EMILY POST: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners. By Laura Claridge. Random House, New York, N.Y. October 2008. 544 pages. $30 hardcover.
Emily Post Props Her Elbows On The Table. A bulletin such as this one could make the newspapers or the radio news anytime between 1922, when the grande dame of manners’ first edition of Etiquette was published, all the way through the last edition supervised by her personally in 1955 (she died in 1960). Emily Post was so integral to the constantly changing culture of 20th century America, that her name stood in for personal conduct the way Pavlov did for conditioned response or Freud for the unconscious.
The Vineyard, of course, has laid claim to Emily Post for the decades of summers spent at her dwelling on Fuller street in Edgartown, a cottage renowned both for housing her and for its summer snowdrifts of flowers starring shoulder-high dahlias. Now a sweeping biography of this seminal figure has been released: Emily Post, Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, by Laura Claridge, Random House, $30.
The 544-page book is a lap-crusher, to be sure, but Ms. Claridge assumes the mighty task of presenting a full survey of her subject in the continuously evolving context of her times — and, in her latter decades, her outsized influence on them — from her Baltimore birth in 1872 “in the mix of frothiness and gloom of the decade after the Civil War,” through her family’s immersion in the upper crust of The Gilded Age when manners served to insulate so-called Best Society from the nouveaux riche, through all the tumult of wars and cultural shifts of the first half of our last century. (Interestingly, our younger generations in their 20s and 30s are only vaguely aware of Emily Post, if they’ve heard of her at all, unlike all of us who are older, for whom the very name once reminded you to sit up straighter and to recall how to properly introduce your grandmother to your ballet teacher.)
At this particular frightening moment in time when all of us have essentially stopped breathing until we see how bad the economy is going to get, this book has an almost unintended value of demonstrating that we’ve been here before, many times, most notably in the depression following the Civil War, and during another serious crisis in the 1890s (ironically the time when the robber barons made their biggest killings, untaxed!, and spent the most extravagant amounts), through the most painful economic events of all, starting with the stock market crash of 1929, and extending into most of the 1930s. This is life, we need to be reminded, with its ups and downs and electrifying impermanence.
Emily (as the author calls her subject throughout the book, thus so should we), inherited pedigree spiraling all the way back to John and Priscilla Alden of the Mayflower, money from her maternal grandfather who enriched himself in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, and cachet from her father, Bruce Price, one of the major architects of the last part of the 19th century (among his monuments still standing are the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, the American Surety Building on Wall Street, and the original aristocrats’ wonderland, Tuxedo Park, north of Manhattan.)
Although born to privilege, Emily at the youngest age displayed a hard-core of ambition to succeed on her own terms. Her father, whom she idolized, often took her to his building sites, lamenting that his only child wasn’t a son able to follow in his footsteps. Nonetheless Emily, although her debutante days and early marriage precluded college, steeped herself so thoroughly in her father’s art that, in her later years, she designed the nine-story building on East 79th Street where she lived for her last several decades, in addition to writing a best-selling book about architecture, The Personality of a Home.
Her early adult life crashed and burned in a hopeless marriage and a divorce marred by scandal. Left with two boys and reduced bank accounts (her husband, Edwin Post, lost two of his wife’s inherited fortunes on bad business wagers), she came to the fore as a published novelist and interior decorator (not to mention that her wealthy mother remained on hand to keep the young mother in a butler, a driver, a cook and at least one live-in maid).
Emily’s first novels displayed far less literary texture than those of her colleague in letters and high society, Edith Wharton, so she was susceptible to a publisher’s plea, in 1920, to write a definitive book on modern manners. Published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1922, Etiquette, in Society, in Business, in Politics and Home was an instantaneous bestseller, as it continued to be through all its printings. The divorced socialite was, Ms. Claridge writes, “a perfect hybrid for the age, a woman proud of her past even as she sought to be part of the future.” So many varied tiers of the social order jockeyed for the next rung up the ladder -- from the newly rich who hoped to land in the drawing rooms of old money snobs, to the growing middle classes striving for greater gentility, to the waves of immigrants desperate to adapt to American culture.
For those who never read any of the editions of Etiquette, the name Emily Post was synonymous with manners at their most rigid, from the proper fork to use to the correct deployment of the finger bowl. In actuality, the doyenne of social customs used to swear in her syndicated columns, radio shows, and in interviews, “I don’t care what fork you use!” Her emphasis was on tact, kindness and the smooth and gentle flow of relations between all people at all times; combining, in other words, ethics with etiquette. It was anathema to her for anyone to speak pretentiously or to conduct business with any suggestion of entitlement. Servants in particular were to be treated with compassion and generosity. “If the servants aren’t happy, the family isn’t happy,” she decreed.
Emily Post’s first season in her white clapboard, green-shuttered Edgartown house, purchased in 1927, was conceived in tragedy. Her younger son, Bruce, at 32 having finally found himself as a budding architect with a good firm, was engaged by his mother to help her refurbish her 1828 cottage. Then in New York in February, a sudden stomach ache resulted in Bruce being rushed to the hospital where he died of a ruptured appendix.
His mother worked out her grief by turning obsessively to her Edgartown garden. Always a compulsive list maker, she began an intensively catalogued account of each flower, shrub and fertilizing agent for every square inch of soil. Many letters a week went back and forth between the nascent gardener and her seed grower in Philadelphia, Henry Dreer, who had undoubtedly never been treated to so overpowering and precise a correspondence from a single customer. The resplendent results made Emily Post’s house a destination of pilgrimage for the ages.
Ms. Claridge, who lives in Hudson, N.Y., has written a biography of special interest to Vineyarders who understand the arc of a life that finds its richest and most satisfying expression here on the Island. Emily Post died in New York, but clearly a large part of her spirit and legacy still hovers over her cottage and garden on Fuller street. Her heirs thought so too, although the house finally changed hands out of the family in 2001.
A profusion of flowers remains.
Author Offers Book Talk at Museum
Author Laura Claridge will discuss her book Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on School street in Edgartown on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. Admission is free. The museum will have a small display of Emily Post-associated memorabilia, including a 1942 Island phone directory listing Emily Post and a manuscript copy of a talk Post gave to the Garden Club about her garden.
Dr. Claridge researched her subject on the Vineyard, interviewing Islanders including Tony Bettencourt, John Enos and Eileen (Sibley) Robinson, who as a young fiancée of 19 was invited by Ms. Post to tea. Thinking she would be among several women, Mrs. Robinson was surprised to find herself Emily Post’s only guest. Eileen’s mother had recruited Ms. Post to counsel the young woman against marrying at such an early age, which she did, advising Eileen to get an education first, and that 19 was too young for marriage. Only later did Mrs. Robinson discover Emily herself had been married at 19.
Books will be available for sale and proceeds benefit the museum.