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Big Easy Recreates Capote's Masked Ball

By CAIN BURDEAU
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 2, 2006; 2:05 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe it should be called the Resurrection Party of the Century. In a bid to raise money for writers and poets displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a fledgling group of writers ladled up some haute couture in the Crescent City by staging a re-enactment of Truman Capote's 1966 extravaganza, the Black and White Ball.

There have been other attempts at re-creating the Party of the Century, as the "Tiny Terror's" 1966 masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City has been called, but this one was particularly unusual, and eerie, because it brought the celebrated writer's life full circle.

The setting was the Queen Anne Ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone, a faded 19th-century hotel one block away from Bourbon Street where, 82 years ago, Capote's mother lay pregnant in Room 950 overlooking the Mississippi River; she went into labor with her unborn child, the boy she'd name Truman, and never accept because he failed to be the virile man she so selfishly wanted. Instead, the openly gay Truman was nasally in his speech and flamboyant in his dress.

On that day in September 1924, hotel staff got Lillie Mae Faulk Persons into a car and took her to Touro Infirmary where the future author of "In Cold Blood" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was born.

"He was probably conceived at the hotel," said Andrea Thornton, a hotel manager. His parents lived at the hotel for more than two years, before and after he was born.

The date and time for this year's ball was 8 p.m., Nov. 28, 2006, 40 years to the day and nearly the hour of Capote's blowout to celebrate the publication of his masterpiece, "In Cold Blood," which had vaulted him into the heavens of the rich and famous.

An annual Black and White Ball "belongs here," Robert Smallwood, the writer responsible for organizing the inaugural New Orleans ball, said at the end of the long, boozy and burnished night.

"He's probably looking over, and, and, uh," Smallwood searched his thoughts. What would Capote have said about Smallwood's attempt at this re-creation?

"... just grinning as much as he could because he always wanted to be famous for a long time and I think he's achieved that," Smallwood offered. "And the sign of a true artist is one that gets more popular as time goes on and it looks like he has done that."

And Capote's flame is burning strong these days, 22 years after he died in 1984. In March, the biopic "Capote" was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won the best actor prize for Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of the author. Now, "Infamous," starring Toby Jones as Capote, is winning critical acclaim. Both films focus on the author's dark quest to create the true-crime novel "In Cold Blood."

But there has never been an attempt at reinventing the Black and White Ball with so much attention paid to authenticity, Smallwood said.

Men wore black ties and tuxedos, women white gowns and flashy jewelry. Pearly black and white masks stayed on until the "unmasking" at 10 p.m., just like Capote had choreographed it at the Plaza.

And the mimeographed ball went a step further, copying Capote's late-night buffet menu down to the egg: spaghetti Bolognese, chicken hash ("heavy cream sauce with cream sauce, and hollandaise," as Smallwood insisted, a caterer recalled), breakfast sausage, scrambled eggs and coffee.

"There was something so decadent to be eating scrambled eggs at midnight," Arin Black, a party guest and writer gushed as the night wound down.

Beyond that, though, the affinities became more tenuous. After all, hurricane-hit New Orleans is no Manhattan in 1966, and the air in the Queen Anne Ballroom had the feel of an attempt at a soiree in bombed-out, post-World World II Europe. New Orleans, long in decline as an economic hub and center for the arts, is like a washed-up celebrity trying to make the great comeback.

With tickets selling for $150 a head, or $250 a couple, the crowd was thin at about 70. "This is about half the people in town," the droll Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian writer who's made New Orleans the leitmotif of his work, said as he scanned the audience over the brim of his bourbon glass.

There was no red carpet, few flashing bulbs, and no Frank Sinatra, Gloria Vanderbilt or Norman Mailer to ogle.

Instead, the whiff of celebrity came from Verita Thompson, an 88-year-old firecracker of a woman and Humphrey Bogart's clandestine lover for 15 years. In a gay sparkling dress, she commanded attention and, over the sounds of the brass quintet, demanded: "Always have fun! Sometimes people will try to knock you in the head, but don't let 'em."

And there were street artists _ "artistes" _ and pub poets, self-made businessmen with foreign wives, aspiring writers, French Quarter shopkeepers and nightclub workers.

Instead of the Vanderbilts, there were old New Orleans families, who were at ease with the late-night buffet. In New Orleans, Carnival balls traditionally end with grits and grillades 'round about midnight.

And dinner talk was punctuated by sighs as talk returned time and again to the tired subject of rebuilding and recovery. The speakers on the night, Codrescu among them, encouraged all to not lose heart.

"Thank you for believing in the gifts we have in this community, not giving up even though this little Katrina blew through, to understand that we as a community can make things great again," said Angela Hill, a New Orleans TV anchor, her feathered mask bobbing.

Once, things were grand in this city, which boasted opera houses and one of the biggest populations in the country. That was a long time ago, though, in the days when Liberace played the piano in the Hotel Monteleone's bar, the Carousel, and William Faulkner _ and later Capote himself _ could be found writing over drinks at the Carousel.

But Louisiana's poet laureate, Brenda Marie Osbey, reminded the audience that "without the arts, there really is no New Orleans, and without New Orleans there is no such thing as the arts in the United States."

Codrescu seemed to sum it up: "This is a complicated and complex place, and a complicated time."

But that's OK, he said, because "a writer has no other reward than complexity _ you don't get money, you don't get attention, you don't get time, you don't get anyone to do anything for you, except you do get the pleasure of infinite complexity."

So, he said, "the muse was always in New Orleans, and the muse is in New Orleans, and if one has the sense as a writer, or the deep sense of what it is to be a writer, one would come to New Orleans."

© 2006 The Associated Press