Minding Her Manners

Reviewed by Amanda Vaill
Sunday, October 26, 2008


Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners

By Laura Claridge

Random House. 525 pp. $30

It takes her 410 pages to do it, but toward the end of her well-mannered biography of Emily Post, Laura Claridge finally airs some dirty -- or at least frayed -- linen. At the age of 73, she reports, the doyenne of American manners "lost her panties in the middle of Manhattan" when their elastic apparently gave out. Stepping out of the "web of lace-trimmed silk," she stuffed the unfortunate garment into her purse and proceeded on her way as if nothing had happened, later telling a journalist, self-deprecatingly, that she had "dropped her drawers on Broadway."

This anecdote makes you think that Emily Post might actually have been human, an impression reinforced a few pages later when, after breaking her ankle tumbling down an unexpected set of steps, she wryly remarked that at least "my hat was on straight the entire time!" But -- perhaps because Post's detailed journals have been lost to posterity, or because the author had limited access to her subject's personal correspondence -- Post's voice is rarely heard in this biography. Which is a pity, because when we do get to hear from her directly and informally, instead of in the judiciously phrased sentences of her advice columns or her 1922 classic, the oft-revised and still-available Etiquette, she comes alive as a person, not a personage.

Laura Claridge, the author of biographies of Norman Rockwell and the Polish Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, as well as books of literary and gender criticism, seems more interested in Post's emblematic role than in her personal one, however; she depicts a life short on incident but freighted with significance. The only child of a Baltimore-born architect and the heiress of a Pennsylvania coal baron with Mayflower ancestors, Emily Price Post epitomized at birth the nexus of breeding and entrepreneurial moxie that characterized American society in the Gilded Age. Her father, Bruce Price, moved his family to New York, where he built skyscrapers and apartment houses for the city's emergent urban plutocrats and collaborated with the tobacco mogul Pierre Lorillard IV to develop Tuxedo Park, the millionaires' enclave a few hours north of Manhattan. Her mother, meanwhile, managed the Price stock portfolio and social connections. As a girl, Claridge writes, Emily was fascinated by design and architecture, and vastly preferred her "ethereal" father, with his "formidable talent . . . unworldly magnetism and preternaturally good looks," to her "stolid" and practical mamma. This Oedipal geometry seemingly shaped Post's life. "Without ever pondering the motivation for the choices she made as an adult," Claridge writes, "Emily would set out to prove to herself, most of all, that she was a worthy heir to Bruce Price."

Although she spent the year after her society debut traipsing after her father to job sites in Canada and New England, Emily made no serious move to follow him professionally. Claridge says that the reasons are "unclear." Perhaps it was at her mother's insistence, she suggests, or "maybe Emily lacked talent." But marriage to Edwin Main Post, the scion of one of New York's old Dutch families, inadvertently opened another career path. Mr. Post turned out to be a womanizing stock speculator whose peccadilloes were exposed on the front pages when he tried to stiff a would-be blackmailer. After loyally appearing with her husband at the blackmailer's criminal trial, Emily sued for divorce and went to work to support herself and her two sons in the style to which she had become accustomed. This development "signaled, as much as personal freedom for both spouses, a new era of self-determination for unhappily married middle- and upper-class citizens," says Claridge; it also launched Emily Post as a writer.

Her first efforts were novels that transmuted her own and her friends' experiences into a kind of Edwardian chick lit. When their sales curve started heading downward, she moved into journalism, writing advice columns and -- when she acquired her first automobile in 1914 -- travel articles for Collier's magazine about a cross-country road trip. She was, Claridge points out, moving with the times, and "finding the world taking shape around her more hospitable than the one she'd inherited."

It was in part to make that world more hospitable to others that Post embarked on her magnum opus, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, in which she declared that "charm of manner . . . and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members." Despite the book's "glacial prose" and a morality-play dramatis personae that included such characters as the Toploftys, the Kindharts, Mrs. Bobo Gilding and the Richan Vulgars, Claridge argues that Etiquette's emphasis on manners over money places it in a "triumvirate of the modern moment," with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. By the 1930s it had sold over a million copies, and its author had become a brand name, with a syndicated newspaper column and radio show, all of which she had engineered on her own initiative (and often without the help of an agent). The book remained on bestseller lists through World War II and the social changes that followed; and although attempts to extend her reach to television were (in the words of her grandson and manager) "a disaster," Post's influence and activity continued well into the 1950s: The last edition of Etiquette overseen by its author was published in 1955, and the book has never gone out of print.

Much of Claridge's narrative is devoted to an examination of Post's career, and accounts of contractual negotiations -- not to mention tallies of sales and circulation figures, exegeses of revisions and lengthy quotes from reviews -- don't always make for compelling reading. Such details do, however, provide a measure of the ways in which a girl who just wanted to be a worthy heir to her father turned herself into one of the most powerful women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, according to a 1950 poll of women journalists. They also show how (as Claridge puts it) Post's Etiquette was "a cultural history of her nation."

In 1960 -- having lived through the introduction of the telephone, automobile, airplane, radio and television -- Emily Post died politely in her bed. "Just over two weeks later," Claridge tells us, "during a General Assembly meeting at the United Nations, Comrade Nikita Khrushchev removed his shoe and banged it on the table." As Life magazine asked, "What Would Emily Post Have Said?" ยท

Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins," and of the screenplay for the PBS-American Masters documentary "Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About," which airs in January.

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