Friday, August 14, 2015

The Thrill of the Grand Bal

The scene of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball held on November 2, 1966 in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel.
The tradition the Grand Bal came into being several centuries ago as a political device and demonstration of power to a society's elite, and to one's adversaries and neighbors.

They were very often masked balls, giving guests — and hosts — the opportunity to expand their horizons of interest and make new acquaintances discreetly. They were what they remain today, although quite differently, the opportunity to bring people together and to entertain. From the 17th century, Louis XIV set the tone with his grand bals at Versailles. Three centuries later, Elsa Maxwell set the tone for New York with the April in Paris Ball (in the 1950s) at the Waldorf-Astoria. The following is a brief compilation of some of those grand bals which I wrote for the August issue of Quest magazine's annual "400" issue.
To most Americans, a Bal, a grand ball is a special formal occasion, a dance where men dress in black tie, and women in gowns. Very often it’s a fund-raising effort for a charity. To children, the ball is where Cinderella met the Prince. She meets the prince, then she has to disappear (otherwise she’ll turn into a pumpkin) and the prince, already madly in love with her, doesn’t know her name. It was other worldly, make believe.

The tradition of the Grand Bal, however, reaches back centuries to the days when monarchs ruled the world. It was an occasion to demonstrate Power. A king would give a ball to demonstrate his political power, and because he was king, he had deep pockets for for entertaining his guests. Louis XIV is a perfect example. With his personal monument to himself, the palace of Versailles, he had complete control of his “people,” beginning with the nobles. His entertainments served to focus on that reality and to make its site available to confirm it in the minds of others. The intent was also to send messages. His lavish luxury also sent a message to the foreigners, diplomats, businessmen and aristocracy: all powerful. He had the power to amaze.
These balls were often masquerades, and required costumes to illustrate the character behind the mask.  Augustus the Strong, also known as The Sun King of Saxony (1694-1733) once gave a lavish costume ball in which he appeared as Alexander the Great, and later in the evening, changed to a costume depicting Mercury. Both had a combined message: powerful and swift. His guests included not only his subjects but also diplomats from other countries.

This was more than a laugh and a dance. The diplomats and agents of foreign powers who swarmed about the young monarch’s court got the message. Aside from his plethora of diamonds and pearls that decorated him and his costume to demonstrate his wealth, he was also telling them – via his “character” Alexander” – that he was ready for war. So watch out! Ironically, Augustus had the unfortunate tendency to involve himself in wars that usually ended in a disaster for his armies.

In early 1903, Empress Alexandra of Russia had a whimsical idea of throwing a Grand Bal, as they were known. Costumes that would provide the masquerade and which would reflect a more opulent and conservative time for the Imperial Court. Ironically the empress' idea reflected the swiftly moving changes in the world of the Russian people. At the time, even the court privately amongst themselves raged at the expense they would have to go to to meet the empress' standards for a costume. Her costume alone had a specially commissioned barma of emeralds and diamonds made for the empress by Faberge. The cost of the barma alone was approximately $12 million in today's dollars.
The Grand Bal was also a device used by businessmen and  individuals to establish their importance in their community. It wasn’t an entirely political endeavor, however. The objective: to amaze was often powerful enough to cover a lot of definitions.

In very early 1903, Empress Alexandra of Russia decided to have a grand bal at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She was inspired by a performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and bid her guests to wear costumes of the time of the story, the 17th century reign of Czar Alexis. That mean very expensive costumes, – damask silk, fabric embroidered with gold and silver, all kinds of fur.

It took weeks of preparation for the costumes alone. The empress’ crown made for the ball was set with diamonds, emeralds and pearls, overlaid by ornaments shaped as olive branches ending in diamond arrows. Her dress was woven with matte gold and embroidered with hard silver thread. Her barma (a kind of collar that dominates the shoulders) was decorated with an abundance of emeralds and diamonds. All made by Faberge for Her Majesty, the cost of creating such a complex piece today would be upwards of $10 million.
Nicholas and Alexandra at the Imperial Ball in the palace in St. Petersburg in 1903.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the elites indulged in these fabulous events where everything else matched the standards of the costumes of these parties, including the entertainments, the food and the music. Elaborate costumes, specially composed music and theatricals, all taking place in front of and under an extraordinary set of beautiful props and stunning scenery, these events were works of art, cultural expressions of the highest order, a collaboration of writers, jewelers, sculptors, and musicians. And they were always private and they rarely were given to benefit a charity or a purpose aside from the host’s personal needs and wishes.

