Laura Claridge's "Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners" is the story of the socialite whose disastrous marriage sent her down the path toward becoming the nation's number-one arbiter of manners.
“Emily Post: Daughter
of the Gilded Age, Mistress
of American Manners”
by Laura Claridge
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Random House, 445 pp., $30
The last time your mother tried to tell you how or how not to act, did you wonder what made her believe she was right? Therein lies one of the chief enticements of “Emily Post,” the new biography of the etiquette goddess from noted biographer Laura Claridge.
Emily Price Post was born into the debutante life when being a debutante was a serious business and offered access to those who would become leading characters in history books. As Claridge points out, however, the family of the young Emily Price was not completely accepted into what she would later call “Best Society.” This, and her Southern roots, gave her a more democratic (with a small D) approach to social advice that appealed to the middle and immigrant classes. Claridge takes the reader back and tells the story of how a young American socialite came to dominate the market for etiquette advice — and wield a powerful influence on American culture in the process.
Among the more formative events of Post’s life was the painful, tabloid-soaked failure of her marriage to the aristocratic Edwin Main Post. It left Emily Post headed down a path to writing the tome that gave many Americans the foundation of their sense of how to act, how to host and how to, well, be.
Claridge’s credentials as a biographer are imposing, and the book certainly delivers on the promise of a story rich with historical context and telling detail. More casual readers might wish for more about Emily’s emotional life, but the lack may be less a shortfall of the writer than an indication of Post’s somewhat closed-off nature. She seemed to keep most people, even close family members whom she loved dearly, at a comfortable distance.
Claridge also writes of Post’s predilection for documenting minutiae. She makes lists of household expenses, the contents of a season’s wardrobe, lists of flowers she planted in her garden, lists of pretty much anything that could go into a list. She even wrote on the box of jigsaw puzzles the date that she finished them and how long it took. This reader couldn’t help but feel annoyed at Post’s methodical personality and wonder whether she was too much a rules-follower to have done even more with her life.
Those who wonder about the actual rules of etiquette prescribed by Emily Post should skip this book all together and just read the “little blue book” itself. Very little of the actual etiquette advice makes it into Claridge’s book, which is just as well, since even Post herself seemed to grasp for a connection between etiquette and ethics, in an attempt to give the former topic more intellectual heft than many accord it.