Truman Capote was a writer, sure, but a master of spectacle too. Even his most well-known work, In Cold Blood, while stylish and captivating, was more an event than anything. It helped usher in the era of New Journalism, made Capote a household name, put the spotlight on a small Kansas town, and to this day remains a magnet for criticism, with reports emerging that Capote may have not been totally on the money.
Who knows how Capote will be remembered down the line? He did write other good books that weren’t In Cold Blood, but the spectacle that was Capote — the writer as celebrity — will outlive his literary influence. This is largely due to the fact that Capote was the best at not just becoming a public figure, but thrusting himself into that spotlight with a certain panache the likes of which has not been seen since. Never was this more apparent than on November 28, 1966, when guests assembled to the Plaza Hotel in New York City for Capote’s Black and White Ball, which featured one of the greatest guest lists ever, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Tallulah Bankhead, Steve Sondheim, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Marlene Dietrich, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, other titans of industry, politicians, and every socialite who mattered at the time.
In a city where people love to party, Capote’s Black and White Ball still stands as one of the greatest events the Big Apple has ever seen, a truly glamorous and decadent evening. It wound down an era when writers were celebrities who could hobnob with big shots.
Like Capote, George Plimpton knew how to throw a party, albeit a more low-key one that didn’t include gold candelabras on the tables and hundreds of bottles of Taittinger champagne. Much has been said about the legendary house and office parties that the Paris Review founder threw whenever an author associated with the magazine published a book, the Review wrapped up an issue, or for no reason at all other than to have a fine time. The recent documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself touches on the parties, but in truth, what went on and was discussed at those grand affairs merits its own film or book.
Before Capote or Plimpton had the cultural capital to fill a room with New York City’s best and brightest, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were pulling the greatest minds in the world to salons in her Parisian home at 27 rue de Fleurus. Stein brought the greatest names in Modernism together, including Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and any artist who mattered in the period. While they weren’t the raucous affairs that Plimpton threw, or the sort of grand soirée that Capote pulled off, the list of guests Stein assembled for epic nights of drinking and talking is pretty much unparalleled.
There were other such instances. No doubt Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and the rest of the Bloomsbury group had some wild nights; Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s Parisian adventures weren’t confined to Stein’s home; and who wouldn’t have wanted to be a fly on the wall during a gathering of the great Algonquin Round Table? These were all legendary nights, that much is for certain, but one can’t help but think these evenings were all just leading up to Capote’s ball, the crowning event in the social life of an author at the peak of both his talent and fame.