Azra Raza reviews Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge
Laura Claridge’s enormously enjoyable, carefully researched, exhaustively annotated, insightful and engaging biography Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of Manners, made two points very clear to me; first, from birth to death, we humans need constant guidance about how to behave, and second, minding our manners can overcome even some of our most glaring deficiencies. What is fascinating about the story of Post is how startlingly fresh the message of her little blue book, Etiquette, has remained since its first appearance in 1922 (Ms. Claridge points out that “the French word for ticket, used to remind citizens to distinguish between private and public space, was actually the source of the English word etiquette”) and how universal its relevance, transcending race and nationality. One review of Etiquette when it was first published began with Mathew Arnold’s statement “Conduct is three-fourths of life.” As Ms. Claridge puts it succinctly, “The subject hardly mattered: funerals or flower arrangements, broken hearts or broken glasses, Emily held her audience in esteem, and she meant to teach her readers, would-be “Best People,” whatever their background, race or creed, to do likewise.” For deep down, the real meaning of manners, according to Ms. Post, is a demonstration of sensitivity to the feelings of others. “Best Society is not a fellowship, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth, but it is an association of gentle-folk [in which] charm of manner…..and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.”
In 2002, my husband Harvey Preisler died. The aftermath was my own painful awakening to the woeful lack of even rudimentary knowledge about the correct or polite way to behave among the most well meaning friends and family members who came forward to offer their condolences. For example, one female friend, while crying her eyes out, (precisely the wrong thing to do, per Ms. Post) began by offering to take me out to a single’s bar. A surprisingly recurring comment, also meant to be well-meaning, but one which left me baffled about how to respond, was, “Sorry to hear Harvey died, but you are looking well!” Perhaps the most patently absurd was a message left on my answering machine by a colleague saying how sorry she was that my husband was dead, but, “Don’t worry, you will join him soon and then the two of you can live happily ever after in heaven.” I remember distinctly, the evening when I was getting ready for Harvey’s memorial service, just a little over 24 hours after his death. I picked up my wedding band and looked to my sisters for guidance, “Should I still wear this?” “Yes!” As Ms. Claridge writes, “Only Emily Post understood the power of routine to hold one’s raw emotions at bay.” No wonder Etiquette was “second only to the Bible as the book most often stolen from public libraries.” Post counseled the bereaved wisely in these words, “At no time does solemnity so posses our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.”
A testament to Ms. Claridge’s own extraordinary sensitivity is her careful recounting of the comfort Joan Didion derived from re-reading Post’s Etiquette when dealing with her own private grief. This is how Ms. Claridge describes it: “Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking identifies explicitly with Emily’s words about mourning. The unlikely pairing of Didion and Post was cited often in the impressive array of reviews showered on the bestseller, a winner of the National Book Award and a runner-up for the Pulitzer. Many journalists couldn’t understand why someone as edgy and postmodern as Didion chose Etiquette to succor her. Didion explained: she had been taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” and so she pursued everything she could find about death’s anguish: memoirs, novels, how-to books, inspirational tomes, The Merck Manual, ‘Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it,’ Didion says. The one thing that spoke to her, finally, was the “Funerals” Chapter in Emily Post’s blue book on etiquette. Only Emily Post understood the power of routine to hold one’s raw emotions at bay. Only Emily Post made suffering bearable.”
Ms. Claridge points out that “Ten years before she died, Emily Post would rank second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in a Pageant magazine list of the mid-century’s most powerful women in America, in which 272 women journalists judged the influence of the country’s prominent females.”