In the Gilded Age in New York, first under the aegis of Caroline Astor, who set the bar, the Grand Ball became the operative device for establishing social position. The Europeans, both royals and aristocrats, and people establishing social position, gave frequent masked balls and did it better. Unlike the Americans who preferred elaborate costumes mainly without masks, the Europeans liked the mask for what it allowed one to say about oneself without being “identified.” Its ultimate allure is an extreme expression of a basic human desire to escape, a chance for people the chance to be someone else.
The southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street which was occupied by the queen of New York society Caroline Astor, wife of William B. Astor. It was in the ballroom of this house where Mrs. Astor first held her balls for the appointed "400" who made up Society in New York. On the southern corner of the property was the first Waldorf Hotel, constructed by Mrs. Astor's nephew William Waldorf Astor on the land that had been his father's brownstone. Young Astor put up the hotel partly in defiance of his aunt whom he believed usurped his rights by referring to herself as "Mrs. Astor" as if there were no other. Living in a house next to a hotel was considered very tacky (and therefore embarrassing). In 1894 it was time to move. Her son used the property to construct a hotel next door called the Astoria. Not long after the cousins merged their hotel to become the Waldorf-Astoria.
The ballroom of the original mansion of Caroline and William Astor on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, which served as their private art gallery as well. The room had a capacity of about 369 people, so the original "400" list was inaccurate in its tally but was a nice round number for publicity purposes.
Jack Astor in costume for one of his mother's balls. 42-year-old Caroline Schermerhorn Astor in 1873, in costume for one of her balls.
In 1893, Mrs. Astor was ready to leave her longtime home on 34th Street which was now surrounded by ever-encroaching commercial enterprises. The architect Richard Morris Hunt was hired to design a double mansion on a very large lot covering half a block on Fifth Avenue. The house was to be a double mansion with two separate residences — one for Mrs. Astor and the second for her son Jack, his wife Ava, their son Vincent and his sister Alice.
The ballroom of Mrs. Astor's new home at 840 Fifth Avenue (corner of 65th Street — now the home of Temple Emanu-el). The capacity for this ballroom was approximately 1250. The "400" list had grown considerably in one generation. In the winter of 1896, the Astor family ensconced, Mrs. Astor gave her first ball in the new house. It was covered in detail in the press, as was the house and all its grandeur. By then, at the turning of the century, Mrs. Astor was regarded as a public landmark.
The greatest grand bal of the 20th century (“the party of the century) was held on September 3, 1951 in Venice at the Palazzo Labia by Carlos de Beistegui, a very rich man of Mexican-Spanish lineage. De Beistegui lived the life of the compleat hedonist. Without his great fortune to spend on himself, he undoubtedly would have been recognized as a very creative interior designer and artist for he was enormously talented as well as rich. Besides his apartment on the Champs Elysee which was designed by Le Corbusier with additional assistance on his (extraordinary) terrace from Salvador Dali, he had a famous house the Chateau de Groussay, and the baroque Palazzo Labia built in the 17th-18th century on the Grand Canal in Venice. Considered one of the last great palazzo in Venice, it was famous for the frescos painted by Tiepolo in the ballroom.
The parade of gondolas arrive at Palazzo Labia for the Beistegui Ball on the Grand Canal of Venice. Life Magazine which covered the ball reported that "1500 of the world's most blue-blooded and/or richest inhabitants" were invited to attend the 18th century costume ball in which "mask would be worn." Photo by Willie Rizzo.
De Beistegui purchased Labia in the  late 1949s when it was in a state of crumbling decay. He then, at an expense greater than the purchase price, completely restored it to its original splendor. After that, it seemed logical to him that it should have a Grand Bal to celebrate its renaissance. 1500 were invited. It was to be the Bal Oriental. Guests were requested to wear 18th century costumes. Beistegui, himself, dressed as Louis XIV.

