Aug 2, 2009
Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball – November 28, 1966
Even though Truman Capote’s masquerade was the hottest ticket in 1966, at the advice of Evie Backer, Truman purposely made the decor at his event as understated as possible – no elaborate centerpieces or ice sculptures. The eye candy at his event would be the guests themselves. As his guest of honor, he chose Kay Graham, who had been the publisher of the Washington Post since her husband’s suicide three years earlier. This was very much to the surprise of New York society: Kay wasn’t deeply entrenched in their ranks and rarely wore makeup or got gussied up… which was exactly why Truman chose her. He spent months and months perfecting his guest list – only 500 people would be invited and he wanted a mix of people more interesting than just the usual suspects. When the coveted invitations were finally sent, they included requests that everyone wear masks and ladies carry fans. Most people complied with the mask requirement (Andy Warhol was a noted holdout) but a lot of women dispensed with the fans – it was too hard to carry a mask and a fan at the same time.
Check out the menu, some first-hand accounts and some of the guest list here.
The Vanderbilt Masquerade – March 26, 1883
Capote wasn’t the first to hold such a grand event in high society, though, not by a long shot. On March 26, 1883, the Vanderbilts held the most extravagant and exclusive masquerade probably ever held in the U.S. up until that point. It was such an event that it even caused the richest families to kiss and make up (sort of) so they would be included – apparently, there was a long-standing feud between the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Caroline Astor had her own “In and Out” list of 400 “worthy” people, which purposely excluded their Vanderbilt rivals. But when the Vandy masquerade party was announced and the Astors weren’t invited, Caroline visited Alva Vanderbilt (that’s her in the picture) and made the proper apologies so her teenage daughter would be invited to the grand event. And she was. But anyway, the masquerade was rumored to have cost more than $250,000. Even though some rich families wouldn’t bat an eyelash at spending that on, say, a Sweet Sixteen party these days, it was an absolutely astronomical sum for 1883. People pulled out every last stop at the ball – Alice Vanderbilt came dressed as “Electric Light” and was festooned in diamonds and a headpiece that lit up.
Bal des Ardents – January, 1393
In 1393, Queen Isabeau de Baviere of France wanted to celebrate the upcoming marriages of one of her ladies in waiting. The resulting Bal des Ardents was disastrous. King Charles VI and five of his friends dressed in elaborate costumes that included linen cloth soaked in wax and covered in hair so they resembled wild men. These were amazing, until the King’s brother approached the group of men with a torch so he could see them better and discover who was under the crazy outfits. As you can imagine, wax + hair + fire = BAD. One of the lords ignited and fire spread throughout the room. The King himself caught fire and was saved only when the Duchess of Berry put him out with the train of her dress – she didn’t know until later whose life she had saved. “Bal des Ardents,” by the way, translates to “Ball of the Burning Men” or “Burning Men’s Ball.”