In keeping with the style and tradition of her previous two brilliant biographies, Tamara de Lempicka and Norman Rockwell, in Emily Post, Ms. Claridge once again provides the reader with invaluable lessons in the traditions and customs of a bygone age by painstakingly reconstructing the evolving historical landscape and the cultural context surrounding her subject. Daughter of the famous architect Bruce Price and Josephine Lee (whose father “Washington Lee possessed a post-war fortune in need of spending”), Emily Post had an enchanted childhood in the type of New York high society graphically portrayed by her contemporary writer Edith Wharton. One of my favorites, also an example of Ms. Claridge’s scrupulous research and attention to detail, is the section where she describes Emily’s association with the Statue of Liberty through her beloved “Uncle Frank” (Frank Hopkinson Smith). “Miss Liberty was a gift from the French government meant to stick in the British craw upon America’s centennial. Her arm and torch had been displayed in Madison Square Park, at Twenty-fourth Street, since 1876, the next seven years spent in a national campaign to finance the statue’s foundations. Now, the construction funded at last, Uncle Frank was the man of the hour. Almost daily it seemed, Hop Smith’s name appeared conspicuously in the city newspapers, as if he were as important as Liberty herself, whose concrete support would cost the government $8.94 per cubic yard. The end of the nineteenth century was an era of numbers, an age devoted to codifying and classifying, calculations were next to godliness. Expenses were meticulously detailed for the public: Frank Smith’s base required $51,000 to $52,000. To be made of concrete composed of sand, cement, and broken stones, it would measure 93 feet square at the bottom and 70 at the top and stand 48 feet, 8 inches high. The pedestal, rising to an altitude of 112 feet, would require a platform 67 feet square at the base and 40 at the top. Reciting the numbers reinforced the statue’s significance: Who would have thought so many layers compiled the Statue of Liberty’s foundation?” “While the statue’s foundation took form, Emily was allowed to explore the cavernous secret rooms in the monument’s hollow interior.”
Ms. Claridge’s detailed account of Post’s work routines which continued literally to her dying days, and her ability to adapt to the shifting times is nothing short of inspiring. Living through the Great Depression, stock market crashes, two World Wars, the tragic loss of a brilliant father, a philandering husband and a beloved son in the prime of his life, Ms. Claridge establishes beyond a shadow of doubt that Emily Post’s one powerful anchor continued to be her exceptional dedication to work. “When her son died, Emily lost her bearings. Her suffering alternately numbed and roiled her for months, and then she fought to find her way back. From the few accounts of this period, Emily’s ability to carry on depended upon her filling every moment of her day. From developing her garden skills, to working crossword puzzles, to writing, to creating intricate models for her friends’ architects: she wanted no time to reflect.” And further down, Ms. Claridge perceptively points out, “Shrewdly, she figured out a way to keep her loss at bay while staying connected to those she had loved: through writing a textbook on architecture, she would instruct others on the Bruce tradition” (both father and son were named Bruce).
It is this astonishing strength that only a few outstanding individuals among us manage to display in times of extreme crises that separates the extraordinary from the ordinary. And it is in this context, above everything else, that Emily Post reminds me most of none other than Ms. Claridge. While this remarkable writer was working on the Post biography, she was diagnosed with a particularly lethal form of brain tumor with little chance of survival beyond a few months. Despite the bleakest of outlooks, (at one point, her ICU physician called me to request that I counsel the family to “let nature take its course with Laura now”), Ms. Claridge not only defied all odds by surviving, she restarted her work on the book in a miraculously short period of time after her surgery. Even as her brain was being regularly assaulted by the insults of radiation and chemotherapy, Ms. Claridge found her own grounding in meticulously researching and recounting another great woman’s life story. The book Emily Post, recognized early for its merit through Harvard’s Neumann Foundation and cash award, is not only a fantastic personal achievement for Ms. Claridge, it also stands as the finest testament to the indomitable sublimity of the human spirit. Both Post and Claridge transmuted tragedy into constructive pursuits, thereby representing the best of good behavior in good times and bad.
Bravo Ms. Post. Long Live Ms. Claridge.
(Picture shows from left: Margit Oberrauch, Sughra Raza, Abbas Raza, Laura Claridge and Azra Raza).