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The Real Thing

ISSUE:  Spring 1979

A young female relative telephoned me the other morning to ask whether she had to accept an invitation the wife of her new boss kept pressing on her, and especially whether she had to ask them back. “They’re so pompous! Just because I work for him I don’t see why I have to see them,” she said fretfully.”But I just thought I’d ask you. You care so much about etiquette.”

“I do not!” I said. “I don’t even use that word!” As ever, I was indignant at her harping on the generation gap.

“Well, you know about it,” she said.

As I began to describe how much simpler things were, in the days when calls were paid and returned as a preliminary to dinner invitations, at will extended and at will returned— making a pattern like a dance that could be broken off at any point without causing hurt or puzzled feelings on either side—I realized how disappointed my young cousin would be if she knew how I came to know about it. It would spoil her comfortable picture of me, stuck from birth in the concrete of the Medes and Persians.

In fact, when at the age of 20 I went to work on Vogue’s etiquette column, I knew nothing whatsoever about what used to be called the manners of the great world; not even as much as the rest of my rebellious generation. My painter parents were unworldly, I sometimes felt, to the point of imbecility, as when they refused to serve champagne at my wedding, my father governed by New England law-abiding high-mindedness in that prohibition year, my mother by emulation of my father. Both were entirely indifferent to the world in their pursuit of the world’s antithesis, art. They did answer invitations, by the path of least resistance, following the form the invitation took, which happened to be correct, too. The question of how invitations were issued, on the other hand, never came up; my parents only under duress issued any.

Vogue hired me with the understanding I was to work in the art department, on the basis of some drawings from art school I brought along when interviewed; but somehow that never came to pass. Instead I huddled for a few weeks in a corner of the chief fashion editor’s office, darkly nursing grudges against the lady editors’ vain and arrogant ways— wearing chic hats throughout the day at the office, having their nails manicured and their shoes polished while giving dictation (“Dear Beaton, Your amusing little pajama shot. . . .”) to some wretched secretary in their husky, metallic tones, sending flowers to themselves at the office to wear to lunch at the Colony with members of what was just coming to be called cafe society. It occurs to me now that, even though I’d been frantic to get away from home, out in a strange world, I was, actually, regressing to the parental scene—especially since one form of my protest was to let my own finger-nails be dirty.

I didn’t last long in that department; I don’t know why they kept me as long as they did. I found myself instead assistant to an elderly and distinguished character, Miss Caroline Duer, sister of the writer Alice Duer Miller, member of a family eminent in New York society, and herself author of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette.Condé Nast, with his nose for the genuine, had hired this guaranteed lady to write the book and to edit the syndicated column on etiquette that ran in the back pages of Vogue; I was to assist her. Miss Duer was a lady of the old school. The very copy she sent to the printer was in exquisitely precise longhand, so legible that even the printer, to say nothing of the lady editors, accepted it.

The lady editors could be quite horrid to her, I used to feel—they would hurry past her into the elevator when she was standing right in front of it; sit like monoliths at their desks while she stood there, even for some time, to consult them on an editorial point; cut her off sharply to turn to the telephone where, to some Mrs. Harrison Williams or other, they became all affability. The feeling it gave me was of someone snubbing my maiden aunt.

She seemed so much kinder than they; I wondered if hers was the only department of the magazine that would have me. The opening bond between us was, in fact, our shared difficulties with those others, although I am sure Miss Duer misunderstood the nature of my own. She took it for granted, for instance, that my parents lived a social life (which puzzled them greatly when later, on visits to me, they met her). What I found in her was a refuge from loneliness. In those days she was living in her own, rather rickety, brownstone, where she entertained with her sprightly sallies not only old friends but a number of young women and notably gentle young men, from all sorts of backgrounds. Unlike the Vogue ladies, however, these outsiders adored her, for she was not only kind but tolerant except of what seemed to her to be pretense.

She would come tripping into the office in the mornings, on little, kid-slippered feet (hers was the only step I ever observed that fits that Victorian verb, just as she was the only person who ever made what I think of as a sally). Gray, curly hair done up neatly into a French twist; small, probably real, but far from chic pearls in her ears; head held erect on a wrinkled neck that rose from trim shoulders, she used always to stop and speak to the little secretaries at their desks in the bullpen she had to pass through on her way to our glassed-in cubicle. Her manners were like her kid slippers, exquisite, accustomed, comfortable.

Vogue’s Book of Etiquette was our text for the etiquette column. Its pronouncements were based on the customs of the world Miss Duer was brought up in: old New York society, composed of people who did things the way they always had done them.”The best manners in the world” the book began by saying (as I was to remind myself later in the day of the telephone call) “come from kindheartedness and a sense of justice, both of which induce consideration for others. . . . To be rude is perhaps the most unforgivable of faults because it has so little to excuse it. In civilized life people are not forced to impoliteness even when they are angry. . . . Tender means “careful not to hurt,” and this is the basis of being well-bred, that we should be careful to respect the rights and privileges of others and not to hurt their feelings. . . . It is always ill-bred to ignore willfully the traditions of any court, house, hovel or wigwam into the life of which a person may happen to have been thrust or to have wandered.” Her voice’s timbre is in that sally.

