this publicity, the party might flop.”

There was no need to fret. Shortly after 10 p.m., the deluge came. By the droves, masked figures ducked in out of the rain, past the reporters and TV lights in the lobby, pushed their way into elevators, and passed the two check-in tables on their way to greet Truman and Kay at the ballroom door.

“The guest book reads like an international list for the guillotine,” muttered Leo Lerman from Mademoiselle. In swarmed the jet-setters (Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill, Count and Countess Rudolfo Crespi, Mrs. John Barry Ryan III), the intellectuals (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., McGeorge Bundy, William Buckley), show-biz folk (Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Jerome Robbins), the writers (Edward Albee, Marianne Moore, Norman Mailer) and official Washington (Nicholas Katzenbach, John Sherman Cooper, Jacob Javits).

Slow-Motion Passes. For himself, Capote had selected a 39¢ domino mask from F.A.O. Schwarz; it was bested for economy by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 82-year-old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. She had shopped around and got a similar mask for 4¢ less. But few of the other ladies tried to pare expenses; some spent $600 and more for their extravaganzas. Rose Kennedy picked out several masks in case she changed her mind, finally settled on an elaborate domino with towering egret plumes. Mrs. Henry Ford II came wearing a white organdy butterfly.

Most men tucked their masks in their pockets as soon as they arrived. Explained Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt: “It itches, and I can’t see.” Soon the women followed suit, long before the magical hour of midnight. While the bands alternated rock ‘n’ roll and pop tunes, the favorite sport became people watching, until the question arose, what next? With no climax in sight and no single star to shine, part of the answer was 450 bottles of nonvintage Taittinger champagne. Paris Review Editor George Plimpton began throwing slow-motion forward passes with a napkin to Receiver John Kenneth Galbraith, Lynda Bird danced on and on with Actor Roddy McDowall, and Frank Sinatra and Mia drifted out to his favorite West Side bar.

What Every Host Avoids. At 3:30 a.m., it was all over. More than 200 stalwarts had stayed to the end, and Guest of Honor Kay Graham was ecstatic. To his departing guests, Capote, a half-smile playing across his youthful face, still insisted: “I just wanted to give a party for my friends.”

So it might have seemed had he left well enough alone. But in a moment of almost understandable weakness, he gave the New York Times his guest list, not bothering to cross off those who had regretted or who had not come. That included, among others, three ambassadors, Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay and three Kennedys: Jackie, Bobby and Teddy.

The published list changed the private ball to a public event, and gave the social columnists and sociologists a chance to move in. “Almost a joke,” said Cleveland Amory, author of Who Killed Society? “Fond as I am of Truman, I think we can say that society is not only kaput—it is Capote.” Max Lerner was reminded of Historian Daniel Boorstin’s observation that the events of our time turn out, all too frequently, to be pseudo-events.

Said Kay Graham: “I can’t bear to think that there may never be another party like this.”

Probably not.

* Capote invited eleven Kansans with whom he became friends while researching and writing In Cold Blood, the bestseller that has earned him at least $2,000,000, enough to pay the tab for the party (estimated as high as $20,000) 100 times over.

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