Get our free newsletter
Somehow, despite all kinds of good intentions, Mr. Graham has managed to piss Miss Manners off. He fully expects that even now there is a special place being prepared for him in hell.
It was an advertisement, of all things, that started him on the convoluted path toward this singularly disgraceful state. There, in the front of Publishers Weekly, was a notice: Judith Martin, author of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior and Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, had concluded that the species was in danger of losing control entirely, and she would be weighing in shortly with a new tome. It was to be called Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.
Hurrah, thought Mr. Graham, without the slightest presentiment of the disaster to come. What a lovely opportunity to pay journalistic homage, in the form of a lengthy and careful profile, to a local writer whose arch wit and sensible approach to life’s little difficulties had long since won his heart. What a perfect fit for Washington City Paper, with its range of quirky interests and its undying affection for all things home-grown.
What a perfectly dreadful idea. Mr. Graham can’t imagine what he was thinking.
It was February when Mr. Graham contacted Mrs. Martin’s publisher, who promised to send a copy of the book’s galley proofs but regretted to say that interviews were not yet being scheduled. Could Mr. Graham call again closer to publication?
Certainly he could, and meantime, in the interest of thorough preparedness, Mr. Graham would start the background work.
At the Washington Post, where Mrs. Martin started as a part-time copy girl and later covered the social beat in a regular column, Ms. Sally Quinn confided to Mr. Graham that even amid the chaos and squalor of a busy big-city newsroom, Mrs. Martin had shown signs of imminent perfection: “Judy always kept a teacup on her desk. The rest of us would be drinking out of styrofoam cups, but she had this delicate little china thing. And her desk was always neat. She always had the Miss Manners potential.”
“Very early on,” agreed Mr. Henry Allen, a Post writer and an old friend of Mrs. Martin’s, “she created a look for herself—that Gibson-girl chignon thing. Her look and attitude came out of a cheerful disdain for both fashion and progress.” And indeed, Mr. Graham discovered that Mrs. Martin once confessed to readers, before Miss Manners came along to teach her the impropriety of imparting personal information wholesale, that “what I would like best is to be old.”
“My father had my number when I was about 12, and he said that someday I was going to make a hell of an old lady, with a whalebone-collared dress and a polished stick, tyrannizing generations of my descendants.”
Though she showed potential, this young Mrs. Martin, a Wellesley graduate with tendencies toward mild impertinence and an interestingly refined brand of feminism, apparently was not quite the perfect lady she is today. In one early column, Mr. Graham learned, she shared with readers the secret of “the Dangerous Lunatic school of consumer complaint,” a system involving the intimidation through uncontrolled hysteria of shopclerks who don’t perform up to expectations.
In another item, she demonstrated quite plainly that she had yet to make Miss Manners’ acquaintance: Her idea of social behavior, she wrote, held then that “if you make a rude noise in public, the best thing to do is to whip around and stare in shocked amazement at the person next to you.” (Fortunately for Mrs. Martin’s contemporary dinner companions, Miss Manners has since decreed that etiquette recognizes no more unfortunate a bodily eruption than the sneeze; anything more serious simply does not exist socially, and therefore couldn’t possibly be commented on or apologized for.)
Despite the occasional unpolished moment, however, young Mrs. Martin was “a very smart lady” and “a very skilled reporter” who sadly found herself “sort of ghettoized in the women’s section,” according to Mr. Paul Richard, the Post’s art critic.
Ghettoized or not, she made enough of an impression in those pages that, as Mr. Benjamin Bradlee noted, she found herself barred from covering Miss Tricia Nixon’s wedding. The White House insisted that “The First Family does not feel comfortable with Judith Martin.” (Mr. Graham can’t imagine why, as she merely printed anecdotes about Mr. Nixon’s name-dropping tendencies, reported that Mrs. Nixon “subscribes only to magazines that match the colors in her rooms,” and said that Miss Tricia Nixon “dressed like an ice-cream cone.” She managed a swipe or two at the Agnews, as well.) Naturally, when the Post rolled its arts coverage together with the women’s pages and created the revolutionary Style section, Mrs. Martin made the transition easily.
It was during her tenure at Style that she at last came to understand the need for a modern etiquette authoritarian. In her copy-girl incarnation, she told Modern Maturity this year, she had answered the women’s section phone, and in that capacity had constantly fielded questions about wedding attire. Later, during her days on the social circuit, “generations of copy kids continued to come over with the same questions.”
And so it was that the occasionally impolite Mrs. Martin transformed herself into the always excruciatingly correct Miss Manners. “It was like Napoleon,” she has said. “You crown yourself because nobody else can do it.”