Ways that had not been followed, in her father’s household and those of his acquaintances, Miss Duer did not disdain— she ignored. This unfortunately played into the hands of those who disdained her.”There is no such thing as a fish fork,” she would declare, and “There is no such thing as a round-bowled soup-spoon.” She meant in her world, the world she got paid for knowing; but it gave a false impression. Of one custom that grew up in the torrid summers of the South, whence some of the lady editors came, she would observe, “There is no such thing as an evening wedding”; of another, boon to many women who were, as I had been, lonely in a strange city, “There is no such thing, as a coffee.”

The word home, for the place one lived in, got her back up terribly.”Next thing they’ll be keeping Towser in the dog-home,” she would snap, and, to me, as she rummaged for something in her desk drawers, “If I get any more forgetful you can put me in the madhome.” She was acid, too, about her rival, Mrs. Post. Though Mrs. Post was at home in the world of Miss Duer, somehow, somewhere—possibly by Mrs. Post herself—the word gracious had come to be attached to her and her advice.”Gracious,” Miss Duer would fume, her tone making no secret of what she thought of that, for an adjective.

She and I in our cubicle put together the etiquette column (“Etiquette,” she used to murmur.”They mean good form.”), by writing answers to letters from readers, and, indeed, writing the letters themselves. The letters that actually came in— responding to a notice in the front of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette that promised the privilege, as it was put, of writing to the Vogue Information Bureau (us) for individual answers in regard to any particular subject not covered in the text, a pious pretense since the real letters simply asked the same questions over and over and over—were unimaginably monotonous and dull.”What are fingerbowls for?” was one.”For fingers, of course,” Miss Duer would snap, as she began writing to the author of the letter, but only to me; she never snapped at real people, only at the subjects.”What do you do with the doily?” such a letter would go on.

For use in the column, we had to invent questions that would be a little more entertaining, but not too entertaining. We were there to instruct, Miss Duer would remind me, as she rejected some flight of my fancy in which a putative reader might ask, “Dear Vogue, My daughter is being married to a Japanese diplomat and the ceremony will be conducted according to the Shinto rite. As mother of the bride, what should I wear?”

The day my young cousin called me, I thought perhaps I could make something funny out of those partly-invented letters and our answers to them as they appeared in Vogue and a few newspapers (not many; for syndication Mrs. Post’s column far outsold Miss Duer’s). Our public library did not contain old files of the magazine, but it did render up the 1926 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette.After I left the library, I went to the hairdresser’s, where, once under the dryer, I began to leaf through the book in search of something I could use. Sometimes it feels like a relief to escape the professionally flattering, or alarmist, chatter of one’s operator, the twittering of the other women to those beings behind them whom they see only in the glass, into the anonymously roaring isolation of a dryer.

At the back of each chapter, I found, was appended a section of Questions and Answers roughly similar in form to our old etiquette column. The questions were in general more leading than any I ever ventured to invent. One that Miss Duer had obviously planted at the end of the chapter called “Speech” was, “What are the rules for using lay and lie?” She began her reply to herself, “First, that in the present tense of an active verb, hens lay and people do not.” It sounds exactly like her.

What I was looking for was more like the question I found in the chapter on table manners asking whether it was correct to “sit down on the right-hand side of a chair at table and get up on the left.” To it Miss Duer replied, “Nothing could make less difference”; to one of our real readers she would have put it less tartly. In the same chapter was a section devoted to what Vogue loved to call philosophy—we were always running pieces on the philosophy of fashion. Miss Duer had this to say: “Some people fuss about how much butter to put on bread, how much bread to take up for biting purposes, whether they should or should not use a spoon for soup served in a cup”—all questions that we used to get by the ream. “These things,” she went on, “are decided by sense and sensitiveness. To put large slabs of butter on bread looks rather greedy. To take up a whole piece of bread or toast and leave the dentist’s model of a bite in it seems uncouth. If our tastes are greedy—and with the best butter, whose would not be?— let us disguise them a little and appear to take less than we really do take. Let us break our bread and nibble mouselike at the edge. When our soup is hot, let us use the spoon and not, in the grown-up world, blow upon it. A spoon is more elegant, perhaps, but there are times when elegance, pushed to the last extreme, becomes tiresome. To keep six people waiting while one is being elegant with a spoon . . .would be boring and unnecessary.”

