Emily Post Biography Shows Manners Are Relevant

By Wilson, Craig | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Emily Post Biography Shows Manners Are Relevant


Wilson, Craig, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Emily Post has been dead nearly half a century. Many believe good manners died right along with the woman who gave us the ultimate book on etiquette in 1922.

But would she be shocked by the boorish behavior -- from rampant cell-phone abuse to undie-less celebrities -- we see around us today?

"No," says Peggy Post, her great-granddaughter-in-law. "She'd be fascinated."

The matriarch of American manners is getting another spin around the dance floor this month, thanks to a major new biography, and the story of her life is full of surprises. Emily Post wasn't as much a stickler for using the correct piece of silverware as you might think. She was a practical gal, right down to pickin' on the banjo.

"Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners" by Laura Claridge (Random House, $30, 501 pages) is an eight-years-in-the-making look at the woman who remains famous for helping Americans -- millions of them immigrants --navigate society.

"Good manners are all about being considerate," says Peggy Post, a director at the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., who updated the 17th edition of "Etiquette" (HarperCollins, $39.95, 847 pages). "Emily recognized the world is a constantly changing place and that we need guidelines. Things haven't changed that much" from her day.

Claridge's biography chronicles Post's life from birth into high- society Baltimore in 1872 to her death in 1960. The New York Times carried her obituary on the front page.

In between, she married and moved to New York, only to find herself in a scandalous divorce from society husband Edwin Post, a man with an eye for "comely" actresses. Police stings and bribes became part of the story, which kept the tabloids busy for months, much to Post's horror.

She became a not-terribly-successful novelist (her most ambitious, the melodramatic romance "The Eagle's Feather," received "tepid" praise) who hung out with the likes of Mark Twain. She was invited to his 70th birthday party at Delmonico's, an evening that included five hours of speeches.

It was only in middle age that Post emerged as a manners maven. The Vanity Fair editor who encouraged her to write "Etiquette" saw in Post "a hybrid perfect for the age, a woman proud of her past even as she sought to be part of the future," Claridge says.

And 48 years after her death, Post seems as pertinent as ever. P.M. Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude "(St. Martin's Press, $19.95), is a disciple.

"I have tried to show that manners are not primarily about which fork to choose for the salad, but about how we treat one another in everyday life," Forni says. "That was what Emily Post believed and what makes her message still relevant today."

In 2008 at the Emily Post Institute, the five directors spend much of their time on the road at workshops, sharing practical etiquette with everyone from teens to businessmen. Peter Post, Emily's great-grandson, even offers tips for the fairway in his new book, "Playing Through: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf "(HarperCollins, $19.95).

"Etiquette is such a funny topic," Peggy Post says. "Even in Emily's day, everyone thought everyone was rude. It just seems more in the spotlight today."

Perhaps one reason Emily Post has survived into the more casual 21st century is that she was not a snob.

Claridge, who wrote a definitive biography about another American icon, Norman Rockwell, calls Post "a domestic anthropologist," a woman who often was mistaken for a white-gloved priss.

The most irritated Post would get would be when a book critic would suggest that " "Miss Post has her pinkie finger up in the air again.

"And she'd say, "I never, ever hold my pinkie up in the air!' " Claridge says.

During her research, Claridge discovered that "Etiquette" -- there have been 17 editions since 1922, the most recent in 2004 -- is the most stolen book from public libraries next to the Bible. …

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