Before it traces the writer Truman Capote’s self-inflicted social downfall, the FX drama series Feud: Capote vs. The Swans shows us the lofty summit of his social success: the ‘Black and White Ball’ that the author and bon vivant hosted at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on 28 November 1966.


Riding high on the success of his 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood – a sensational true-crime follow-up to his earlier novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Capote threw the ‘party of the century’, as it was immediately dubbed, inviting 540 A-listers from the realms of high society, politics, science and the arts. Although Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham, owner of the Washington Post, was the guest of honour and subject of the party, for all intents it was Capote’s bash.

Part of the party’s allure were Capote’s so-called ‘Swans’, a tight-knit group of women who comprised the author’s inner-circle; socialites, models and artists, many of whom were the wives of powerful men.

Lee Radziwill – socialite and sister of First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy – and writer Truman Capote, pose together
Lee Radziwill – socialite and sister of First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy – and writer Truman Capote, pose together in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. (Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In acknowledgement of the event's social cachet, the New York Times published the complete guest list, the first time it had done so for a party that did not take place at the White House.

Who attended the Black and White Ball in 1966?

Revellers included figures of Hollywood’s elite such as Lauren Bacall, Merle Oberon, Sammy Davis Jr, and newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. Joining them were artists and socialites such as Norman Mailer, Edward Albee, Gloria Vanderbilt, Harry Belafonte, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Lynda Bird Johnson, Rose Kennedy, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Leonard Bernstein, and Cecil Beaton. Other esteemed guests included the Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur.

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Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow Wearing Masks
'It-couple' Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrived at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in 1966. (Image by Getty Images)

Capote’s theme was inspired by photographer and designer Cecil Beaton’s Ascot costumes for the 1964 musical film My Fair Lady. The dress code: black and white, with masks (to be removed at midnight) and, for the ladies, fans. Beaton, in turn, had been inspired by the real-life ‘Black Ascot’ of 1910, when racegoers wore mourning for the recently deceased King Edward VII.

For Capote, the masks were a key component: “You see for the first hour – before the unmasking – anybody can dance with anybody they want to, or talk to anybody they want to,” he explained to friends at the time, adding that it allowed one to make “new friends”.

Two aristocrats wearing black at the so-called 'Black Ascot', a mourning race event for King Edward VII
The Earl and Countess of Ilchester on the first day of 'Black Ascot', 1910, when racegoers mourned King Edward VII. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This monochromatic palette combined the fun of a costume party with the ripped-from-the-runway contemporary fashion that’s seen at events such as at the Met Gala and Oscars today. Indeed, the guests included “nearly every woman on the International Best Dressed List”, claimed the Associated Press.

The tablecloths were red, but there was no red carpet. Though photographers and curious spectators mobbed the entrance of the hotel, most of the guests were wrapped up against the cold in floor-length furs and capes. Besides, brand ambassadors and today’s ‘sponcon’ arrangements were decades away.

While some reported that the ball itself was a bit of a snooze after the months of hype, and criticised the food (spaghetti and chicken hash at midnight) – and most partygoers ignored the ‘fan’ part of the dress code – the frocks were to die for.

The fashions of the Black and White Ball

Many of the gowns and masks worn that night survive in museum collections, preserved not just for their aesthetic and monetary value but as souvenirs of an instantly legendary party.

Recognising its significance, the Museum of the City of New York began collecting gowns, masks, and other memorabilia within months of the event, including a mink-trimmed Halston gown and bunny mask worn by 20-year-old model Candice Bergen, who had just made her film debut that year, and a two-tone Galanos gown worn by socialite Isabel Eberstadt.

Candace Bergen in a rabbit mask arrives at Capote's ball
Candace Bergen (right) wore a rabbit ear mask to Truman Capote's Black and White Ball. (Image by Getty Images)

She accessorised it with an appropriately swan-themed headdress by Bill Cunningham, who worked as a milliner before he became an influential street fashion photographer. “I can’t see or hear a thing in it,” Eberstadt admitted to fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard, one of the few journalists admitted to the exclusive event.

The silver-sequined white gown and matching quilted silk matelasse evening coat Italian designer Mila Schön made for Princess Lee Radziwill (formerly Bouvier, Lee was the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy, played by Calista Flockhart in the series) is preserved in the Victoria & Albert Museum. As one of Capote’s ‘swans’, she and the author bonded over her jealousy of her sister, who had married US President John F Kennedy.

Guest of honour Katharine Graham wore a white wool Balmain gown with black beading around the neck and a Halston mask, cleverly constructed from eyeglasses so as not to muss her hair. (Both pieces survive in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Milliner Adolfo, who custom-made no fewer than 125 masks for the event, attached all of them to sticks for the same reason. Some guests paid $400 for their masks alone, the Associated Press claimed, though Capote bought his from a toy store for 39 cents.

Penelope Tree at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball
Penelope Tree turned out to be the bohemian belle of the ball in a daringly bare black Betsey Johnson dress. (Image by Getty Images)

Marietta Tree – the American-born wife of former Conservative MP Ronald Tree – wore a dramatic Adolfo headdress of feathers, now in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But it was their 16-year-old daughter, Penelope, who turned out to be the bohemian belle of the ball, in a daringly bare black Betsey Johnson dress from the trendy Paraphernalia boutique. Worn with black tights and a harlequin mask, it caught the attention of fellow guests Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, launching Penelope’s modelling career.

Marietta Tree in a dramatic feathered headdress
Marietta Tree (pictured left) wore a dramatic Adolfo headdress of feathers. (Image by Getty Images)

Another guest, Amanda Burden, 23, had recently become the youngest person ever to make the International Best Dressed List. But instead of donning something fresh off the runway, Burden – the daughter of another ‘swan’, Babe Paley – defied expectations by wearing an actual Beaton-designed Ascot costume from My Fair Lady.

Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), accompanied by Freddie Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett, on left), Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), and Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), gets excited at the Ascot Races in My Fair Lady. | Version of: 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw.
Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle (centre) in My Fair Lady. Amanda Burden, daughter of socialite Babe Paley, wore a Beaton-designed costume from the musical film. (Image by Getty Images)

Austine Hearst, wife of William Randolph Hearst, Jr (himself the son of a famed newspaper magnate), also bucked convention by re-wearing a five-year-old Marguery Bolhagen gown and cape of ivory silk appliquéd with black velvet floral guipure, which she had worn to a party at the White House in 1961. Denise Bouché (widow of artist René) turned heads by having celebrity hairdresser Kenneth powder her hair white on one side while dyeing it black on the other, Cruella de Vil-style.

The legacy of the Black and White Ball

Now, it seems almost quaint to remember a time when celebrities got dressed up just for the fun of it, with nothing to promote or support, and hid their familiar faces behind whimsical masks.

But by assembling all of New York’s trendsetters in one place, in black and white, Capote may have laid the groundwork for today’s red-carpet extravaganzas.



Dr Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian, curator, and journalist