The High & the Low

Belle of the Ball

Thoughts on getting decked out in the name of a good time

Illustration: Illustration by Michael Witte

I have loved Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, the New Orleans überchefs whose empire includes Herbsaint, Cochon, and Cochon Butcher, for a very long time for lots of good reasons. They fill my plate with delicious food and my glass (all too often) with fine wine. They’re smart, they’re generous, and they never fail to make me laugh. If all that weren’t enough, in January they enabled me to fulfill a decades-long dream: to attend a masked ball dressed almost entirely in feathers.

The occasion was the first annual Bal Masque, held at the brilliantly renovated Orpheum theater to benefit the Link Stryjewski Foundation, formed to help at-risk kids in our city (of which there are far, far too many). Some of my favorite chefs (including Mike Lata, Frank Stitt, Mario Batali, and Nancy Oakes) came from all over the country to cook. John Alexander and William Dunlap made gorgeous paintings that were auctioned off for the cause, and Jimmy Buffett provided typically swell music. I went as a Grand Palm cockatoo, complete with tall crest and orange face. It was a perfect night.

I love a ball, especially one involving masks and costumes, which is ironic really, since I am fairly hopeless on the dance floor. It’s not my fault. Girls generally learn to dance by box stepping in time with their fathers, but mine was more of a solo act—he dances as he does pretty much everything, primarily to entertain himself. My mother, who is a phenomenally good dancer, grew up in Nashville, attending Fortnightly Club dances. My generation’s versions of Fortnightly were excruciating events at which girls draped their arms around the necks of acne-faced boys and shuffled around in a tight circle to the strains of “Colour My World.” As a result, I’m more of a postmidnight kitchen dancer, jumping around solo to, say, Del Amitri on the antiquated boom box. I dance like no one is watching because no one ever is watching.

Back to balls: My first experience with the form was at the annual coming-out party put on by the Delta Debutante Club in my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, where I served as a page at the age of thirteen. The decor that year featured birdcages containing hot-pink parakeets hanging from the ceiling of the country club ballroom. My father and I posed beneath one of the beribboned cages for the photographer, Arthur David Greenberg, who had come all the way down from New York for the occasion. Despite the fact that I was dressed in a hideously unflattering white dress complete with a lace bertha collar, it was fun. In the photo, we are trying hard not to crack up at the absurdity of it all, and I cadged lots of contraband champagne. But when it came time to make my actual debut, I politely declined on the grounds that it would’ve been redundant. I’d already come out to at least one version of society (the one my father invariably referred to as “riffraff”) while drinking a series of flaming drinks atop the bar at the late and much lamented One Block East. Also, a few years before what would have been my year, the ball’s emcee, a local doctor who was a sweet, sweet man but clearly a little carried away, announced that the debs had “achieved social attainment in the eyes of the Lord.” I was not at all convinced that the Lord approved of my shenanigans during that particular period of my life, and I felt it wouldn’t have been in the best of taste to pretend.

I could tell my mother was secretly relieved, but my father, awash in misplaced sentiment, called me up in my Georgetown dorm room and asked me if I was sure of my decision: “We could get our picture taken underneath those birds.” But then he has always been amused by the decor of the deb ball, which is always held just after Christmas. One year, in the sixties, the ceiling was hung with Spanish moss and the girls’ hairdos were especially high. Santa had just brought me a Troll Village, and when Daddy walked into the ballroom, he announced that he felt as though he were inside of one.

There was also the unfortunate year of the Debutanks, in which most of those being presented were a tad on the chubby side. To be fair, it’s hard to look svelte when draped in yards of taffeta or tulle or both. When I was a writer at Vogue, Jenna and Barbara Bush graciously agreed to pose for us on the occasion of their father’s second run for the presidency. It was a coup—they’d never before agreed to do any press—but a fashion editor with an obvious agenda chose to dress them in poufy white Vera Wang gowns. I have never loved Laura Bush more in my life than when she took one look at her daughters and politely remarked that they looked exactly like cupcakes. She was right, of course, and the rack of bouffant frocks was immediately sent packing. Unlike a lot of girls from their home state, neither twin had opted to make her debut, and who can blame them? Such an outing requires the famously extravagant (and body-contorting) Texas Dip, a maneuver that involves nearly touching one’s forehead to the floor with gloved arms akimbo, as one’s ball dress rises like a giant marshmallow (or, indeed, an elaborately frosted cupcake) from behind.

