Christie's Tries to Recreate Black and White Ball

As Christie's prepares to auction paraphernalia from the Plaza Hotel, it also attempts to re-create Truman Capote's legendary 1966 Black and White Ball. The original event was the party of the century. The re-creation, not so much.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today in New York City, Christie's auctioned off bits and pieces of the famous Plaza Hotel. The Plaza is being partially converted into condominiums and so everything from doorknobs to the lobby's grand piano was put on the block. Last night, in a farewell to the glory days of the Plaza, Christie's attempted to recreate the most famous social event to be held at the hotel: Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

NPR's Robert Smith was there.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Nostalgia can make people do crazy things, like trying to reenact a 40-year-old social event.

(Soundbite of swing music)

SMITH: And if you squinted your eyes and drank a lot of the free champagne, you could almost imagine last night that you were back in 1966. There was Peter Duchin, Truman Capote's friend, leading the orchestra and New York society elite dressed in black and white masks twirling on the dance floor. Kitty Carlisle Hart, who snagged one of the coveted invites to Capote's original ball, returned to relive the moment.

Ms. KITTY CARLISLE HART (Singer, Actress): Because it was unique and very special, so of course I remember it.

SMITH: And Hilary Califano, the daughter of CBS founder Bill Paley, stared up at a picture of herself at the party from 40 years earlier.

Ms. HILARY CALIFANO (Socialite): It was unbelievable! I mean it was very, very glamorous. Everybody looked fantastic. Everybody had a good time.

SMITH: But, of course, this isn't 1966 and it certainly isn't the Plaza Hotel. It's the Christie's auction house and much of the Plaza's furniture and mirrors and signs and fixtures now have little tags on them with lot numbers, but it's amazing that even 40 years later, the hype that surrounded the Black and White Ball is still alive.

Ms. DEBORAH DAVIS (Author): Seven weeks before the ball there was ball mania. Women's Wear Daily said, honey, if you don't get your invitation, you are out.

SMITH: Deborah Davis wrote a book about the event called PARTY OF THE CENTURY. Truman Capote had just published IN COLD BLOOD and found himself with money and a cause for celebration. Davis says he planned the ball with the same attention to detail that he showed in his writing.

Ms. DAVIS: It was a very eclectic guest list and for every socialite, there was a politician, for every politician, there was a movie star and for every movie star, there was somebody like the doorman from his building. So, it was the mix. Not any one person, but the cocktail that really made the evening so successful.

SMITH: Capote perfected the party as an art form, building the hype, staging entrances on a red carpet and leaking copies of the invite list.

Ms. DAVIS: There was so much coverage before the ball, literally from the moment the invitations went out, every major newspaper in New York had its society columnist writing about what people would expect, what people were doing, what their preparations were, their masks, their gowns, what the menus at the various dinner parties would be. Now, we open People Magazine or Us Magazine and we see all of this red carpet coverage. It began that night and I think in that sense, Truman created a monster.

(Soundbite of busy street)

SMITH: Outside the reenactment of the ball, only seven photographers bothered to show up, a long way from the dozens of flash bulbs and live T.V. coverage that the first ball attracted. The original party stars were Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. Tonight the photogs were waiting for --

Unidentified Photographer: David Bowie and Iman.

SMITH: They don't show. Neither do the hoards of onlookers that the first ball attracted. Red carpets are now ubiquitous. Tourists barely slow down to ask what's going on.

Unidentified Man: I have no idea. It looks like some sort of auction.

SMITH: Not exactly the level of excitement Truman Capote would have demanded.

(Soundbite of dance music)

SMITH: Back in the fake ballroom, the music has turned to disco and anyone old enough to remember the 60's was heading for the door. Bandleader Peter Duchin says Capote would have had mixed feelings about this party.

Mr. PETER DUCHIN (Orchestra leader): He would have thought that the first part of the evening when I played was great and he would have thought that this was absolutely disgusting.

SMITH: And, of course, he probably would have been honored that 40 years later people were still talking about him.

Mr. DUCHIN: Yes, he would have said, that's exactly what I was looking for.

SMITH: Duchin says the Black and White Ball can only be remembered, not recreated.

Mr. DUCHIN: There were people who were glamorous and that doesn't exist anymore. People are just sort of exhibitionists, not thinking of each other, not thinking of other people, they're just totally involved with themselves. And glamour just went by the boards.

SMITH: Whether or not Capote's party changed the world, it did change Capote. After his ball he became an almost professional party guest, flitting from one fabulous soiree to another, reliving his big social coup and never returning to serious writing again.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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