Emily Post’s Secret

How a disastrous marriage drove her to etiquette.

Nearly half a century after her death, we finally get to meet the woman who invented American good manners. Or tried to. Nowadays people who suspect their public behavior is making them look boorish don’t shudder with embarrassment—they gleefully display the evidence on YouTube. But we weren’t always like this, as Laura Claridge’s Emily Post makes clear. Straight through the Jazz Age, the Depression, World War II, and the early ‘50s, Emily Post handed down rules of social behavior guaranteed to be authentic insignia of the upper class, and the nation kept begging for more. People loved her gracious air of certitude, whether she was advising on the proper wedding outfit for a second marriage (gray, with a small, matching hat) or how to manage telephone use when six neighbors had to share the same line. (“The rule of courtesy when you find the wire in use, is to hang up for three minutes before signaling. If there is an emergency, you of course say ’Emergency!’ in a loud voice, and then ‘Our barn is on fire.’ “) Like Freud and Betty Crocker, the name “Emily Post” became shorthand for authority itself.

But her charmed perspective on what she called “best society” disintegrated soon after she died in 1960 and not just because the all-gray wedding pretty much fell from favor. Mrs. Post (who would have cringed at being referred to as “Ms.” or, worse yet, “Post”) often said etiquette had much more to do with “instinctive considerations for the feelings of others” than with using the right fork, and she herself was famous for putting her elbows on the table. But she never cooked a meal and never spent a day without her maid in attendance. She stayed aloof from the suffrage movement, hated the New Deal, couldn’t abide Eleanor Roosevelt and her many causes, and lobbied the Social Register to banish any mention of a mixed-race laundress who had married into a prominent family. In 1947, she explained that if you happen to see or hear “something definitely threatening to our government,” the correct thing to do was write to the FBI or a local government official. (“Or, if you prefer, you can telephone.”) She offered a sample letter: ” ‘A group called the Junior Revolutionists who meet regularly Monday evenings at 40 X Street is distributing handbills.’ ” These were not the politics of an authority figure with a message likely to outlive the ‘60s.

Claridge, whose extensively researched biography is the first major treatment of this legendary figure, would undoubtedly disagree with this assessment, for she takes a far more admiring view of her subject. She sees Emily Post as something of an unsung feminist, an heiress who started out a cosseted creature of the Gilded Age but moved beyond her comfort zone to “buck the system” and promote “genuinely democratic ideals and sympathies.” As each new edition of Etiquette succeeded the last, she argues, Mrs. Post changed with the times. The chapter called “What Is Best Society?” became “The Growth of Good Taste in America.” Another, originally headed “One’s Position in the Community,” became “Making One’s Position in the Community,” underscoring her message that behavior rather than birth defined true gentility. She discussed ever-simpler weddings, and dinner parties without servants. Religious traditions other than Episcopalian showed up, as did the “businesswoman,” who always received Mrs. Post’s full support. When Rosie the Riveter made her appearance on a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943, Claridge writes, “It was as if Emily Post’s intuitive version of the capable, modern woman had come to life.”

“Capable,” for sure. Mrs. Post racked up truly startling accomplishments—along with her best-selling guide, Etiquette (1922), she wrote six novels, scads of journalism, and a 500-page book on architecture; had a long career in radio; designed her own high-fashion clothes; endorsed everything from cigarettes to gingerbread; and built a 15-story apartment house that still stands at the corner of Madison Avenue and 79th Street in Manhattan. She lived in 9B, and her friends filled the rest of the building.

But “modern”? Not the Emily Post I found in these pages. Listen to the rapture in her voice as she evoked a debutante at her coming-out ball in the first edition of Etiquette: “It is your evening, and you are a sort of little princess! There is music, and there are lights, and there are flowers everywhere … all for you! Up the wide staircase come throngs of fashionables … on purpose to bow to you!” During her own debutante year, Emily Price had only one ambition: to stage a glorious wedding and ascend to her place in New York society, a “sort of little princess” forever. She did attain that place and become American royalty, but her marriage at 19 was a disaster. Edwin Post had little interest in his wife apart from her money and social position, and he didn’t bother to keep his mistresses secret. Society, running as it did on formulas she knew perfectly, kept her afloat, and she clung to it.

A powerfully conservative outlook on the structures governing everyday relationships—husband and wife, master and servant, upper class and everyone else—seems to have settled in. She wouldn’t hear of divorce and insisted on maintaining the appearance of a perfectly happy married woman. Night after night, she dressed up and went to meet Edwin at the train (they were living in the posh enclave of Tuxedo Park), only to return home alone with all the dignity she could display. Eventually she was dragged into a tawdry lawsuit around his adultery and forced to divorce him.

Claridge emphasizes the excruciating public humiliation and notes, “She never forgave him.” But more tellingly, she seems never to have stopped being his wife. Or at least being a wife. She remained firmly opposed to divorce, never had another romantic relationship, and insisted on putting herself forward as an expert on successful marriage. In an article called “On the Care of Husbands,” which ran in Life three years after the divorce, she openly ridiculed those misguided women who paid more attention to winning the vote than to making sure their husbands were comfortable and content. She had been stripped of the identity, but she was determined to keep playing the role.

And the flawless performance of roles is a pretty good definition of etiquette. Mrs. Post said over and over that “character” mattered far more than “trivialities of deportment” when it came to correct manners. Yet she kept faith with traditional social hierarchies as if her life depended on them, which it probably did. She was so companionable with her maid, for instance, that they used to go to the movies together, arm in arm, then out for ice cream. But at dinnertime, Hilda ate in the servants’ quarters, and Mrs. Post sat at the dining table alone.

For the most part, her writing style in Etiquette was charming and self-assured. But whenever she touched on the proper behavior of husbands and wives, an electric charge seems to jangle the prose. Of the thousands of instructions detailed in Etiquette, the one she singled out and underscored as “the most important rule in this book” wasn’t about weddings or funerals, it was about the public face of wifedom—how a married woman must sign a letter. The rule was “Mary Jones,” with the addition of “(Mrs. John Jones)” if the recipient was not a personal friend. This directive, she said, “cannot be too strongly emphasized.” She was similarly unyielding on the subject of the honeymoon—the groom always, always paid for the trip, even if he made $10 a week and the bride commanded a fortune. Back home, they could freely live on her wealth, but in their first appearance as husband and wife, Mrs. Post insisted they display the traditional financial hierarchy.

As for marriages that ended nastily, like her own—these merited language as close to venomous as she permitted herself. “The man who publicly besmirches his wife’s name, besmirches still more his own, and proves that he is not, was not, and never will be, a gentleman,” she wrote—rhetoric that probably packed more of a thunderbolt in 1922 than it does today. More unsettling now is to see the rage she directed at wives who were caught up in headline-making divorces and, unlike Post, agreed to talk to reporters. “One cannot too strongly censure the unspeakable vulgarity,” she wrote icily.

Mrs. Post died right around the time when even her most recently updated rules were starting to show their age. (“French fried potatoes must be eaten with a fork.”) But it’s not pronouncements like these that make her a china shepherdess among the great women of the last century. It’s her politics that blinkered commitment to hierarchy that is the antithesis of feminism. Many women of her class looked their husbands straight in the eye; Mrs. Post wouldn’t have dreamed of trying. In her worldview, even a purely symbolic husband like Edwin bestowed honor and dignity upon his wife, the way marrying royalty elevated a commoner. So, she clung to the title, and she shored up a crumbling social structure with all her might. In 1950, she was ranked the second most powerful woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. Luckily, it was E.R.’s legacy that lasted.