How to Hide In Public: Capote’s Black and White Ball, Theme Parties, and Performance

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Truman Capote wanted to throw a party; he felt he had earned it. It was the summer of 1966 and In Cold Blood was published earlier that year, and it was a hit. Capote was rich and important and famous—and rich, important, and famous people throw parties. Of course, it would’ve been assez gauche of him to be both the host and guest of honor, so he picked Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. Later, she said that she felt like a “part of the props.”

Capote spent the rest of the year planning and plotting. He bought a notebook and filled it with names—his guest list. Who wasn’t invited was just as important, maybe more so, than who was, so Capote obsessively added and removed names. He made this constant inclusion and exclusion a very big deal, and people would check in with him to see if they were on the list. His book of invitees generated almost as much buzz as In Cold Blood. In the end, around 500 literary stars, movie stars, Social Registry stars, and political stars were invited.

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The party, the Black and White Ball, was held on November 28 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. A masquerade ball, the guests—many of whom were famous for their faces—wore masks. This gave the night a sense of mystery and kept the focus on Capote and the party itself, rather than the guests. It also illustrates that even rich grown-ups in the ’60s liked to put on costumes and get drunk, and that illustrates a key aspect of the human condition: we are meaning-seeking animals and we require a purpose in order to live and a theme in order to party.

In the hierarchy of college parties, the theme party is near the apex, below only the electronic music show (in the 1990s, these were called “raves”; nobody calls them that anymore). A theme party is an event, a spectacle. The theme of the party can be a costume (the classic toga party comes to mind) or a holiday (Fourth of July or Halloween, for example). There are also gatherings like Wine Wednesday, which is as blatant an excuse to drink as you can get.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once described society as a “masked ball where everyone hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding.” This observation seems to apply to the college partying scene in general and the phenomenon of theme parties in specific. Not to get all post-structuralist for a second, but there is a definite performative element of social gatherings, especially in college, when young adults are trying to figure out the world and themselves. You just aren’t yourself when you’re at a party (this is especially true at a party where you don’t know anyone), you’re your best self, the self you want to present to others. At a party, you’re under the influence of performance, and maybe other stuff as well.

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So, one reason for the popularity of theme parties is that they serve to externalize all that psychological, performative angst people feel in social setting. You just aren’t yourself when you’re at a party—you’re wearing a toga or a Halloween costume or a mask. All of these costumes function as signifying barriers, protecting those who wear them from social awkwardness by doing most of the talking. They let us hide in plain sight.

As previously stated, another reason for the importance of theme parties is that they instill a sense of purpose to an aspect of our lives. Granted, partying is a much more basic and frivolous aspect when compared to larger existential dilemmas we face, but it is still an aspect, one that demands meaning and one from which we derive meaning. We simply cannot gather in revelry and drink and talk and enjoy the company of others. That is not enough. We simply cannot fathom the prospect of living and partying without purpose or theme.

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Below is a playlist of what I think Truman Capote would play if he were to throw the Black and White Ball in the year 2013. I feel like he’d really like Kanye West (“scrumptious”) and Ke$ha (“delightful and mischievous camp”). I also think he’d have a rather shallow taste in music–just going for whatever’s popular and not very good–which is why I included fun. and Macklemore. Of course, if he were to throw the B&W Ball today in the same milieu and stuff, he’d still probably play jazz or whatever was played in ’66. I can’t picture the modern equivalent of Candice Bergen or Bill Buckley getting down to trap music.

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