When we think of history, we think of unending periods of plagues, wars and general misery. While that’s an absolutely accurate assumption – as our species has gone through its fair share of horrors in the past – we forget that between all those bad times, we’ve also had some great, even if rare, moments of celebration and merrymaking.
Of course, it’d be impossible to list out every one of them here, though we can definitely pick the best of them. In the spirit of reminding everyone that humans are as good at partying and having a good time as all the other bad stuff, we count down the 10 best parties ever thrown in history.
10. Andrew Jackson’s Inauguration
The ouster of John Quincy Adams as the president of the USA was a momentous occasion in US political history, given the contentious circumstances surrounding his victory in 1824 – also called the ‘corrupt bargain’ by historians and analysts.
That was corrected by the voters in the elections of 1929 by overwhelmingly voting for Jackson. To commemorate it, he invited everyone for an open house at the White House, and before anyone knew it, it turned out to be one of the biggest parties in history.
By some estimates, close to 20,000 people showed up in what could be described as a triumph of democracy over political corruption, as commoners got drunk along with other politicians and bureaucrats on the White House premises. As you’d expect, things soon got out of control – as is customary with any great party – though historians have since clarified that it was just because everyone was drunk and having a great time, and not because Jackson had encouraged the party to turn into a mob and was thus unfit to rule, as many of his political opponents claimed at the time.
9. The Congress Of Vienna
While many people reading this may have mixed feelings about the defeat and exile of Napoleon Bonaparte at the hands of a coalition of other European powers during the Napoleonic Wars, the aristocracy and nobility of those countries were unanimous in their approval of it. To decide on what to do next, they organized the Congress of Vienna in October 1814. Before they could get to that, though, it was time to celebrate.
By all accounts, it was a party to behold. This congregation of some of the richest people from across Europe raised the population of Vienna by a third, which included two emperors, three kings, 11 princes and 90 ambassadors, along with their staff. While it was meant to be a short affair, the party went on for close to nine months, which included guests travelling around the city in around 300 lavish carriages arranged by the Austrian emperor, as they attended a seemingly-unending list of events like banquets, jousts and boar hunts. The author and historian David King even called it the “greatest and most lavish party in history”, which he must have believed in as he wrote an entire book on the whole thing called Vienna, 1814.
8. Sultan Of Brunei’s 50th Birthday Bash
Even if most of us may not know about Hassanal Bolkiah (the current Sultan of Brunei; one of the last surviving absolute monarchies in the world), his 50th birthday remains one of the biggest, most expensive parties ever thrown. Lasting for close to two weeks and spread out in venues across the entire country, the entire thing cost the royal coffers around $27 million, which is a lot even in the company of some of the other ridiculously-expensive parties on this list.
Out of that $27 million, $17 million was paid to Michael Jackson for an exclusive concert in a stadium built just for that purpose, which was attended by around 60,000 people. It also included a giant – to say the least – grand finale dinner party inside his 1,778-room palace, attended by around 3,000 of his most esteemed guests. Michael Jackson played another, more intimate set at this one, too, and all the guests went back home with custom-made gold medals of their own as a return gift.
This giant, nation-wide party was attended by celebrities and royalty from around the world, though we still don’t have the full list of exactly who all was there as most of the events were strictly private affairs.
7. The Winter Ball Of 1903
The Russian revolution was an undoubtedly brutal event, as it violently ended one of the longest surviving royal bloodlines of Europe. It was also quite understandable. For decades, while the rest of the country went through war, poverty and other hardships, the Tsar and his family lived lives of excessive extravagance, to put it mildly.
A great example of that would be the Winter Ball of 1903, just two years before the revolution of 1905. While it was definitely ill-timed, what it certainly wasn’t was drab. Often referred to as one of the most opulent costume parties ever thrown, the ball was meant to mark the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. The theme was the 17th century, meant to recreate the glory years of Alexei Mikhailovich – the second tsar of Russia.
For all the 390 guests from the top echelons of the Russian aristocracy that were invited to the event, the costumes – each costing over ten million dollars at the time – were designed by the artist Sergey Solomko, along with historians hired just to make sure that they were true to the time period.
The festivities were spread out over two days, starting on February 11 with opera and ballet performances at the Hermitage Theater by some of the top artists in Russia at the time. It ended with a lavish dinner, and the next day was spent entirely in preparation for the ball of February 13 – the day of the costume party. As you can guess, it was an equally extravagant event – clear from the outrageously dressed-up members of the royalty seen in the pictures that still inspire artists and set designers to this day.
What none of them knew, however, was that this would be the last party thrown – or even attended – by the Tsar and Tsarina. Russia would be drawn into a war with Japan only the next year, triggering a massive worker’s revolt and the brutal response to it by the imperial forces in 1905. While they managed to quell the rebellion by passing some reforms, it would do little to change the course of history. The Tsar, his family and almost everyone who attended the party would be eventually killed or imprisoned in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
6. The Original Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is perhaps the largest beer festival in the world. Held every year in the city of Munich, it attracts millions of enthusiasts from around the world for two weeks of partying and drinking, even if most of them may not know about its exact origins.
The first Oktoberfest was actually held to commemorate the wedding of the Bavarian crown prince Ludwig – later King Louis I – with Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen back in 1810. According to accounts from the time, the entire city of Munich was lit up for the occasion, and everyone in Bavaria was invited.
