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The recent upsurge in the number of manners and etiquette books available to a fork-ignorant American public is strongly indicative of one fact. Not that we have better manners and more social knowledge than ever, with all those specialists in their dark suits with tasteful jewelry, legs crossed flatteringly at the ankle, but that more folks need the advice. No, not even that: More folks think other folks need the advice.
That’s why none of this well-meaning, alternative-lifestyle-inclusive, business-climate-acknowledging advice is going to take. Think of all the anguished, reasonable discussions about so-called road rage in the Washington Post and on local public-radio talk shows. Why do they do it? psychologists, callers, writers-in, and hosts ask each other, endlessly, answering with hand-wringing theories about the sense of invincibility and the terrors of isolation on modern streets. But never does a perpetrator call in and say, “I want people to think I have a big dick,” or “No one exists but myself; if you die, I get to work sooner.” Preaching to the choir may sell a lot of prayer books, but it doesn’t convert the masses. Nonetheless, etiquette books are fun for boors and nice nellies alike, because they idealize the messy world with the aplomb of an English “cozy” detective story. They should always aim a little higher than contemporary reality requires—even if no one wears white gloves on Easter Sunday, it’s nice to think that someone should.
Amid a gout of truly awful books—many of them specialty volumes for dealing with business, technology, or sex—the class act is the just-released 50th anniversary edition of something Doubleday is calling The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, by Nancys Tuckerman and Dunnan. The ladies are well-credentialed: Tuckerman was staff coordinator at the White House—the Kennedy White House—and Dunnan is one of those specialists, her area being money-management advice. Their book isn’t a disaster, but it’s a colossal bore. They are never wrong, never intrusive; they never make an interesting choice or bother to invent a limber new rule when an old one’s relevance flags. They spend a great deal of time lingering over business etiquette, and about a third of the book is devoted to weddings.
What’s most disappointing about the Nancys’ drably written update is that they offer no worldview, no inspirational vision of a gracious and energetic life full of easygoing hosts, daring moments of hatlessness, and babies with manageable and attractive names. It wasn’t always so—what was? When Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette was published, in 1952, it functioned, as its subtitle promised, as a “guide to gracious living.” The basics of living itself had been covered for most people by the usual influences: family, society, school, church. Vanderbilt, a silky writer with a knack for the vivid social fable, concentrated on assuaging and directing the striver’s insecurity of the young married, new-monied, or single female consumer whose desire for correctness was as much about personal expression and grown-up glamour as it was about conformity, snobbery, and husband-nabbing. And yes, there’s a big segment devoted to naming the baby, which is as lyrical and compelling as the picnic-dress passage in Gone With the Wind.
Vanderbilt understood how the ideals of aristocratic life and behavior that had lingered as recently as 20 years before were really remnants of an even earlier era kept alive mostly by the imaginations of those who had never experienced such a life, much the way, as George Orwell wrote in 1945, readers associated P.G. Wodehouse’s gilt-edged eccentricities with an imaginary ’20s and ’30s, but they actually debuted in the teens and even then were comforting visions of a distant Edwardian past, which virtually nobody lived. “Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915,” Orwell dryly estimated. In the immediate postwar period, the hoity-toity trappings that a Euro-envious America had aped as Continental chic were beginning to feel unyielding and outdated—but the real demands of a smaller, more diverse world were virtual terra incognita to previously insular Americans of the rapidly expanding middle class.
How refreshing an etiquette expert, of all people, found the youthful, quirky, prideful American aesthetic, and how eager was she to globalize her readers’ outlook. Vanderbilt cherished gumption, simplicity, and individuality in manners as well as her thrusting sentences. “A man laying siege to a girl’s heart does well not to systematize his flower-sending,” she noted, going on to dismiss the lack of imagination in “one man who could be counted on to send two dozen long-stemmed roses every Saturday, rain or shine” in favor of the swell who might send “a gay red geranium in a simple clay pot…or a new recording or some fresh catnip for the kitten—one never knew.” She sighed over the inevitability of white damask tablecloths and candles but wondered how strong and dramatic a dining room might look with a bowl of “cold boiled scarlet lobsters” on a “fringed, woods-green cloth.”
Vanderbilt was not without her exoticism; the small world outlined by the guide is rather like the Orient Express of the Charles Addams cartoon, populated by peacock-feathered vamps and dark-eyed assassins, upon which a little gray man has waked and is asking the conductor whether he is on the 12:38 to Bridgeport. For all the clean urban lines of Vanderbilt’s advice, her characters expect a James Bond-ian range of diversions. She let us know how to behave at military-school dances, at the White House, at a private audience with the pope; what to wear duck-hunting (and how to react to shot in one’s country-house dinner), yachting, riding; how to answer an invitation to visit a naval vessel (“Here is one accepted form of invitation, in French…”); and when a busy hostess might need a correct gentleman to send over his Filipino butler to help out with a party. There is an entire segment on “The New Citizen and His Particular Problems,” as well as long stretches on appreciating diversity in an interfaith society. Her subtle but pointed reference for a tippling maid is the voice of experience from a woman whose Chinese house man turned out to have been downing a quart of whiskey a day (“his own, it is true”).
The Nancys usefully cover the wedding-invitation, table-setting, cell-phone-use, teach-the-child-to-say-please information that can be found in all basic etiquette guides, but they don’t address many important quandaries of this ultracasual culture that still cherishes its rituals. One must turn to the original to find what to wear to an afternoon church wedding in winter, or a
modern couples-invited baby shower for gay parents, or on an airplane. The new guide doesn’t tell us not to lean forward in our seats at the ballet and for land’s sake not to clap our fool heads off every 10 seconds (though it does advise us to gussy up some). The Nancys don’t waste time with nuanced advice in the area of social oil; they don’t suggest that not answering an invitation and waiting for a better offer, thereby leaving the hostess in the lurch until the last minute, isn’t polite; they don’t specify that a gentleman does not wear a hat indoors unless in certain houses of worship. (They get the slightest bit hot under the collar only at the ubiquitous baseball cap—”should never be worn inside. Period!”—and they do tell us, repeatedly, how to hold a wine glass.)
The updated version’s major fault is its reluctance to part the curtain with that miraculous swish. The specifics of behavior, comportment, and grammar aren’t important at all, because they are not likely to be taken up by those who need them. Perhaps, as the Nancys claim, “it’s polite” to write your dinner-party hostess a thank-you letter, but people who do, will, and people who don’t, won’t. But for those who love the negative image of a gracious, vibrant world created by the outlining of its mores, the new book is certainly no improvement on the original, or on some of the great recent additions to the canon, like Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig’s fabulous Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life or the breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly sensible Vera Wang on Weddings. And it’s no help at all for those of us who want to know the proper form of address in corresponding with a marchioness—one never knows, as Miss Vanderbilt says. CP