LC's Take: Emily and Amy

Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in Features

LC's Take: Emily and Amy

Emily Post, matriarch of what passes for good manners in the U.S.

by LC Van Savage

There’s a new-ish book out now, a biography of the life of Emily Post, who, as everyone knows, was the give-all and end-all of proper etiquette. If you wanted to set one foot out of your baronial home to mingle with the affluent dudes and dudettes, you’d better have read Emily Post’s words of decorum first so you didn’t make an unforgivable and unforgettable gaffe, such as using your dinner fork in your salad.

When we young girls arrived at the longed-for age of 18, we were all given a brand new “Emily Post's Etiquette; The Blue Book of Social Usage” as a gift, either the 1942 or the 1947 version. I forget. Can you imagine how thrilled we were getting that stupid book? Did we really care how to get a fishbone delicately out of our throats while wearing gloves, while the boys just simply hocked them out onto their plates? Can you imagine how enraged we girls were by getting that book from hell when we’d made it plainly clear we were expecting a convertible? Did the boys get brand new Emily Post books as a gift on their 18th birthdays? You know the answer. It’s no. They got far more important things like gold pen-and-pencil sets, engraved watches, and trips.

I’m sorry to say I’ve lost my original Emily Post book, although one can easily get another. They’re actually still in print. And yes, they really do have their place in the world. But I do still have my “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette,” given to me in the late 1950s. I guess my family thought if I had two etiquette books I’d have a leg up into the world of high society, wherever society is highest, and would maybe climb down out of those trees I loved, or stop bringing home pet mice and forgetting I’d left them in my sister’s dresser drawers, or collecting slimy biting things, forgetting I’d left them in the bathtub. Alas, the Misses Post and Vanderbilt have no chapters on those important issues.

I doubt if Amy and Emily were friends because Emily was born in 1872 and Amy in 1908. I suspect Emily thought Amy was a bit of an upstart and I wonder if Amy stole a couple of howtobeproper ideas out of Emily’s book. But both women were born with platinum shovels in their mouths and were taught early on of such things as the disgrace and shame of leaving one’s spoon in one’s teacup, drinking out of one’s fingerbowl, and casually belching at table.

I think Emily wrote sequels to her books, maybe “The Blue Book of Social Usage, Part II” or something. I often wonder how she thought she could improve upon the perfection of the first book. Unless she lightened up a little. Jeezum, talk about rigid. 

Amy V. has had a couple of revised editions too, but none of them let anyone off the hook much, society-wise. You shaped up, made no mistakes, or you were an outcast, a pariah who would be dropped off invitation lists like a blob of wet pancake dough onto the kitchen floor, and the loud thunk of your faux pas would be heard everywhere by anyone who was anyone, and you would never, ever be welcomed back into that rarified atmosphere again.

My Uncle Bill used to date Amy Vanderbilt although Uncle Bill was a gasbag blowhard and had gargantuan delusions of adequacy, so it’s maybe a little doubtful that he and Amy actually really spooned beneath a silvery moon. He did however tell us some funny stories about Amy but at this point, who can check and who cares anyway? Amy and Bill have shuffled off to that great society mansion in the sky where wrong-fork issues likely don’t exist because I don’t think anyone ever eats there anyway.

Amy’s book is incredibly funny. For example, she frowns, but only slightly, on the issue of men wearing frock coats for daytime use although allows as to how some men might prefer the less restrained cutaway unless, of course (of course!!) there is entirely too much length to his watch chain. (For those who don’t know, gold watch chains stretched from small vest pocket on the left to small vest pocket on the right, where it was hooked to a smart, gold pocket watch. So some gentlemen with a certain excessive avoir du pois had to have jewelers add in a few more links. Now mind you, this book was written in 1952. I never saw a man wearing a frock coat or even a cutaway except at fancy, boring weddings or something, but I did see men with watch chains. I recall it always being a tediously annoying production to get them to tell you what time it was.)

Amy lightens up a little on the ever important issue of elbows on the table. She says it’s OK between courses, during conversation, but never ever while one eats. And she opines that one must never cut up one’s toast beneath one’s poached eggs with one’s fingers. Now come on Amy, who would do that? No one in my circle, that’s for sure. I mean really.

So many of those old niceties would result in our being stared at and laughed at if we did any of them today. Do I regret that? Sure. Those old rules were nice. Often ridiculous, sometimes with no rhyme nor reason, but still old-fashioned and nice. Civilized.  You knew where you stood even if you never did make it into the famous “Blue Book” (aka “The Social Register”) of the 1800s compiled by Mrs. Astor, who put it together so everyone would know who the important people (aka the “first families”) were; in other words to make absolutely sure your basic parvenus, (those pushy newly rich folks) or even the not-quite-wealthy enough didn’t muddy up their fine lives. 

There were 400 names in that discriminatory book, because Mrs. A. could only fit 400 people comfortably into her ballroom and it simply wouldn’t do to have people of lesser stature prancing about at her famous, opulent galas. And yet everyone scrambled madly and kissed a whole lot of seriously wealthy butt to get into that little blue book, and I’ll wager their manners were pretty darned pristine whenever Lady Astor was nearby. It would never do for her to see one take a sip of tea without a properly protracted pinkie, since forgetting to extend that digit in Mrs. A’s presence would have ensured one’s banishment forever from those coveted pages.  

Amy was a bit more loosey-goosey than Emily was. For example, on the subject of 1-and-one-half-year-olds making a mess of their food: “Let them. To them it’s delightful.” She tells us how to handle our social secretaries, our cooks and kitchen maids. (Aren’t they all the same person? They are today.) How to throw a party without a maid. (You mean that’s not how it’s done?) How to write a social letter. (Pre e-mail of course.) How to be an agreeable wife, which means no coming to the breakfast table in curlers, no face cream at night, no tying up her chin(s) or wearing “oiled mittens” to bed, eeuw, to always remember that if she shares her sleeping quarters with her husband she is “obliged to make herself an attractive roommate, not a banshee.” Odd. I’ve searched through Amy’s whole book and can’t find a chapter on “How to be an agreeable husband.”  Well, it’s an old book; those pages about agreeable husbands likely dried up and fell out.

It’s a nouveau world now, folks. I wonder if there are any social books out there on how we should behave today. There probably are. I’ll check. But there’s not much point in my reading them because I think dear husband “Mongo” and I have been dropped from all extant high society lists anyway. Oh well. So it goes, so it goes. It’s kind of a relief though. We can let our pinkies down now.

Email LC at lcvansavage@newmainetimes.org. See her on MPBN, Saturday mornings at 10:30 on “incredibleMAINE.”

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