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Consider This

By LC Van Savage

Emily And Amy

There’s a new book out now, a biography of the life of Emily Post who as everyone knows was the give-all and end-all of proper etiquette. If you wanted to set one foot out of your baronial home to mingle with the affluent well-heeled dudes and dudettes, you’d better have read Emily Post’s words of decorum first so you didn’t make an unforgivable and unforgettable gaffe, such as using your dinner fork in your salad.

When we young girls arrived at the longed-for age of eighteen, we were all given a brand new “Emily Post Etiquette; The Blue Book of Social Usage” as a gift, either the 1942 or the 1947 version. I forget. Can you imagine how much we hated getting that stupid book? Did we really care how to get a fishbone delicately out of our throats while wearing gloves, while the boys just simply hocked them out onto their plates? Can you imagine how enraged we girls were by getting that dumb book when we’d made it plainly clear we were expecting a convertible? Did the boys get brand new Emily Post books as a gift on their eighteenth birthdays? You know the answer. It’s no. They got far more important things like gold pen and pencil sets, engraved watches and trips.

I’m sorry to say I’ve lost my Emily Post book, although one can easily get another. They’re actually still for sale. And yes, they really do have their place in the world. But I do have my “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette,” given to me in the late 1950s. I guess my family thought if I had two etiquette books I’d have a leg up into the world of high society, wherever society is highest, and would maybe get down out of those trees or stop bringing home slimy biting things and forgetting I’d left them in the bathtub.

I doubt if Amy and Emily were friends because Emily was born in 1872 and Amy in 1908. I suspect Emily thought Amy was a bit of an upstart and I wonder if Amy stole a couple of howtobeproper ideas out of Emily’s book. But both women were born with platinum shovels in their mouths and were taught early on of such things as the disgrace and shame of leaving one’s spoon in one’s teacup, or casually belching at table.

I think Emily wrote sequels to her books, maybe “The Blue Book of Social Usage, Part II” or something. I often wonder how she thought she could improve upon the perfection of the first book. Unless she lightened up a little. Jeezum, talk about rigid.

Amy V. has had a couple of revised editions too, but none of them let anyone off the hook much, society-wise. You shaped up, made no mistakes, or you were an outcast, a pariah who would be dropped off invitation lists like a blob of wet pancake dough onto the kitchen floor, and the loud thunk of your faux pas would be heard everywhere by anyone who was anyone, and you would never, ever be welcomed back into that rarified atmosphere again.

My Uncle Bill used to date Amy Vanderbilt although Uncle Bill was a gasbag blowhard and had gargantuan delusions of adequacy, so it’s a little doubtful. He did however tell us some funny stories about Amy but at this point, who can check and who cares anyway? Amy and Bill have shuffled off to that great society mansion in the sky where wrong fork issues likely don’t exist because I don’t think anyone eats there anyway.

Amy’s book is incredibly funny. For example, she frowns, but only slightly, on the issue of men wearing frock coats for daytime use although allows as to how some men might prefer the less restrained cutaway unless, of course (of course!!) there is entirely too much length to his watch chain. Now mind you, this book was written in 1952. I never saw a man wearing a frock coat or even a cutaway except at fancy, boring weddings or something, but I did see men with watch chains. I recall it always being a tediously annoying production to get them to tell you what time it was.

Amy lightens up a little on the ever important issue of elbows on the table. She says it’s OK between courses, during conversation, but never ever while one eats. And she opines that one must never cut up one’s toast beneath one’s poached eggs with one’s fingers. Now come on Amy, who would do that? No one in my circle, that’s for sure. I mean really.

So many of those old niceties would result in our being stared at and laughed at if we did any of them today. Do I regret that? Sure. Those old rules were nice. Often ridiculous, sometimes with no rhyme nor reason, but still old fashioned and nice. Civilized. You knew where you stood even if you never did make it into the famous “Blue Book” (aka “The Social Register”) of the 1800s compiled by Mrs. Astor who put it together so everyone would know who the important people (aka the “first families”) were; in other words to make absolutely sure your basic parvenus, or even the not quite wealthy enough, didn’t muddy up their fine lives.

There were 400 names in that discriminatory book, because Mrs. A. could only fit 400 people comfortably into her ballroom and it simply wouldn’t do to have people of lesser stature prancing about at her famous, opulent galas. And yet everyone scrambled madly and kissed a whole lot of seriously wealthy butt to get into that little blue book, and I’ll wager their manners were pretty darned pristine whenever Mrs. Astor was nearby. It would never do for her to see one take a sip of tea without a properly protracted pinkie, since forgetting to extend that digit in Mrs. A’s presence would have ensured one’s banishment forever from those coveted pages.

Amy was a bit more loosey goosey than Emily was. For example on the subject of one and one-half year olds making a mess of their food; “Let them. To them it’s delightful.” She tells us how to handle our social secretaries, the cook and kitchen maid. (Aren’t they the same thing?) How to throw a party without a maid. (You mean that’s not how it’s done?) How to write a social letter. (Pre email of course.) How to be an agreeable wife; no coming to the breakfast table in curlers, no face cream at night, no tying up her chin(s) or wearing “oiled mittens” to bed, eeuuw, to always remember that if she shares her sleeping quarters with her husband she is “obliged to make herself an attractive roommate, not a banshee.” Odd. I’ve searched through Amy’s whole book and can’t find a chapter on, “How to be an agreeable husband.” It’s an old book; those pages probably dried up and fell out.

It’s a nouveau world now folks. I wonder if there are any social books out there on how we should behave today. There probably are. I’ll check. But there’s not much point in my reading them because I think Mongo and I have been dropped from all extant high society lists anyway. Oh well. So it goes, so it goes. It’s kind of a relief though. We can let our pinkies down now.

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