Starting on October 12, the festivities included five days of close to 40,000 people from across the Bavarian provinces – along with the nobility – partying at venues spread out across the city. It took months of prior preparation to arrange, as businessmen from around Munich scrambled to install the most lavish installations at their homes to mark the event. The top 6,000 of the guests were entertained at four of the top restaurants in the city, and all in all, around 32,000 buns, 3,992 pounds of cheese, 900 pounds of mutton and 13,000 pairs of smoked sausages were consumed over five days, along with about 23,000 liters of beer.
It ended with a horse race, and the whole thing turned out to be so successful that it has since been organized annually around the same period every year, except at a much larger scale, for two weeks instead of just five days, and many more features added to the festivities over the centuries.
5. The Rothschild Surrealist Ball
Even if the Rothschild family may be perhaps the single wealthiest family in history, the Surrealist Ball of 1972 proves that they didn’t just rely on that to make their parties successful. Hosted by Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and her husband at the Chateau de Ferrières – one of the largest nineteenth century chateaus in France – the party has since acquired an almost mythical status due to its extensive preparation, weird installations and attention to detail.
True to the name, the ball had everything you’d expect from a ‘surrealist’ party. It was held at the Chateau de Ferrières – one of the largest and most lavishly-done up properties in France at the time. The guest list included the who’s who of the European and American elite, including Salvadore Dali – who designed the whole thing – and Audrey Hepburn.
For the occasion, the entire chateau was lit up in red in a way that made it seem like it was on fire. All the guests were asked to dress up in ‘black tie, long dresses & surrealist heads’, which probably explains all the weird headpieces seen in the recently-released set of photographs of the event. They were all greeted by butlers that were dressed up as – and occasionally behaving like – cats. If that’s not surrealist enough, the plates were all covered in fur, forks were replaced by fish skeletons, and food was served on a mannequin of a dead body to complete the look.
While it may sound a bit weird – and it was – the party itself was a success, and is still remembered as one of the best events organized by Marie-Hélène, which is saying a lot as she was known for her imaginative parties.
4. Truman Capote’s Masked Ball
While the masked ball hosted by Truman Capote in 1966 wasn’t a particularly costly affair – especially compared to some of the other entries on this list – it would still go down in history as one of the most successful parties ever thrown. Just on the heels of the publication of his latest novel earlier that year – In Cold Blood, which would turn out to be a literary classic – the ball was attended by a strictly curated list of 540 guests. That included people from across the spectrum, from First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, visual artist Andy Warhol, and Frank Sinatra with his wife Mia Farrow, to everyday folks from the small Kansas town where he researched his book to one of the hotel’s doormen.
The whole thing cost him about $16,000 – around $120,000 in today’s dollars – though that was because of his relatively simple taste in decorations. If anything, it proved that you don’t need lavish installations and an excessively huge menu to make a party a success. The masked ball was covered by almost every major newspaper and magazine in the country at the time, as well as inspired countless other parties with a similar theme in New York in the years and decades to come.
3. V-J (Victory Over Japan) Day
There’s no doubt that the Second World War was by far the largest and most destructive conflict in human history. When it came to an end in 1945, it was clear that the road to rebuilding the new world going forward would be difficult, though almost everyone on the victorious side was clear about one thing – it was time to party.
After Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, the major allied nations of the US, UK, and Australia announced two days of national holidays to mark the event. As you’d expect, millions of people thronged the streets for an almost continuous 48-hours of dancing and drinking – even Queen Elizabeth was seen mingling with the crowds outside Buckingham Palace.
2. The 2.500th Anniversary Of The First Persian Empire
The beginning of the 1970s weren’t a great time for everyday Iranians. The massive wealth generated by the oil boom of the ’70s did almost nothing to alleviate the daily problems of the citizens, as a majority of it went directly to the Shah – Mohammad Reza Shah. Inflation and poverty were on the rise, and with them, the first winds of the revolution that would ultimately dethrone him in 1979.
That, however, didn’t stop the Shah from organizing perhaps the most extravagant party ever thrown in history. Organized in 1971 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the first Persian empire, it was held in a massive tent city in the desert built just for it. While it cost the taxpayers a total of $165 million, the guest list didn’t include most Iranians. In fact, ordinary citizens weren’t allowed within miles of the city, as it was only meant for heads of state, celebrities, sheikhs and other rich businessmen favored by the Shah.
The whole thing was designed by Maison Jansen – one of France’s most elite interior design houses – as each of the 50 tents had their own marble-tiled bathrooms and top-of-the-line Persian carpets for decor. The dining arrangement was entirely organized by Maxim’s in Paris, considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the world at the time – and the menu included over eighteen tons of food flown in from across the world.
1. Edward Russell’s Punch Party
Edward Russell was an Admiral in the British fleet known for his anti-piracy operations back in the 17th and 18th centuries, though we’re not here to discuss his military achievements. He has earned his place on the top of this list for hosting perhaps the largest cocktail party in history, as well as the largest cocktail.
Held in Alicante, Spain with over 6,000 people – where he was stationed at the time – the guests included his junior officers and other members of the crew, along with residents of the town that were lucky enough to crash it. The preparations included around 800 servers and 150 different dishes, though the main attraction was a local fountain that was flooded with an alcoholic concoction of epic, historical proportions – around 250 gallons of brandy, 125 gallons of wine, 1,400 pounds of sugar, 2,500 lemons, 20 gallons of lime juice, and five pounds of nutmeg – making it perhaps the largest cocktail ever made. It was so humongous that the bartenders hired to serve it had to actually use a canoe to paddle around and serve from it, working in 15-minute shifts so as to not pass out from the fumes. The party officially went on for close to a week, though the celebrations weren’t technically over until the fountain was fully drained out.