- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

DAUGHTER OF THE GILDED AGE, MISTRESS OF AMERICAN MANNERS

By Laura Claridge

Random House, $30, 525 pages

REVIEWED BY MARION ELIZABETH RODGERS

Fifty years after the death of Emily Post, her book on etiquette (“Emily Post’s Etiquette”), remains one of Barnes & Noble’s best-selling books in its category. Recently, Life named Emily Post one of “The 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” During her lifetime, Emily Post ranked only second to Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most powerful women in America.

So it is only natural that there should be interest in the woman behind the manners. Laura Claridge, author of “Norman Rockwell: A Life” and “Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence” takes an enthusiastic approach to her subject, though I confess this reviewer has been left less than enthusiastic.

Was Emily Post truly such an “amazing personality” as the blurb-givers say? If so, there are not enough instances in this narrative to convince me that her personality was so exceptional as to merit a long biography.

Her father, handsome and talented Bruce Price, was an award-winning architect. His buildings included New York’s American Surety Building, still standing at the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District, and Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac. Her mother was a well-born railroad heiress, Josephine Lee. The family soon left Baltimore for New York, mingling with the Roosevelts and Astors, and - what my own imperious grandmother used to call “the Johnny-come-latelies” – the Vanderbilts and Morgans. Down to earth, Bruce and Josephine taught Emily an important value: Real quality has nothing to do with money or birth.

Statuesque and pretty, Emily triumphed as a debutante; after one party, her departing carriage looked like a florist shop. While dancing to waltzes and polkas, she captured the heart of aristocrat Edwin Main Post, from a Dutch family of impeccable pedigree, “the bluest of blood” of a certain privileged class. Soon after, the belle of the ball and the handsome Edwin married, but were unsuited for each other from the start.

We are not meant to like Edwin, nor do we. His taste in art was sophomoric; his integrity questionable; his ego swelled. He was a typically Victorian, baby-faced lout. When not playing bridge or the stock market (successfully, even during the Depression of the 1890s), he sailed his yacht or blasted his gun at every single animal or bird that moved.

The portrayal of the limited Edwin is so limiting that the reader almost shouts for joy when a terrapin escapes from its makeshift cage in the basement of the family home and sinks the sharp edge of its beak into Edwin’s leg, “unmoved by Edwin’s blood dripping onto the floor.”

Emily longed for the companionable marriage she witnessed growing up. Increasingly, she felt estranged from her husband. As for Edwin, his feelings for Emily were based on “pride of possession. He had no interest in the contents of the elegant package.” He escaped to his club, the sea and eventually into the arms of chorus girls.

When Edwin drew his decorous wife into a scandalous divorce in the summer of 1905, the lurid details were splashed across the front pages of New York papers. Humiliated, Emily never forgave him.

It was not until 22 years later, midway through the book, when Edwin drowned to death, that we are given an iota of Edwin’s side of the story. At the end of his life, he had found “a loving family that embraced his passion for the sea, a theatrical wife like the woman he’d thought he was marrying the first time around.”

And therein lies the rub. As one-dimensional Edwin has been, the reader can relate. Emily bored him.

Customs of the time were partly to blame. As an English writer noted, after marriage, young American society wives of 1898 submerged into “an almost Turkish seclusion,” the price “they were meant to pay for the financially lucrative life they had signed on for.” One suspects Emily Post, headstrong and smart, might have found more satisfaction following the career of her father - if she could have. Her book, “The Personality of a House,” published in 1930, remained one of her proudest achievements.

Even so, there is no getting away from the impression that Emily Post was a bit of a prig. She did not sail; she did not drink. (The sum of her lore about French wine was at what temperature it should be served, prompting one reader to remark that her trips to France must have been a waste.) Endlessly she dragged her husband to museums, to lecture him on art and architecture.

Emily might have drawn more sympathy had the reader been given actual quotes from her diary or correspondence. When her voice is heard at last, it is from a trip across the country from New York to California. A series of mundane observations are cast off as gems: Of “splendid-looking cows, horses, houses” and “crepes suzette, which were delicious.” The prose of Emily Post’s now forgettable novels, when actually quoted, does not fare much better. As a popular society author of the time, Emily Post was invited to dinners with Mark Twain and Edith Wharton - but what either made of the other, there is no mention.

As a young woman, Emily Post was good at impersonations, which “guaranteed she was popular at dinner parties, where she relished the sway she held over her… audiences with the monologues she supposedly made up on the spot,” though it is likely she practiced in advance. She also played the banjo. Other than these monumental talents, what was there to recommend her as a person? The author assures us that, on some level, Emily Post recognized the racism and bigotry of Gilded Age New York. Elsewhere, one learns that Amos ‘n’ Andy is “Emily’s favorite comedy.” Much is said of Emily’s kindness and generosity toward others. She is the founder of the Author’s League, raising funds and negotiating contracts, but what blatantly shines forth is how, in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, the agent who had successfully negotiated her syndicated column was callously cut off from any percentage of her earnings.

Where Ms. Claridge excels is in giving us a picture of the social mores, customs and vulgar excess of the Gilded Age. Manhattan of the 1890s was a place where those of a certain class and massive fortunes could enjoy luxuries as fine as that of Paris and St. Petersburg. We can visualize the ruffled silk and satin dresses at Emily’s debut in 1889, feel that we are partaking of the catered events at Delmonico’s or tasting the terrapin, canvasback duck and oysters at the lavish seven-course society dinners (New York alone was consuming a million oysters each day). The author’s ability to paint the social history of the era without excessive detail is carried over into the 1920s, when “Etiquette” appeared in its tiny first print run, when the country was at its wildest; and into the1930s, when Post’s hugely successful radio show made her a popular media personality and an institution.

For all my reservations, there is no denying that Emily Post was a revolutionary of sorts. Despite a coddled, aristocratic upbringing, she was a hard worker and an advocate for immigrants and the middle class, advising them on the best way to get ahead. Whether purposely or not, “Etiquette” equalized society and helped level the playing field.

One wonders what Emily Post would make of manners today. Would she care that few children know which fork to use at the table, let alone the proper way to hold one? She would be more horrified at the rudeness currently on display. Sadly, harassed baby-boomers who cannot teach their children the bare rudiments of civility may have to turn to the computer for instruction. Although people still buy books, fewer younger ones are actually reading.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” recently out in paperback.

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