I had noticed already that considerable space was devoted, by this old maid, to how to bring up a child, always referred to as “it.” In the chapter on table manners, Miss Duer was able to go off on one of her favorite tirades. Beginning with the observation that how to use a knife and fork can hardly be taught too early, she went on, “What America, in general, suffers, from badly-drilled children grown up into badly-drilled young people, would surprise a kennel-master if he brought his mind to bear upon it. Discipline makes pleasant companions of dogs long before it is applied to the conduct of a very large percentage of children. In many cases this may be traced to the fact that the parents are not sure enough of their own manners; but more often it comes from their being unwilling to play the not-too-agreeable role of training-masters. . . . Everybody recognizes that the constant use of the word “don’t” is unpopular.”

By one of those associations that seem unassociated, my mind slipped off on Suzie Hughes, an utterly delicious-looking fashion editor with an office on the other side of our glass partitions from the bullpen. She used to smile at me through the glass with a smile so sweet (with one dimple in it; two would not have looked so chic) that I could no longer fancy her callous or arrogant. Now that my loneliness was a thing of the past, now that cafe society seemed indeed the place to have the most fun, I began to see quite a lot of Suzie, who’d changed the spelling of her name while working on the Paris Vogue, whence she had recently returned. She wore her hair beautifully arranged with a scallop on each cheek, under the Empress Eug6nie hats she kept on in the office. A deep, thrilling red polish was applied to her fingernails as she dictated letters, and she, of all the editors, often did not even need to send herself flowers, such was the ardor of her numerous admirers.

What I was remembering was sitting on a stool having a tomato juice cocktail (a wildly fashionable drink, just invented) with Suzie, downstairs at the Savarin at eleven o’clock in the morning, as had become the thing to do. Suzie was talking about the feeling—among all the editors, she said—that the tone of the etiquette column had to be changed.”You could maybe make her see how snooty it sounds,” Suzie said in her soft, Arkansas voice, “Poor old Miss Duer. She doesn’t have any idea.The smart world just isn’t that exclusive, any more.”

I knew what Miss Duer thought of that for an adjective; moreover I had a wave of loyalty to my old, my first friend. “She’s not a bit, uh, that way,” I insisted.”You ought to read her book. It’s so simple, and you’d understand what she really means.”

“I’m not the type to read books of etiquette, thank you,” Suzie said lightly. She smiled, but I noticed the dimple did not show. I felt awkward again, out of step; the way I’d felt at first. At the same time I had a flash of how Miss Duer looked to Suzie—imposing, probably, like Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, with a cold eye and unforgiving heart. I also had a flash of how Suzie saw me: as one snooty Easterner taking sides with another. Perhaps that scrap of conversation has lasted so long in my memory because of the force there was in it—the urgency—of the protest I felt in that moment against being lumped in the past with Miss Duer.

Miss Duer, however, is the reason I am able to answer questions on form put to me by young female relatives, even though that my own youth was going to be lived at least as unconventionally as those of my contemporaries. As I sat on under the mournfully roaring dryer, it seemed to me that I in effect abandoned Miss Duer, when I joined the ranks of those who merely imagined what she meant by manners, even though she had spelled out exactly what she did mean in her book. I, at least, had known better; and I said nothing. I found myself wishing that she had, just once, got mad—spoken up for herself to those young women who were in fact the ones snooting the old lady who dressed so quietly, behaved so simply, and possessed nothing they cared about but an ineffable, baffling self-sufficiency.

She could not, however, possibly have done so; I saw that. In civilized life, she believed and wrote, people are not to be forced into impoliteness or hurting the feelings of others, even when angry. In the end, the lady editors had their way; Miss Duer was eased out, and after a brief time with me at the helm, the column disappeared from Vogue.1 went to work in the bullpen writing captions and text.

Miss Duer retired to a small apartment under the approaches to the Queensborough Bridge, where she beguiled her declining years by making decoupage. When I used, at increasingly infrequent intervals, to remember to go to see her, she would be finishing some charming piece—a side-table or small bureau—with pictures gleaned from magazines which she fitted together, cunningly and with imagination, to create something quite different—an effect. The piece was then antiqued and given a high polish with successive coats of shellac. Miss Duer herself remained the same: erect, sprightly. And there are, I reflected, worse ways for a lady to end her days than in making something beautiful out of the bits and pieces of her past life.

The hair dryer went off with a click. I waved across the room at my operator to show her I was dry. It is a funny thing about dryers. Though their isolating roar may sometimes feel like an escape, at others the same roar, like the loud and unreliable voices of the past, becomes unbearable. It is from what they tell, of old betrayals, old disloyalties, that is the escape.

As I stood up, I felt justified that I’d told my young cousin that morning she had to accept her boss’s invitation, and had to ask them back, at least once. The business world’s rigid etiquette might have as little to do with real manners as High Society’s did; Miss Duer got the axe because her tartness concealed a meaning true as true. Yet, I saw now, even the business world is comprehended within what she’d really been talking about. Sense dictated that my cousin save her pretty neck. Sensibility, that she give her poor wretched boss a break. Who knew? At home, relaxed a bit, he might not be so pompous after all.


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