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Elizabeth Post, the doyenne-by-default of the Emily Post etiquette dynasty, died, week before last, on April 24. Her age was held to be 89, a semi-rumor that she never fully credentialed. She died in Naples, Fla., a fact with which nobody would ever dare to argue.
Elizabeth Post did not descend in direct lineage from Emily Post, that magisterial, well-born, self-invented, self-appointed source of all things proper, decorous, and acceptable. She was, in fact, a grand-daughter-in-law. (A tough spot to be caught in, if you’re part of an etiquette dynasty.)
The dicta of the initial Emily Post were almost invariably targeted at the dream world of the emerging bourgeoursie. The unwritten message, of course, was that, if you pretended to be anybody, you were intent on having “manners.”
On the other hand, if you actually were somebody, and had been born that way, you could make up your own”manners” as you drove along. You could put your fork down anywhere you pleased, and the butler would pick it up, and put it where it might most conveniently go, considering the inevitability of the course next to come.
The fascination with “proper behavior” seems to have had its birth in the Edwardian era, just around the first turn of the past century, when the classes started to mingle, when the then-Prince of Wales and his mistresses consented to dine with barristers, the lower nobility, and even the better-known theatricals. The rising middle class began to mimic that behavior and keep track of where every fork was placed, how many waistcoat buttons might be left unbuttoned, and how an unapologetic, lordly belch might be stifled behind the mask of a damask napkin. His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, never said, “Excuse me,” or “Pardon me,” of course.
The class of gentlemen who grew up around him, and who wandered about, slim in their good suits, but lost in his bulky, overwhelming shadow, spent much of their time saying “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” to people they had never met.
And thus “manners,” as we know them, were born, and Emily Post, recently divorced but immaculately credentialed, lept into the breach, decreeing where there had been no decrees before, laying down the foundations for inferiority complexes that are still be sorted out by high-school guidance counselors and board-certified psychoanalysts.
The first Mrs. Post never made her peace with the concept of a house completely lacking in servers; it was only her spin-off successor, Amy Vanderbilt, who, trading upon the cachet of her own bourgeouis married name, dealt with hostesses who might actually have to cook their own dinners and hire in people to serve them, (In the worst of circumstances, they might also have to cook and serve, both at once, depending on the husband to mix the cocktails, and if he was sober enough, to pour the wine.) A Vogue etiquette guide published in 1948, under the putative editorship of Millicent Fenwick, took the issue even farther down the slope. Ladies were even instructed in the stirring of cocktails. Single ladies were even given guidelines about entertaining, on their own, provided an available gentleman could be elbowed in to stir the Manhattans.
Elizabeth Post took on an even more treacherous task, since she was merely a grand-daughter in law. Well-bred and well-heeled, she was an interloper, nonetheless, always faced with the challenge of living up to her grandmother-in-law’s grandeur. She was a Post, but only by marriage; her genes were not fossilized. Always evolving, because she had to, almost inevitably at the behest of her editors, she took up the letter knife bravely, ditching what seemed antiquated, upgrading what might be made even more elegant, making the world a trifle more understandable for brides-to-be who have been living with their fiances for the past five-and-a-half years.
I doubt it is a task she cottoned to kindly, in every instance.
So, this evening when you are at dinner with a loved one, turn off your cell phone for at least a few minutes. In those few minutes, I trust, the soul of Elizabeth Post will know at least a modicum of peace. And her grandmother-in-law will finally approve. Or maybe not.
My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.
The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it — at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.
There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”
In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.
It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.
What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”
Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.
In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”
The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”
To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”
Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?
Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.