The activity leading up to the ball provided so much business and talk around the city of Venice – as well as in London, New York and Paris – that Charlie de Beistegui, as he was called, was regarded as a kind of hero to the employables and to the craftsmen and artisans. Pierre Cardin designed at least 30 of the costumes for clients around the world. Christian Dior designed Dali’s costume and Dali designed Dior’s. Cecil Beaton photographed the entire event.
Watercolor by Alexandre Serebriakoff — hired by the host to record it with his brushes — of the scene of the arrivals at the ball.
The evening of the ball – scheduled to begin at 10:30 PM – drew people to Venice just to see the gondolas bearing the guests down the Grand Canal to Palazzo Labia. Hotels and palazzo owners rented spaces to tourists (at big prices) in their windows overlooking the canal to watch the maritime procession. Beistegui, fully aware of the great public interest at this point, had bleachers constructed on the opposite site of the canal for the public to sit and watch the arrivals. (He also hosted on another day in another part of the city, the banquet for all who worked on the event, providing not only food but entertainment and music.)
The Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes among the trio with the black masks.
The Aga Khan (grandfather of the present Aga Khan as well as Princess Yasmin Aga Khan) in wheelchair, observed "I don't think that we will ever see anything like this again….I saw King Edward VII's coronation in London in 1902 and King George's in 1911, and the parties that went with them. But I have never seen anything like them since, until last night."
Clockwise from top left: Daisy Fellowes entering the Palazzo Labia for Don Carlos de Beistegui's party as the Queen of Africa from the Tiepolo frescoes in Wurzburg in a dress trimmed with with leopard print; the host in costume as Louis XIV. Five-foot-six in height, for his ball, he towered over his guests at almost seven feet in 16" platform shoes concealed by the scarlet robes of a procurator of the Venetian Republics. Beistegui changed his costume six times over the course of the evening; Orson Welles.
Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire who attended with her husband the duke, recalled it in her memoir “’Wait For Me!”:

The ball was an unforgettable theatrical performance with entrees of men and women in exquisite costumes. M. de Beistegui, in a vast wig of cascading golden curls and a lavishly embroidered brocade coat, stood on stilts as to be easily recognised. Daisy Fellowes regularly voted the best dressed woman in France and America, portrayed the Queen of Africa from the Tiepolo frescoes in Wurzburg. She wore a dress trimmed with leopard print, the first time we had seen such a thing (still fashionable today, sixty years on), and was attended by four young men painted the colour of mahogany. So many women threatened to be Cleopatra that the host decided to settle it himself and named Diana Cooper for the role.

