Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
by Laura Claridge
(Random House, $30)

Playing by the rules of the moneyed elite never had served Emily Post well. A New York debutante at 17, she met the man she would marry at her “coming out,” only to watch the marriage quickly descend into a bitter standoff. At 32, she suffered the humiliation of watching her husband’s infidelity become front-page news: He went to the police when a gossip magazine tried to blackmail him, and he wound up dragging Astors and Vanderbilts into the scandal with him. Yet after Emily’s career as a middling novelist ran out of steam, she turned, in her late 40s, to creating a guide to the very social codes that had failed her. Etiquette, published in 1922, would sell 1.5 million copies in the author’s lifetime.

Laura Claridge’s “meticulously research-ed” new biography of the manners maven provides “a rich portrait of an era,” said Katharine Critchlow in Entertainment Weekly. Its central figure doesn’t always jump off the page: Even Post’s grandson described his relationship with her as “rather formal.” But Claridge hints that Post once harbored a “feistier” side, and paints fleeting images of her strumming a banjo or “mingling with boldface names over oysters at Delmonico’s.” Certainly we learn that she was never simply “a fussy, obsessive woman preoccupied with which fork to use,” said Liz Brown in the Los Angeles Times. To Post, manners were less handcuffs than social lubricants. Her writing suggests that, to her, they were an answer to a very modernist concern: “the problem of being.”

Making a heroine of Post isn’t easy, though, said Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. Post promulgated a sort of social paranoia. The “implicit message of all etiquette books is that, without the author’s advice,” a reader runs the risk of “constant humiliation.” What’s more, though Post lived through “almost a century’s worth of social transformations,” there is “no record of her having had anything penetrating to say, even in private, about the major issues of the day.” By the rules of polite conversation that she herself had set down, Post couldn’t have done so. Hers was a story that runs counter to most modern success stories. Instead of finding salvation “in the form of self-expression,” she achieved lasting fame and fortune by learning the rules and championing them.