Friday, May 9, 2008

The Role of The Hostess, In Hindsight

In the days before I went off to college, my Mother gave me a copy of Amy Vanderbilt Complete Rules of Etiquette, a volume written by Mrs. Vanderbilt in 1952, rewritten by Lettia Baldridge in 1978, and finally once again (just for good measure) by Nancy Tuckerman (White House aide to Jaqueline Kennedy and Nancy Dunnan (who wrote on investments and sent articles into Family PC magazine). Generations of doyennes needed to to set us straight on meaningful and indispensable pearls of the wisdom of the mannered set, evidently. But while the book maintained a commitment to detail unrivaled by every other etiquette bible pretender, two rewritings did little to make the book accessible and valuable to the populous. It remains a thick book stuffed with arcane how-to-handle-this scenarios which are largely unimaginable to most (when was the last time you were forced to spit out an unconsumable bit of food and hand it to the maid attending you at the dinner table?).

At times, the book has made use of itself when I have needed to beg off from a wedding with an ambiguously worded note of excuse, craft an invitation to my engagement party, or help someone brush up on the rules of one's good hygienics and presentability. And it helps me to remember elegance as elegance, instead of experiencing the grave feeling of something missing: Experiencing elegance only in the sense of its complete and devastating absence. As frustratingly rigid and abundantly useless as so much of this weighty work is in the modern age, at least it guards grace, if a somewhat overzealous form.

My first copy was the 1978 Lettia Baldridge edition. I adore the book because it has marked tabs on each chapter, making it so very easy for yours truly to determine how to properly address a note to a Captain in the Navy or one of industry, or to refresh my memory on the finer points of what is to happen to one's drink when called to the table at a dinner party (you are to put it down and move to your seat at the table without your glass so as not to interfere with the wine service, formally-speaking, that is). I hate this book on other occasions because it has created a heightened state of pity in my mind: Poor girl, doesn't know she should place her fork, tines down, along the right side of the plate next to her knife to indicate she is through with her meal. Weird little man, putting ketchup bottles on the table! Where on earth are the handtowels? Why are the glasses plastic? And I feel ambivalent towards it always: So carefully transcribed it was from the study and memories of Amy Vanderbilt (not a Cornelius Vanderbilt decedent, but of his brother) who wrote this bible in another time, a more polished age, a land before Britney Spears was a trendsetter; it seems a dinosaur relic from the mannered class of sixty years ago.

Amy Vanderbilt wrote from a place defined by decency, elegance, consideration, and meticulous observation. On the occasions when I have, presumptively, been handed a beer in a can, told there were no soup spoons, or been handed a paper coffee cup after dinner, I realize how far we have come. If writers could reach back generations to consult one another's ghosts, I fear Amy Vanderbilt would look at me, gently shrug her shoulders, smile upwards to a sunny day, and turn away, gloved hand just below the Kelly bag resting on her jacket sleeve giving a barely perceptible wave of goodbye forever, Blushing Hostess. I fear Amy has given all she can and even her legacy has passed us by when we can least afford to lose her voice: Now, that things may become so very difficult, now that we are so far from decorum. Now, is when we need her most. Now, is not when we should tolerate any further degradation from the rules of grace. We will need these skills, you and I, in the years ahead of us.

While I can spend hours trying to convince you there is so much information in these volumes one should know, one should exercise, one should respect, I may have a hard time moving you towards the read: This book, precious fleeting resource that is, is as scintillating as reading a dictionary, unfortunately. This disappoints me so, for you, My Precious, because had any of these authors been asked to step out of their perfect society-girl boxes, they might have furthered both their effectiveness and their position of authority by telling us of the occasional slip or slide, by explaining in a light historical voice how we settled on the convention of place-settings, how we determined as a nation the way we would address respected members of all walks of life, and how all of that amounted to the rules being dictated by Mrs. Vanderbilt, or anyone else for that matter.

If you do a bit of reading on Amy's life, you will discover that she researched etiquette at a world-wide level for five years in writing this book, and that she either died accidentally or possibly committed suicide. I venture to guess though, that the way Amy came to know it all, and the way a perfectly mannered doyenne retreats into paradise, would have made more compelling reads. I wish she had given me the rules and the background. We have the structure but not her notes from dinner tables afar. But it must have been such an adventure, arriving at this configuration of perfection. There must have been some wonderful stories, some compelling ones, some heroic ones, some embarrassing ones from which we might have learned it all in a lighter, more palatable fashion.

Let's you and I do that for Amy, shall we? Let's tell the stories and keep her painstakingly organized details in our words and deeds. Let's do it, so her long-ago work will never be in vain, nor will grace.

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