Life Magazine covered the event and the world read about it the following week. The Aga Khan (grandfather of the present Aga) remarked later to a reporter, “I didn’t think that we will ever see anything like this again. I saw King Edward’s (VII) coronation in London in 1902 and King George’s (V) in 1911 and the parties that went with them. But I have never been anything like them since, until last night.” Christian Dior: “Parties like these are genuine works of art.
In the ballroom.
In December 1969, the 29 year old Baron Alexis de Rede gave Le Bal Oriental in the splendor of his 18th Century apartment in the Hotel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis.
Alexandre Serebriakoff's watercolor of the Bal Oriental in the Hercules Gallery of the Hotel Lambert. On the right is the host with his great friend Marie-Helene de Rothschild who also lived in the hotel particular with her husband Guy de Rothschild.
Salvador Dali with Amanda Lear. Inset: Marie-Helen de Rothschild with international interior decorator Valerian Rybar.
Two years later, almost to the day, Baron de Rede's friend Marie-Helen de Rothschild and her husband gave a ball at the Rothschild's Chateau de Ferrieres outside Paris. It was called the Proust Ball. Clockwise from top left: Baron and Baroness de Rothschild; Audrey Hepburn; Marisa Berenson as the Marquesa Casati; Elizabeth Taylor with her diamonds woven into her hair. All photographs by Cecil Beaton.
Marlene Dietrich at the The April in Paris Ball held annually at the Waldorf Astoria was first held in 1951 marking the 2000 birthday of the city of Paris. The hotel's banquet manager Claude Philippe had the idea, and Elsa Maxwell who lived in the Waldorf Towers, gratis, organized it. It became the most glamorous society ball in New York in the 1950s. Its mission was to serve Franco-American relations and charity. In 1960, the ball was moved to the Hotel Astor on Broadway (no longer extant), and the following year it was held in what is now the Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. Over the years, the Ball earned millions which were distributed to 20 charities such as the American Cancer Society.
The Duchess of Windsor (being observed by CZ Guest), with the Duke of Windsor on the far left.
Newlyweds playwright Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe at the 1956 April in Paris Ball.
Marilyn inquiring of her dinner partner on her right.
Fifteen years later, here in New York, Truman Capote, riding high from the success of his “In Cold Blood” gave what is inarguably the second most famous ball of the 20th century, in 1966 at the Plaza Hotel. Capote’s great talent for getting attention made the event one of the most talked about of the era. Its “purpose” was to honor his friend Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. In the weeks leading up to the party, there were various sundry accounts and interviews in newspapers and magazines.
Capote is said to have dreamed of this kind of event more than two decades before when he was first starting out as a writer. The legend has it that as a young writer attending Yaddo, the writer's colony, he declared that when he became rich and famous he would give a ball for his rich and famous friends (at the one's he would cultivate at the appropriate time — when he was rich and famous). The time came after the publication of his sensationally successful "non-fiction" novel "In Cold Blood."
The party was given "in honor of Katharine Graham," the owner-publisher of the Washington Post. the host's choice of honoree was brilliant politically because it was someone outside his group of social "swans" as he called them, but a woman even more prominent and more powerful and more important than any of them. He probably got the idea of the theme (Black and White) from a party he was invited to two years before by Dominick Dunne who was celebrating his 10th anniversary with his wife Lennie in Beverly Hills.

Truman was invited last minute and brought two uninvited friends. Dunne was flattered to have the eminent author as his guest although he was disappointed when two years later the eminent author invited many people Dunne knew but not Dunne himself. The party was the talk of the town (and much of that social world) for three months before he dreamed it up and announced it publicly. Who would and would not be invited, etc. The list ended up being 540, just ten short of the ballroom's 550 capacity. The guest list was highly eclectic to the New York social people because he invited people he'd come to know while covering the murders on which his book was based. His mixing of the classes - the hoi-polloi with the financial elites — was considered brilliant also. The party got so much pre-publicity that many articles were written about what publicity genius the author was.
Today he would be considered a marketing genius. It was to be a masquerade where all masks were removed at midnight. The party started at ten PM when guests started arriving. There had been 18 private dinner parties across town before. The gold of the party was the guest list, like an old studio film filled with the stars of the day. It became one of those parties where people left town if they weren't invited so it looked like they weren't available to the invitation. It was a great success, made famous across the world. It was the apotheosis of Truman Capote blazing career for the best-selling author who as society's darling and the media's pet gadfly had become one of the most famous men in America. All that was to end in a few years after he published his short story "Cote Basque 1965" in which he printed blind item stories about many of those who had adored him and wined and dined him as "society's darling." After that, the doors slammed shut. Forever.
By the eve of the “masked ball” everybody who came in contact with a newspaper or television news was aware of what seemed like a huge extravagance for a writer of books. Capote’s party did not have the lavish and the extravagance that Beistegui and his personal treasury (not to mention his decorative talent) could afford. Nor were the majority of his American guests as comfortable in masquerade. But, what he provided for his guests, however, was the thrill of being there, famous now among the invited, the celebrated, the rich and the chic in American daily life. This was the message to all of us.

The late John Galliher, man about town and man about the world was one who attended both the de Beistegui’s Bal Oriental and Truman Capote’s fete in honor Katherine Graham. In recalling them, he pointed out that the “great fun” for both parties was being present at the arrivals. Once that was over, it was – frankly – just another party. The thrill left the room early.
The host Truman Capote dancing with his guest of honor Katharine Graham at the Black and White Ball.
Gloria Guinness entering en masque.
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra arriving. Behind them is Eleanor Lambert. Adjusting her mask is Lee Radziwill.
Jean Harvey (Mrs. Alfred Gwynne) Vanderbilt. A young starstruck Andy Warhol sans mask.
Rabbit Ears conceals Candice Bergen. Marella and Gianni Agnelli.

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