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Candice Bergen on Truman Capote's storied Black and White Ball

Candice Bergen on Truman Capote's storied Black and White Ball
Candice Bergen on Truman Capote's storied Black and White Ball 06:40

In November 1966, a parade of bold-faced names - dressed in their finest - peacocked their way into New York's Plaza Hotel as CBS News Correspondent Charles Kuralt, in his classic reporter's trench coat, set the scene.

"Good heavens, here comes John Kenneth Galbraith. The Maharani of Baroda is here and the Baroness de Rothschild and Mrs. Lowell Guiness," Kuralt said in his broadcast. "And if those names don't mean anything to you, presumably, you are not in the Other Half and you will be interested in this little report on how the other half live."

There was a reason a news network was covering this party. Author Truman Capote had invited 540 of his "very closest" friends.

"Just an endless list," said Laurence Leamer, an author who has written about Capote's extraordinary life, including his "Black and White Ball."

"New York Times the next day published a list, the guest list. It was unheard of," he said. That was atypical, because generally the newspaper would publish a guest list for, say, the White House state dinner.

If anyone lobbied Capote for an invitation, it didn't work, said Leamer, because "he just loved turning people down."

Among the invited were Frank Sinatra and his then-wife Mia Farrow, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Henry Fonda and a 19-year-old model and actress: Candice Bergen. She said she doesn't remember getting an invitation to the ball, even though, "it was an invitation that people were clawing to get."

"It was New York at its most vicious," she added.

Bergen attended the ball wearing a mask by Halston, the designer of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's pillbox hat.

"He had designed a white mink bunny mask for Marisa Berenson," she said. Berenson, who became one of the highest-paid fashion models in the world, was also at the party.

"And she had found something better," Bergen recalled. "Hard to imagine anything better than that, so Halston needed a person, and it was like, 'OK. You wear it. Whoever you are.' So, I wore it."

Truman Capote's Black and White Ball is featured in the new FX series, "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans." CBS News

As an author, Truman Capote is remembered for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the groundbreaking book "In Cold Blood." As a personality, Capote captivated - and mystified - audiences in TV interviews. He also played a character, not unlike himself, in the 1976 film "Murder by Death."

For Capote, the masked Black and White Ball was something of a social experiment.

"In a masked ball, you see for the first hour - before the unmasking - anybody can dance with anybody they want to, or talk to anybody they want to," Capote said at the time. "It's a completely free thing. By the time the unmasking comes, you've made a lot of new friends. And that was the point!"

The ball has been recreated in an episode of the new FX series, "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans." The Swans were the wealthy socialite wives who confided in Capote. He would eventually betray them by revealing their secrets in writing.

"It's an immensely cruel and nasty thing to do to your closest friends," said Leamer. "It's unforgivable. How he thought they could forgive him is beyond me."

But his falling out with high society would happen later. When Capote threw his ball, he was at the height of his powers.

"It was the ultimate fantasy for him, this poor little kid from Alabama could pull this off and get everyone to come here," Leamer said.

The very planning of the party was the talk of the town for months. The party's ostensible guest of honor was Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, but, as Leamer noted, the party was really held for Capote himself.

Tom Hollander, who plays Capote in the FX series, said whether Capote had a good time at his own party was unclear.

"Well, did he ever have a truly good time? I don't know," he said. "I'm sure he had a massive adrenaline rush. And obviously, it was."

The FX series doesn't gloss over Capote's dark side.

"He was addicted to alcohol. He was also addicted to high society," Hollander said. "It made him feel good, but it was not good for him. He should have been at his desk."

Hollander suggested that "a deep inferiority complex" was at the root of Capote's motivations for throwing the party. John Robin Baitz, who wrote the series, agreed.

"It's all fear," Baitz said. "I always think he could have had another 25, 30 years if he had followed the advice of, clean up and go into exile."

When Capote threw his ball, he was coming off the huge success of "In Cold Blood." It would be the last of his books published in his lifetime. He died 18 years later at the age of 59.

Baitz said he doesn't think people had fun at Capote's party. But, laughing, he added, "like all things in hell, they pretended they were having a good time."

Bergen said she hopes a party held today would not get the kind of attention that Capote's did, because "it's too much."

"I think it was a huge piece of theater for Truman," she said. "And it worked."

Bergen recalled being "overwhelmed" at the Black and White Ball.

"I had to be focused. It was like, 'Pay attention here,'" she said. Afterward, Bergen had to return the mask.

Before signing off, Kuralt ended his report on Capote's party like this:

"If you are rich enough, or social or beautiful enough, you would have been here to see for yourself. And, as somebody said, unkindly, if we were rich enough, or social or beautiful enough, we wouldn't be standing out here in the halls." 

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