It’s not hard to see why Le Bal Oriental, Count Beistegui’s masked ball at the Palazzo Labia, which took place on September 3, 1951, is still routinely described as the Ball of the Century—not when you contemplate the remarkable event itself.
The host, “Charlie” to his host of acquaintances—he had few friends—was the heir to a galumphing Mexican silver fortune, who was born in France, educated at Eton, only visited his homeland twice in his life, and was considered highly eccentric in a period of high-profile rich eccentrics.
His townhouse on the Champs Élysées was itself considered one of Le Corbusier’s more eccentric buildings and had a roof garden designed by Salvador Dalí.
His country house outside Paris was filled with copies of famous paintings that he would often claim were the originals.
And the Palazzo Labia? It’s on the Grand Canal. And, as you pry through the voluminous archive, it’s rare to come across an allusion to the fact that the word also means the lips of the vagina. Perhaps the word was too clinical for that class at that time.
But what class was that? A thousand were invited six months in advance to allow for the creation of the elaborate costumery which had been the mainspring of such events in the pre-war years.
It also allowed time for much politicking as the uninvited gossiped and schemed.
Venice was in a ferment that year about the Beistegui Ball, wrote Clarissa Eden, wife of the British prime minister, Anthony Eden. People became frantic at not getting invitations. Some Americans arrived in their yachts and anchored at the Lido, waiting and hoping they would get to the party.
Nor was getting there a piece of cake for those based elsewhere. Folk worked hard for their pleasures back then.
It wasn’t until the following year that the Brit airline, BOAC, inaugurated the first transatlantic flight. The US gossip columnist Igor Cassini didn’t coin the phrase “Jet Set” till the mid 50s: private jets were a glimmer in nobody’s eye and the train journey from London to Venice took five days.
Moreover, in 1951 the economies in West Europe were still struggling and there was still rationing in the UK. That said, I have come across no railing against the lavish Beistegui event in the archive which is, I repeat, voluminous.
The Communist mayor of Venice was reported to be delighted and lent Beistegui two launches to transport his guests.
It was a hugely ambitious party. Beistegui’s initial thematic inspiration had been a painting in the Labia, a fresco by Tiepolo showing Antony and Cleopatra, and as party presences it was agreed that they would be represented by Baron Alfred be Cabrol and Lady Diana Cooper.
Le Bal Oriental was a throwback to the lavish Europe-based costume parties that had showcased the International Set between the war, and it was to have the magic of time capsule, preserving in photographs—such as those Cecil Beaton took for Vogue—of a lost time when in the countries of Western Europe the aristocracy truly ruled.
Indeed they were represented in force but so too were international celebrities.
Diana Cooper, for instance, was both married to Duff Cooper, the former British ambassador to Paris, and that long defunct phenomenon, a Society Beauty.
Other boldface names were the Aga Khan, who had been dressed as an Oriental potentate by the great theatrical designer, Oliver Messel, and who escorted a Princess Radziwill; and Orson Welles, whose costume had not arrived on time and who wore a curly blond wig and a tuxedo.
Others on hand included Gene Tierney, then an A-list star and—American heiresses have forever been in fashion in Europe— Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke.
Salvador Dalí dressed Christian Dior and Dior dressed Dalí, who, by all accounts, was one of the few artists there, aside from Leonor Fini.
Others from couture included Jacques Fath who came dressed as Le Roi Soleil, and Pierre Cardin, whose career was reportedly as boosted by Le Bal Oriental as that of Halston would be by Studio 54.
Carlos, or Charlie, de Beistegui, who was five foot three in actuality, wore bright red, a huge wig with resplendent curls and such high boots that he towered in full view of all.
The two widely acknowledged as the hits, though, were Diana Cooper, in a blue costume, modeled after the one Cleopatra wears in the Tiepolo, and Daisy Fellowes, a Brit society lioness, in a yellow Dior, this also modeled on one in a painting.
Fellowes, incidentally, was last year described by the Daily Mail as ‘The Most Wicked Woman in High Society.’
She did her best to seduce a married Winston Churchill and when that failed, wed his cousin. She lived on a diet of morphine and grouse, with the occasional cocktail thrown in.
The color Shocking Pink was created for her—and how she loved to shock!
Was it a terrific party? Here the records are meager. The eagle-eyed Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon, wrote: “The Palazzo Labia was so subtly lit that all the exquisite costumes the guests had slavishly created seemed colorless.
“Only Diana Cooper shone, as Cleopatra, in a sort of pageant held in the great vestibule and backed by the Tiepolo frescoes of Antony and Cleopatra. A friend and I ended up hanging out of a balcony and looking at the crowd down below looking up at us.”
There’s a pleasing concordance that the costumes that gauzy, dreamy night were designed with myth in mind, and now—so many years later—the party itself has entered into the realm of myth.