10 of History’s Most Lavish Parties
By Kristin Hunt
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
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.
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 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?”