The rest, if Mr. Graham may be permitted a little cliché-bandying, is history. Not since dear Mr. Presley has a pop-culture figure inspired so wide and fanatical a following; Mr. Graham certainly can’t think of another writer who might hope to collect laudatory cover blurbs from both Mr. George Will and Mr. Quentin Crisp.
“If you read a Judy column,” Mr. Richard said, “there’s historical allusion, social commentary, parody of the form, heartfelt seriousness, and pinpoint descriptions of how people behave. And there’s this combination of complete common sense and a sort of knowing wink at hoity-toity pretension.” The internationally syndicated Miss Manners is “a cartoon of the etiquette column even as it’s an etiquette column. And it’s all intentional—there’s always something very proper about her, but there’s something deeply silly about writing an etiquette column these days, and she knew that from the start. It mocks its own style even as it perfects it.”
Mr. Allen begged to disagree. “Paul comes from a position in which he contrasts etiquette with the thing we contrast everything with, which is authenticity,” he explained. “Judy rejected authenticity as a moral touchstone long, long ago. She sees authenticity for the fraud and the cheap ethical truncheon that it is. And so to that extent I would say her column is very political and not so much self-mocking as subversive.
“She’s a bit impenetrable, you know—she either knows very well who she is or very well who she wants you to think she is, and you can’t tell the difference.”
That, Mr. Graham supposed, might account for an intriguing aspect of Mrs. Martin’s fame: the insecurity that her alter ego’s perfection inspires in fans and friends alike. Not since that nice Mr. Hoover has any public figure been regarded with so piquant a mixture of admiration and fear; Ms. Martha Stewart may be nipping at her heels, but Mr. Graham suspects that Miss Manners still holds pride of place in that regard.
A gentleman of Mr. Graham’s acquaintance loves to tell a story about a friend’s sister-in-law who arrived several minutes early for a tea party at Mrs. Martin’s home and decided that walking around the block was the only sensible thing to do. On her third circuit she noticed that every fifth car was occupied by ladies like herself—carefully dressed and noticeably anxious, each with one eye on the dashboard clock and one hand on the door handle.
Mr. Graham’s acquaintance’s friend’s sister-in-law kindly confirmed the story, but declined to be named, as she must face Mrs. Martin at a social event later this year.
“She’s not that forbidding a person,” Mr. Allen insisted. Then he considered a moment: “Her wit is forbidding. And she’s a real wise guy. One time I said I paid X dollars to get that college degree, and she replied, ‘Yes, and that was for stamps alone.’ Very quick, dangerously witty. But there is this thing—she does manage to terrorize people a little bit.”
Mr. Allen remembered the apprehension that attended him during one dinner at the northwest Washington home Mrs. Martin shares with her husband, Robert, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health and sometime playwright.
Mrs. Martin, a collector of silver, served asparagus with asparagus tongs, Mr. Allen recalled. “I grew up in a family that was involved with the silver business in Connecticut, so I had seen plenty of fish knives and that sort of thing, but I had never seen asparagus tongs. And I wondered if she was going to offer any hints or instructions about how the asparagus tong was to be used, but of course she didn’t. She didn’t even tell us what it was. You finally figured out that asparagus was the only thing it would fit.
“But this dilemma was compounded by the fact that I looked over at Robert, and he was eating an asparagus stalk with his fingers.” Mr. Allen found himself trapped in a self-feeding spiral of fear. Tong or fingers? Fingers or tong?
“I don’t know how to use the tong, and she probably knows I don’t know how to use the tong. I could use my fingers, but then she’ll certainly know I don’t know how to use the tong. But if I use the tong awkwardly, she’ll still know I don’t know how to use the tong. At the same time, this eating-asparagus-with-the-fingers could be some heinous joke being played on me by Robert.
“These are the things,” Mr. Allen sighed, “that go through one’s mind at times like these. But all of that was redeemed by the fact that I truly believed that she was precisely aware of all these psychic machinations that she had set in motion.”
So far, Mr. Graham thought to himself, this is going splendidly. Everyone was being remarkably helpful and forthcoming, and Mr. Graham was having such fun reading all those old articles.
Then Mr. Graham checked his voice-mail.
“Mr. Graham, this is Sarah Booth Conroy.” Mr. Graham had contacted the Post’s venerable columnist on the advice of Ms. Quinn. “I’m afraid that we are going about it from the wrong direction. You should first talk to Judith Martin; I would not in any way wish to talk about a close friend, which she is, without her permission, and she’s not about to give her permission unless she talks with you first.”
