Minding Her Manners: The not-always-decorous life of Emily Post

Amanda Vaill in The Washington Post:

EMILY POST: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners By Laura Claridge

Post_2 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 Khruschchev removed his shoe and banged it on the table.” As Life magazine asked, “What Would Emily Post Have Said?” ·

More here.