'She must not swing her arms as though they were dangling ropes," Emily Post wrote about a young bride in one of the ubiquitous editions of her etiquette books. "She must not shout; and she must not, while wearing her bridal veil, smoke a cigarette."
It is something of a surprise nearly 50 years after Emily Post's death to be reminded that there was a 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. An exhaustive researcher, Claridge, the author of biographies of Norman Rockwell and painter Tamara de Lempicka, provides beguiling new details about the taxonomies that governed Post's life. Claridge has situated her within the context of the fast-changing customs at the beginning of the 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 syndicated 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.
To the manner born
Born in 1872, Emily was tall, pretty and spoiled. Her father, architect Bruce Price, designed Tuxedo Park, the wealthy New York suburb. She grew up in a world of grand estates, her life governed by carefully delineated rituals such as the cotillion with its complex forms and its dances -- the Fan, the Ladies Mocked, Mother Goose -- called out in dizzying turns by the dance master.
In 1892 Emily married Edwin Main Post, a banker. They had two sons, but Edwin spent his time dallying with actresses or slaughtering ducks from his yacht. As a refuge, Emily wrote novels, including "The Flight of a Moth," about an unhappy marriage.
Thirteen years into Emily's 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 in cash or be exposed as a philanderer. Edwin refused. Emily stood by her man, but the result was public embarrassment, and eventually the couple divorced.
After the marriage ended, Claridge writes, Post rarely mentioned Edwin but always set an extra place at the table for an unnamed guest. She seems never to have had another sexual relationship with a man and grew dependent on her paid female companion.
Post published her first etiquette book when she was 50. Such books had always been popular in America: The country's exotic mix of immigrants and newly rich were eager to fit in with the establishment. Men had to be taught not to blow their noses into their hands or spit tobacco onto ladies' backs.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, who wrote "Learning How to Behave: A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books" in 1946, said that etiquette books were part of "the leveling-up process of democracy," an attempt to resolve the conflict between the democratic ideal and the reality of class.
But Post's etiquette books went far beyond those of her predecessors. They read like short-story collections with recurring characters, the Toploftys, the Eminents, the Richan Vulgars, the Gildings and the Kindharts.
The well-run household had three servants minimum, "a cook, a butler (or waitress) and a housemaid," Post decreed. "At the Gildings for instance, the chef writes in his 'book' every evening, the menus for the next day" and sends it up to lucky Mrs. Gilding with her breakfast tray.
Post scorned social climbers like Parvenu, who boasted of dining at the Gildings, of "'spending last week-end with the Richan Vulgars,' or 'My great friends, the Gotta Crusts.'" She warned that a girl without a chaperone is like "an unarmed traveler walking alone among wolves." And why, one wonders, this dictum: a lady is always seated in the back of a car to the right of the gentleman. "A lady 'on the left' is NOT a 'lady.'"
Post dictated her books in a fluttery voice while lying in bed and made her first appearance of the day downstairs for lunch. 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). Mrs. Three-in-One was able to give a dinner party for the Toploftys, the Gildings and the Worldlys, and all were delighted by her ingenuity.
In 1927 the 1922 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 girls over 18 could go out with men unchaperoned and have dinner in their apartments. They could also smoke.
Initially Post was not convinced that women should vote, but she later apologized for her retrograde attitudes. She also criticized the Social Register for including the name of the African-American wife of a Rhinelander because the couple was guilty of miscegenation.
Claridge argues that the heart of Post's philosophy was kindness. As Post wrote 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 that 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.