Emily Post by Laura Claridge
Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
by Laura Claridge
Random House. 544 pp. $30.00
Emily Post (1872-1960) is an American literary institution. Her 1922 blockbuster Etiquette—revised repeatedly and fastidiously during her lifetime, and still in print today—ranks as one of the most influential books in U.S. history. In 1950, a popular magazine named her the second most powerful woman in America (behind Eleanor Roosevelt). Even today, five decades after her death, her name remains a byword for good manners.
In her own time, as Laura Claridge recounts in a dazzling new biography, Post was more than just an arbiter of correct behavior. At various points in her long life, she also gained notice as an actress, amateur architect, novelist, banjoist (don’t snigger: it was quite the fad back then), fashion designer, and radio pioneer.
In popular myth, Emily Post is cast as a hectoring fuddy-duddy, holding forth on the proper way to serve tea or address a foreign dignitary. In truth, she was an avowed enemy of pomp and pretension who advised her readers to avoid ornamental circumlocutions, trilled enunciation, and other la-di-da affectations. Good manners, she repeatedly stressed, are not a means of displaying one’s superior standing, but the very opposite: of putting others at ease by communicating a sense of modesty and consideration. A lady’s “manner to a duke who happens to be staying in the house,” she reminded, “is not a bit more courteous than her manner to the kitchen-maid.”
As Claridge emphasizes, Post also had an astute eye for society’s changing values—a sensibility faithfully reflected in later editions of Etiquette. Amid her day-to-day activities, Post made a point of conversing with whomever she came upon—not only friends but also waiters, taxi drivers, and clerks—to gauge prevalent notions of propriety. Indeed, social critics of her time often charted new trends by reference to her evolving counsel on matters like dating, smoking, driving, transacting business, and domestic relations. Perhaps no other American writer more revealingly tracked the country’s transition from the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century through the Roaring 20’s and on to the socially mobile, mass-consumption society of the mid-20th-century. To understand Emily Post’s extraordinary life, Claridge demonstrates, is very much to understand the creation of modern American society.
From Emily Price’s days as a teenage debutante, she traveled in the highest circles of New York society. But her own southern blood was not particularly blue, sullied as it was by nouveau coal-smudged money on her mother’s side. In a postbellum New York still dominated by its Dutch-derived aristocracy, the Prices of Baltimore were hardly obvious candidates for the social register.
But Emily’s father Bruce—a handsome, sober-minded architect who later in life would be mistaken for the Duke of Connaught—was no ordinary rube. Not long after his arrival in New York, his agreeable charm attained him membership at a number of prestigious men’s clubs. He eventually parlayed his connections into professional commissions, and went on to become one of the most influential architects of his era. His crowning achievement, the planned community of Tuxedo Park, became an exclusive summer playground for New York’s best families, including his own, and was later cited as an inspiration for no less an architect than Frank Lloyd Wright.
Emily’s childhood provided the perfect training for a life spent studying manners. Her family’s privileged station allowed her to observe cultivated society; but not having been born directly into the drawing room, she never took its rituals for granted. Watching her father’s meteoric rise, moreover, she came to appreciate that refinement was not merely its own reward: play the game right, and the sky was the limit. When she later wrote in Etiquette that “good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instructive consideration of the feelings of others are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members,” she was effectively describing her own family.
The turbulence of the fin de siècle also played a role in Emily Post’s success. As great new fortunes were made in railroads, commodities, and industrials, traditional social hierarchies began to loosen. (Claridge, who seems to have spent endless hours poring over newspaper society columns, recounts in fascinating detail the efforts of parvenus like the Vanderbilts to seize the mantle of civic leadership from established families like the Astors.) At the same time, waves of immigrants and agricultural laborers were flocking to American cities. At all levels of society, there was an appetite for authoritative guidance about proper conduct.
Public mores were changing as well. Divorce, a phenomenon almost unheard of in Bruce Price’s generation, became common in his daughter’s. Etiquette and the syndicated columns that Post wrote in her later years were found congenial by readers in large part because they dealt intrepidly with novel situations, including unprecedented encounters with what would now be called “blended families.”
In this respect, Emily Post herself was very much a creature of the new age. In 1892, at the age of nineteen, she married Edwin Post, a dashing sportsman of impeccable 9th-generation Anglo-Dutch lineage. But Edwin proved a cold fish and a cad besides, and the union turned overtly loveless shortly after the birth of their two sons. In time, a disgruntled mistress of Edwin’s went to a scandal sheet with her story, and Emily was disgraced.
Yet in the litigation and media frenzy that followed—the case regularly made the front pages of New York’s newspapers—Emily held her head high. In court, she cut a proud, elegant figure at a time when divorcées were objects of pity. (Although she retained her attractive looks well into middle age, she appears to have remained celibate for the rest of her life. Her only grandchild later described her as “asexual but passionate about life.”)
Losing her playboy husband proved a blessing. Post embraced her newfound independence, eschewing society balls and luncheons in favor of a life in letters. Throughout her early career, she rejected the noisy, protest-oriented radicals of the Suffragette movement. But in her actions and comportment, Claridge shows, she was very much a model of the self-sufficient woman.
During the four decades that followed, Post would not only create a media empire based on etiquette; she also produced well-received books on child-rearing and architecture, as well as six novels and numerous magazine articles. At the height of her career, her columns were syndicated in 200 newspapers and reached millions of Americans through her radio broadcasts. She also lent her name and labors to all manner of good works. Notably, she traveled to Germany after World War II to help bring orphaned survivors of the Holocaust to America.
And yet, as Claridge writes, it is doubtful that fame and accomplishment brought Post much in the way of lasting happiness. Her burdens included not only an unsuccessful marriage but also a streak of compulsive perfectionism. Moreover, virtually every phase of her life was punctuated by tragedy. As a youngster, she lost a baby brother to disease. Her beloved father succumbed to stomach cancer in middle age. Her mother died in a grisly car crash. Her ex-husband perished in a boating accident. Worst of all, she lost a son to a burst appendix when he was just thirty-two, and two decades later her other son was laid low by a crippling stroke.
“All set rules for social observance have for their object the smoothing of personal contacts, and in nothing is smoothness so necessary as in observing the solemn rites accorded the dead,” she wrote in Etiquette. On this subject, sadly, the grand lady of manners was very much an expert.
Daughter of the Gilded Age is an extraordinary work—and not just as straightforward biography. In the nine years she spent researching and writing it, Claridge seems to have made herself an expert on a half-dozen historical topics, including the social pecking order of Gilded Age New York, Bruce Price’s role in American Renaissance architecture, and even Post’s chief competitor in the manners line, a Jewish writer named Lillian Eichler who aimed her Book of Etiquette more squarely at immigrants.
Claridge succeeds in giving readers a clear sense of her subject’s presence and personality, and expertly positions Post in the grand sweep of history. The portrait that emerges—an upper-class humanist who strove sincerely to democratize America’s social landscape—is nuanced and sympathetic.
“Fashionable society [once] consisted of a small group of people living within the walls of their own selection here in New York, in Boston, Baltimore, London, and Paris,” Post told a reporter late in life. “They fixed the rules of etiquette and used them as part of their social walls. It became my mission to tell people who did not know the rules what they were.” Few Americans would think of this patrician author as a radical champion of individual meritocracy. Yet, as this wonderful book shows, that is exactly what she was. American history, one suspects, will never again witness such a well-mannered revolutionary.