EMILY POST: DAUGHTER
OF THE GILDED AGE, MISTRESS OF AMERICAN MANNERS
By Laura Claridge. Random House. 525pages. $30.
It is something of a surprise nearly 50 years after Emily Post's death to be reminded of the real person behind the name that has become synonymous with good manners. And it is to Laura Claridge's credit that she has written the first full biography of Post.
Claridge has provided beguiling details about the taxonomies that governed Post's life. Claridge has situated her in the context of the fast-changing customs of the early 20th century, when she exerted her greatest power.
Emily Post's first etiquette book, published in 1922, went through 10 editions and was in its 89th printing when she died in 1960. Her columns appeared in 160 newspapers, she received 3,000 letters a week seeking advice and had a thrice-weekly radio program. In 1950, Pageant magazine named her the second most powerful woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. “Emily Post's Etiquette” is still in print, updated by Peggy Post, her great-granddaughter-in-law.
Born in 1872, Emily was tall, pretty and spoiled. She grew up in a world of grand estates, her life governed by rituals like the cotillion.
In 1892 Emily married Edwin Post, a banker. They had two sons; Edwin spent his time dallying with actresses or slaughtering ducks from his yacht. Thirteen years into her unhappy marriage, Edwin received a demand from an emissary of Col. William D'Alton Mann, publisher of the gossip sheet Town Topics, to pay $500 or be exposed as a philanderer. Edwin refused. Emily stood by her man, but the result was public embarrassment.
After the divorce, Claridge writes, Post rarely mentioned Edwin, though she always set an extra place at the table for an unnamed guest.
Post published her first etiquette book when she was 50. Such books had always been popular; the country's mix of immigrants and newly rich were eager to fit in. Men had to be taught not to blow their noses into their hands or to spit tobacco onto ladies' backs.
Post scorned social climbers, and warned that a girl without a chaperone is like “an unarmed traveler walking alone among wolves.”
By the second edition of “Etiquette” (1927), she had to acknowledge that not everyone had servants. Hence was born “Mrs. Three-in-One,” who did everything: cook, waitress, hostess (though she had a kitchen helper). And the chapter on “The Chaperone and Other Conventions” was replaced with “The Vanishing Chaperone and Other Lost Conventions,” which gave way eventually to “The Vanished Chaperone.” Men no longer had to pay the check; unmarried women over 18 could go out with men unchaperoned and have dinner in their apartments. They could also smoke.
Claridge argues that the heart of Post's philosophy was kindness.
As Post writes in the 1922 edition, the “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials.”
Well, nothing wrong with that. She says Post even claimed to dislike the word “etiquette,” because it conveyed a high-toned attitude.
Propping your elbows on the table at dinner? “It really makes no difference,” said Emily Post.