To the Manner Born: The Real Story of Emily Post

In the 1922 original edition of "Etiquette," Emily Post's guide to the practices and manners of "Best Society," 81 pages are devoted to all matters nuptial. There's a sad irony, then, to the fact that Emily Post became the foremost authority on etiquette as the result of an unhappy marriage. In 1905, as biographer Laura Claridge recounts in "Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners," Post's husband, Edwin, was the victim of a blackmail ploy by a newspaper publisher who threatened to reveal Edwin's affair with a starlet. Edwin, who had lost much of his wife's inheritance playing the stock market, set up a sting to expose the publisher's scheme, then confessed to his wife, who had no choice but to support his decision. The successful sting, along with Edwin's infidelities, was widely reported. The publicity caused Emily much humiliation, and the couple divorced the following year.

Love, sex, money and public shame: 48 years after Post's death, we're still often flabbergasted about the right way to conduct our affairs regarding the first three, and desperate to avoid the last. Even as we celebrate a loosening of social strictures—and equate casualness with self expression—with freedom comes anxiety. (Witness the proliferation of advice books dealing with the etiquette of casual Fridays, e-mail and text messages, and even one-night stands.) With the current financial crisis and political uncertainty, how to address an invitation to an afternoon tea may seem trivial, but, says Peggy Post, Emily's great-granddaughter-in-law and a director of the Emily Post Institute, we long for the structure of established rules more than ever in times of social and economic uncertainty. "Etiquette gives people the blueprints to deal with times of stress," she says. Perhaps this is why Post was so uniquely qualified to write that blueprint: her life was shaped by stress, both personal and societal.

Post was born within months of the depression of 1873, and grew up in a world where the divide between rich and poor was rapidly expanding. As the daughter of Bruce Price, the architect who designed New York's Tuxedo Park, she enjoyed the diversions of the Gilded Age, consorting with the Astors, Morgans and Vanderbilts. But after her divorce from Edwin she set about reinventing herself as a career woman, gradually shedding the persona of a high-society divorcée for that of a serious professional writer. "I suspect it was good for her to fail in her marriage," says Claridge. "It helped her come into her own. If she hadn't been so brutally divorced, Emily Post wouldn't have come to be."

She didn't dispense with society altogether, though; instead, she capitalized on her familiarity with the upper classes by writing novels about romances between American blue bloods and European royalty. By 1920, she was such an authority on the mores of the American aristocracy that her friend the Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield inveigled her to write "a book about how to behave," as she liked to tell it. (In truth, Claridge writes, Post had been angling for the task for some time.) He believed the country was sorely in need of guidance: "All those new war wives desperate to know how to write a thank-you note, all those immigrants who had made it to our country before the rules tightened, all those new money people, ashamed to admit they had no idea how to behave in society."

Two years later "Etiquette" came out, the result of Post's queries to her friends and her friends' children, and liberal plagiarizing of similar guides to correct behavior at home and in the world. The book, now in its 17th edition, has been updated over the years by Post's grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Written as a fast-paced social drama (Post imagines a dinner party gone awry thus: "You have collected the smartest and the most critical people around your table to put them to torture such as they will never forget. Never! You have to bite your lips to keep from crying"), the book today is as delicious, and as dated, as an Edith Wharton novel. But those who think Post was overly concerned with raised pinkies and serving spoons underestimate her, says Claridge.

"People want to laugh at her, to devalue her," she says. "We don't like to be told how to act, especially about matters that seem fairly trivial. You feel put down when other people know these apparent rules. Emily Post believed in having rules, but thought that everyone should have equal access to them. Your only obligation is to make the other person feel OK."

Claridge developed a passion for her subject only after she was well immersed in the project. Three years after she started the book, she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. For a while she lost her memory, including her awareness of who Emily Post was and why she had been writing about her. After six months of chemotherapy to remove the cancer, she regained her memory, and came to see Post as an inspiration. "Even in the hospital, my behavior toward the nurses, toward my roommate, was influenced by her. I realized that life is short, and you want to do the best you can while you're here. It's the golden rule, and she kind of encouraged that."

If Post remains linked with superciliousness in the public imagination, it's because of our appetite for instruction, not her insistence on protocol. During the Great Depression, she gave radio broadcasts advocating hospitality, quoting from "Etiquette" and its revisions. As Claridge writes, "Letters flooded the radio office, sometimes begging for help: 'How many inches should I sit from the edge of the table?' and 'When taking my place at table, should I approach my chair from the right or the left side?' " An anxious nation wanted reassurance about how to sit at the table, even if it had no guarantee of where the food on it would come from.

Today we might scoff at the very phrase "Best Society," and be more likely to eat our meals standing over the sink than at any table. But we're still obsessed with etiquette, says Peggy Post. Great-grandson Peter Post's "Essential Manners for Men," one of the many manners guides put out by the Post Institute, made the New York Times bestseller list in 2003. Of the hundreds of e-mail queries the institute receives each month, around half are about weddings (the first time many people think about etiquette, Peggy Post says), but topics include gym protocol, tipping and the eternal conundrum "How do I eat a [fill in the blank]?" "People are so afraid of committing a faux pas," she says. "They don't want to embarrass themselves and don't want to be mean to other people. Most of these are common respect issues."

At the height of her fame, Post had a radio show and syndicated newspaper column, and advised the White House on protocol. But the image of her as an unbending automaton was fixed. When she attended a dinner at the Gourmet Society, papers made news of the fact that Post had spilled lingonberries on the tablecloth. In fact, her eyesight had been impaired by a recent operation. As Claridge writes, "Forcing Emily Post to stand in for the one thing she had always emphasized should be forgotten and forgiven—an innocent mistake—journalists were gleefully casting the doyenne of etiquette as part of a system they feared, not one that she endorsed."

It wasn't until after her death that some were able to appreciate the broader implications of Post's life work. When, two weeks after her death in 1960, Nikita Krushchev staged his shoe-banging tantrum at the U.N., Life magazine suggested the Soviet leader had displayed poor etiquette. In an article titled "What Would Emily Post Have Said?" the magazine argued that there is "a connection worth tracing between manners and politics." Today, when political candidates make a show of practicing good manners ("Can I call you Joe?"), then fail to treat each other with honesty or respect, they commit the worst sort of faux pas. "She used to say manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others," says Peggy Post. "It doesn't matter what fork you use. It is a matter of substance over style."

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