The lesson here is what I already knew, that it’s a whole lot more fun to make like an exotic bird than a cupcake. I achieved my avian look on my own—what I lack in dance floor moves, I more than make up for in glue-gunning skills. (People are always surprised that I’m crafty, which I find a tiny bit offensive.) Before the recent Bal Masque, for example, I purchased $450 worth of feathers online and set up a veritable cottage industry on my living room floor creating looks for my fellow attendees. For inspiration, I turned to the three great balls of the twentieth century at which the guests paid elaborate attention to their masks and headgear. (At one, Salvador Dalí designed Christian Dior’s costume and Dior designed Dalí’s.) The first, thrown in 1951 by the Mexican silver heir Carlos (Charlie) de Beistegui at his Labia Palace in Venice, featured a troupe of giants, two jazz bands, and a thousand guests, all of whom arrived by gondola, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers lined up along the Grand Canal. Described as the first “mass media” event, it was photographed by Cecil Beaton. In one of the shots, commissioned by Vogue, Orson Welles sports an enormous feathered crown not unlike my own Bal Masque crest.

The second “ball of the century” was the Bal Oriental thrown by Baron Alexis de Redé in 1969 at his Paris residence, the exceedingly grand Hôtel Lambert. Here, the giants were replaced by dozens of torch-bearing “Nubians,” bodybuilders procured from assorted local gymnasiums and painted black. Clearly, this was long before the era of political correctness, or animal rights awareness either, since one guest arrived toting a baby panther. At least the elephants that greeted the four hundred guests weren’t real. Instead, they were constructed of papier-mâché and straddled by live riders beneath ornate gilded canopies. In his memoirs, the baron rather drily describes a guest who came as a pagoda: “She had to be brought to the ball in the back of a truck, as her costume was made out of metal. She could not sit down in the truck and she could not sit down at all until she took it off. You have to make a balance between enjoying the evening, or the impression you want to make. I am not sure she got it right.”

Far less restrictive getups were worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, thrown in 1966 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel in honor of Katharine Graham. Newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow turned up masked as cats; Candice Bergen wore white bunny ears constructed by the young Halston. As at the other two soirees, the guests looked seriously fabulous, but it doesn’t sound like they had all that much fun. Bergen later reported that she was so bored at Capote’s affair that she left early. Sinatra and his entourage decamped for his favorite dive bar, Jilly’s. None of de Beistegui’s guests professed to even like him much.

This is a shame because one of the many pluses of a masked ball is that if you are in disguise, you can get up to all sorts of no good with impunity. At the first ball I ever hosted, one of the guests pointed to his camouflage bow tie and cummerbund and announced that he was in hiding from his wife. He was making a joke, and a corny one at that, but I got it. A ball is for dancing with multiple partners, flirting with strangers, trying on one disguise after another even if you don’t happen to be in costume. The ball in question, cohosted by my dear friend Jessica Brent, was not, as it happens, a masked occasion. I had recently canceled a wedding and was feeling exuberantly unmasked. (Not long after the cancellation, a friend gave me a birdcage with the door ajar—in retrospect I should have hung those from the ceiling.) Still, like the aforementioned party givers, we had a fantastical theme—just one slightly more in sync with our Mississippi Delta locale.

Instead of life-size elephants, a taxidermy deer welcomed our guests at the front door of the (sadly now burned-down) antebellum house Mount Holly. Inside, wild geese flew above the dance floor, beavers gnawed on logs, bobcats and raccoons lurked on corner tables, and a gigantic loggerhead turtle held a bouquet of wildflowers in its mouth. No one brought a live panther, but a stuffed one crouched on the mantel. Music was provided by Terrance Simien & the Mallet Playboys, a terrific zydeco band from Louisiana that at the time featured a washboard-playing midget who did backflips across the stage. (Let the record show that we were not being remotely politically incorrect—he was an honest-to-God member of the band, not a prop.) Most of the people who would have been at my wedding (except, naturally, for the groom) turned up, and it was exactly as we’d hoped. People danced like crazy and necked on the staircase. My father, true to form, borrowed the washboard and took to the stage.

Jessica and I called it the Last Annual Hoodoo Mamas Ball and Gumbo a Go Go (don’t ask us why), and we’ve about decided we’re due for another, perhaps the Next to Last Annual. In the meantime, I’m already planning my costume for the 2017 Bal Masque. I’m thinking along the lines of some sort of mythical triple-hybrid creature that will allow me to use both horns and feathers. My glue gun is ready.