Inside Truman Capote’s famous costume parties—from Alabama to New York.
In his book Tru & Nelle, G. Neri fictionalizes the real-life friendship of Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee while the two were growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. A 6-year-old Truman is deposited with his aunts in this small Alabama town, and Neri gives readers a glimpse of this now larger-than-life celebrity’s emerging personality and storytelling ability. Truman and Nelle are misfits looking for adventure, and it’s safe to say Truman becomes the talk of the town.
Toward the end of the book, Neri writes a chapter called “The Last Hurrah” in which Truman decides he needs to throw a Halloween party before he leaves town. He also decides the party must be on a Friday night, and Nelle says they must wear costumes. “Of course, silly,” Truman tells her. “It’ll be a masquerade ball! Everyone will be required to dress up, even the adults! And we’ll have a big contest for best costume and I’ll be the judge.”
Truman and Nelle also determine there will be bobbing for apples, rides on Truman’s Ford Tri-Motor airplane and a carnival in the back yard. Word spreads fast about the big party, but people like local bully Boss Henderson are told that they are not invited. On the day of the party, Truman’s aunt Sook spends all day preparing molasses candy, little cakes and punch. His aunt Jenny sets up lights around the back yard, and his cousin Callie travels to Montgomery by bus to pick up a special shipment of bobbing apples from Washington.
Truman dresses up as Fu Manchu with a long mustache and ponytail and bows with his hands pressed together when greeting people at the door. More than a hundred people were invited, and ghosts, devils, dragons and cowboys all show up. “The party was a big success,” Neri writes. “Truman stood on the back porch on that warm October night marveling at the crowds of masked kids and adults.”
Truman’s Halloween extravaganza in Monroeville took place in 1933. He moved to New York with his mother, Lillie Mae, and her husband, Joe Capote, soon after. Thirty-three years later (and 50 years ago)—after writing Other Voices, Other Rooms, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood—Truman would throw another masquerade ball that would be called the “Last Great American Party.”
Truman’s event planning skills had been honed with age, and his Black and White Ball on November 28, 1966, was the social event of New York City. He had finally completed and published In Cold Blood after six long years and had the wealth and fame to throw a lavish party at the Plaza Hotel. Instead of a Friday night, Truman’s Black and White Ball was held on a Monday, with a menu of scrambled eggs, sausages, biscuits, pastries, spaghetti and meatballs and chicken hash served at midnight.
Taittinger champagne stood in for punch, and instead of devils and cowboys, masked guests, including Mia Farrow, Frank Sinatra, Babe Paley and Candice Bergen, were dressed in either black or white. And this time Truman excluded many more than just the town bully. He held back the final invitations until the last minute and famously didn’t invite fellow Southern writer Carson McCullers or anyone who’d ever given him a bad review.
It’s said that the final guest list neared 550 and the final bill $16,000. Truman had outdone himself and would be credited with a resurgence of masquerade and costume parties, which continues to this day. Since Capote’s ball, several people have recreated the idea, including Christie’s Auction House and Chef Ina Garten. This year, on November 17, Monroeville, Alabama, will host its own Black & White Masked Celebration at the Monroe County Library. The party starts at 6 p.m., and black and white masks are preferred. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased through Monroeville Main Street.
On the following day, at 10 a.m. the Old Courthouse Museum will celebrate “Capote’s Rise from Monroeville to Manhattan” with Southern fiction scholar Dr. John Hafner, who will present The Swans of Fifth Avenue author Melanie Benjamin for a discussion about Capote, his “Swans” and the Black and White Ball.
Nathan Carter, museum sites director, will also present archival film footage showing Capote and his peers during the 1965 launch of In Cold Blood in Kansas, and Marlin Barton, winner of the 2015 Truman Capote Short Fiction Prize, will conclude the morning’s panel with a discussion of “La Cote Basque, 1965.”
This story is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.