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Truman Capote at his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel New York, with 'The Washington Post' publisher Katharine Graham. Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

10 of History’s Most Lavish Parties

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Truman Capote at his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel New York, with 'The Washington Post' publisher Katharine Graham. Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

You can’t have a good party without booze, tunes, and snacks. But you can’t have a legendary party without wine cork shooting and life-sized desserts. These 10 parties have gone down in history for their decadence in everything from venue to menu. Lead by their example for a truly elegant holiday party, or just a crazy ritzy birthday bash.

1. BLACK AND WHITE BALL

Truman Capote hosted this 1966 soiree and, as you can imagine, it attracted a ton of celebrities. Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda, and Candice Bergen attended alongside socialites like Gloria Vanderbilt and Lee Radziwill. In fact, the guest list was so glamorous that Andy Warhol quipped to his date, “We’re the only nobodies here.” The bash was ostensibly held in honor of newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, but it was mainly an excuse to gather 540 of Capote’s closest friends into The Plaza’s Grand Ballroom. Guests could only wear their fanciest black and/or white evening wear. Masks were also required, and ladies were expected to carry fans. It might sound like an unbearably strict dress code, but the aesthetic became so famous that Diddy and Princess Yasmin Aga Khan both later copied it.

2. LES NOCES PREMIERE PARTY

You’d expect a ballet party to be a bit stiff, but this Parisian premiere was a blast. Following the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces, wealthy expats George and Sara Murphy decided to throw a party in the composer’s honor in 1923. It all took place on a large barge on the Seine River. Since the florists were closed on Sunday, Sara got creative with the centerpieces. She piled toy cars, clowns, and fire engines on each table. The guests were taken with the whimsical decorations—especially Pablo Picasso, who rearranged them into a mini-mountain capped with a cow atop a fireman’s ladder. Not to be outdone, filmmaker Jean Cocteau dressed as a captain and ran around with a lantern telling everyone the barge was sinking. But no one could steal the thunder of the man of the hour. Stravinsky ended the night by jumping through a huge laurel wreath, like it was a circus hoop.

3. THE VANDERBILT BALL

The way the Museum of the City of New York tells it, this was the ball that changed New York City society. Prior to this 1883 affair, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor called all the shots on the social scene. She had turned her nose down on the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilts, and refused to acknowledge them. But Alva Vanderbilt got her calling card at long last when she sent out the invitations for a housewarming party at her Fifth Avenue mansion—and strategically “forgot” to include Astor’s daughter Carrie. So the Astors formally acknowledged the Vanderbilts, and later attended the party, along with nearly 1200 other guests. This was a costume party and New York’s elite did not disappoint. While Kate Fearing Strong’s taxidermied cat head hat was certainly hard to forget, the most memorable outfit belonged to Alva’s sister-in-law. Alice Vanderbilt arrived in the now-famous “Electric Light” dress, a yellow satin number with batteries hidden underneath. Those helped her torch light up, which in turn helped her look like a glamazon Statue of Liberty.

4. THE SURREALIST BALL

Swanky parties were kind of Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s thing. The baroness was famous in French society for the over-the-top, star-studded galas she hosted in the Rothschild country home. While many consider the 1971 Proust Ball to be her best, the 1972 Surrealist Ball had by far the most flair. Invitations were printed backwards, requiring a mirror to decipher. Each place setting included a furry charger plate, and the centerpieces were downright bizarre. (One was a mess of limbless dolls.) For dessert, the crowd dined on a pudding shaped to resemble a life-size naked woman resting on a bed of roses. Guests included Audrey Hepburn, who wore a rattan bird cage on her head, and Salvador Dali, who fit in all too well.

5. THE BRADLEY MARTIN BALL

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Manhattan millionaire Bradley Martin and his wife Cornelia sure knew how to drum up publicity. According to The New York Times, the couple’s 1897 decadent ball was “the universal and engrossing subject of interest and discussion wherever the members of the gay world, not only in New York, but in the other large Eastern cities, have assembled” for the three weeks leading up to it. During that time, guests prepped their historical costumes. One came as Pocahontas, another as Catherine the Great. The hostess herself riffed on Mary, Queen of Scots with a $60,000 gown. She also decked out the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with canopies of orchids and roses, even festooning the candelabra with Louis XVI-era “reticules,” or silk pouches bursting with flowers. Although many condemned the ball as an exercise in tacky excess, the guests clearly enjoyed themselves. Some didn’t clear the dance floor until 5am.

6. MALCOLM FORBES’S 70TH BIRTHDAY PARTY

What does the multimillionaire behind Forbes magazine do when he turns 70? Fly a couple hundred friends to his palace in Tangier, of course. Malcolm Forbes opted for a destination birthday party in 1989 when he invited almost 1000 friends to join him in Morocco, all expenses paid. In addition to chartering their jets, Forbes treated his guests to a fireworks show, heaps of barbecued lamb, and constant entertainment from Moroccan musicians and belly dancers. The three-day bash attracted famous faces such as Walter Cronkite and Elizabeth Taylor, who was Forbes’s date and honorary hostess for the weekend.

7. THOUSAND AND SECOND NIGHT

In 1911, fashion designer Paul Poiret clearly had Ali Baba on the brain when he put together his “Thousand and Second Night” costume gala—and he took his theme very seriously. If guests showed up without a costume, they were instructed to leave or put on some “harem” trousers from Poiret’s spring collection. Once they were suitably attired, attendees walked past an enormous golden cage containing Poiret’s wife and a chorus singing Persian songs. They could then listen to actor Édouard de Max recite selections from One Thousand and One Nights or simply pal around with the monkeys and macaws roaming free in the garden, alongside several famous ballerinas.

8. LE BAL ORIENTAL

People knew that Carlos de Beistegui’s Venetian soiree would be something special even before it was dubbed the “ball of the century.” According to The Daily Beast, some were so anxious about getting an invitation that they sailed into town early and anchored, waiting for word from Beistegui, heir to a silver empire. The memory of World War II hadn’t quite faded by 1951—the UK, for instance, was still subject to rationing—so the upper crust was ready to party. The costume theme for Le Bal Oriental was loose, but best described as “retro aristocrats.” Louis XIV and Cleopatra were both costume choices, but the host himself went as the “procurer of the Republic of Venice” in a bright red wig and platform boots. Everyone arrived via gondola, so that each time a new character arrived, the crowd burst into cheers.

9. GOOGLYMPUS

At this point, Google is expected to throw a great party. But the company first made social waves with its Greek-inspired “Googlympus” holiday blowout in 2006. Planners reportedly spent five days setting up tents, each “hosted” by a different Greek god, along San Francisco’s Pier 48. When the big night finally arrived, guests had all sorts of activities at their disposal. They could snap Polaroids in outrageous wigs, shoot wine corks, or crash on couches as orchestras, burlesque dancers, and jazz singers performed. And if they got lost bopping between the Aphrodite and Poseidon tents, it was no sweat: the giant inflatable whale made for a natural meeting point.

10. BLOOMBERG CHRISTMAS PARTY

In the aughts, few parties loomed as large as this notorious Bloomberg holiday bash in 2000. The London office spent an estimated £1 million on the festivities, which were inspired by the seven deadly sins. The “gluttony” bar was stocked with troughs of truffles and candy, while the “lust room” included a 25-foot-wide bed covered in purple satin. But that’s not all—according to New York magazine, the party also featured nine other bars, manicure booths, neck massage stations, live bands, drag queens, cabaret, a casino, and a sushi bar. Legend has it that the entertainers even waved cash in the guests’ faces screaming, “Money, ain’t it gorgeous?”

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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