Mr. Graham was instantly paralyzed with what he has since come to think of as asparagus anxiety. Clearly, Mrs. Conroy had spoken to Mrs. Martin, and just as clearly, Mrs. Martin had not been informed of Mr. Graham’s interview request by her publisher. From Mrs. Conroy’s tone when he called her back at the Post, Mr. Graham knew that the situation was not good.
Trying to suppress his horror, he explained that he had in fact started at Mrs. Martin’s end, and asked how he might best explain to Mrs. Martin that he wasn’t preparing a hit piece. Mrs. Conroy suggested a letter.
In rising panic, Mr. Graham telephoned Mrs. Martin’s publisher, explained what he thought had happened, reminded the gentleman publicist of his February inquiry, and asked him to assure Mrs. Martin that nothing sinister was afoot. The gentleman affected surprise, but hinted darkly that Miss Manners was likely to be very busy for the foreseeable future. Pressed, he demanded a recent copy of City Paper—which gave Mr. Graham some pause, as that week’s edition featured a prominent article by another writer on the joys of colonic irrigation—and suggested an explanatory letter to Mrs. Martin.
Full of trepidation about the suitability of his writing paper—it wasn’t engraved, only raised-printed—Mr. Graham looked up Mrs. Martin’s address in the Green Book, that bible of social Washington, and settled down to compose a proper grovel. His computer seems to have eaten the original, but he regrets to remember that one sentence went something like: “Your work has always given me the greatest pleasure, and it grieves me to learn that mine may have inadvertently caused you pain.”
No sooner had he surrendered this missive to the Postal Service than he was seized with doubt about the propriety of sending what was essentially a business letter to Miss Manners’ home address. Should he have addressed it to her care of her publisher instead?
The answer became clear two weeks later, just as he had given up all hope of a reply. “Dear Mr. Graham,” said the letter, on splendidly weighty ecru Crane’s paper with an engraved “Miss Manners” in elegant Spencerian script at the top. “Judith Martin has asked me to write to you and thank you for your letter to her. There was some delay in her receiving it because it was misaddressed.”
Oh dear, thought Mr. Graham, when he had recovered from the chill in the writer’s tone. The home address was the wrong thing to do. The reply bore a suburban Maryland postmark, which puzzled him until he remembered Mr. Martin’s NIH connection.
“We both regret that because of this we were unable to reply earlier.” In other words, Mr. Graham thought with distress, he was meant to think not only that he had misstepped again, but that he had caused Miss Manners to appear negligent in her correspondence, which might very well prove fatal.
“Mr. Belfiglio at Crown Books, Mrs. Martin’s publisher, is handling all interview requests. However, Mrs. Martin has been traveling and is out of the country at the moment.” As Mr. Belfiglio was the gentleman with whom he had previously dealt, Mr. Graham assumed that this last painfully polite paragraph translated roughly to, “You’ll get an interview when hell is draped in a thin sheet of ice.”
At that moment, it later became clear, Mr. Graham was not fully himself. He had, however, lost all hope of meeting and chatting with the woman who had educated him in the correct order of the 14 courses in a properly staged dinner à la Russe, so perhaps he may be excused for the thoughts that flew through his fevered brain.
He considered a telephonic appeal but stopped short of dialing out of sheer terror at what Mrs. Martin might say if she consented to speak to him at all. He thought of surprising her at a book-signing—surely there would be one scheduled in Washington—and even contemplated the likely ramifications of waiting outside her home each morning until she put in an appearance. Aside from the questionable legality of the latter course, Mr. Graham came to the sobering conclusion that the woman who had taught him the value of the Cut Direct would in all likelihood not hesitate to use it in his case.
Now fully mired in despair, Mr. Graham at last noticed the name below the coldly formal “Very Truly Yours” that concluded the brief missive from the Manners office, and he knew that he was doomed. His eyes traveled back to the top of the page, where the signer’s name and title were engraved in the left-hand margin.
Mrs. Grundy, Assistant to Miss Manners.
Mrs. Grundy, said Mr. Graham with a hollow, haunted laugh. The archetypal nosy, judgmental neighbor, a mythical figure with roots in English literature invoked by Victorian parents to caution their unruly children against bad behavior, just as they called on the same offspring to leave a bite of food on their dinner plates for the fictional Miss Manners.
The modern Miss Manners, Mr. Graham realized, keeps engraved Mrs. Grundy writing paper especially for replying to people who’ve gotten on her bad side. It’s a sly kind of put-down that only a lit major or a genuine etiquette junkie would understand. And she had used it on him.
He was disconsolate—dejected, dispirited, and distraught, not to mention on deadline without an interview. Etiquette, he suddenly realized, had triumphed, and he was a broken man. CP