In Print : Summer resident Emily Post, arbiter of etiquette
"Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners," by Laura Claridge. Random House, 2008. 525 pages. $30.
In the summer of 1939, busloads of tourists regularly drove by the Edgartown cottage of Emily Post, who had both Island history and connections. By the late 1940s, Vineyard tour buses carried signs that read "Grand Old Lady of Etiquette," and Ms. Post's Fuller Street neighbors sometimes discovered tourists inside their houses reloading their cameras. In retaliation, teenagers from the Lamborn family living across the street from Ms. Post even put up their own sign, announcing, "The Lamborns live here."
These and other tidbits about America's original arbiter of good taste and behavior are featured in Laura Claridge's new biography, "Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners," and should make the book particularly interesting to Vineyarders.
The Martha's Vineyard Museum will host a talk by Ms. Claridge on Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2 pm, and display memorabilia pertaining to Emily Post, such as the manuscript of a talk Ms. Post gave to the Garden Club about her garden.
A debutante born to a life of privilege, she became a career woman with a far more interesting life than might be obvious from the subject of the book that made her famous, "Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home." It is hard to believe that this is the first full-length biography of Ms. Post, an unusual woman who dabbled in the arts, fashion and interior design, acting, and during World War II, human rights activism. When she died in 1960, her book was in its 89th printing. She is still considered by some to be one of the most influential women in the country.
Ms. Post divorced her husband, Edwin Post, in 1905, after his scandalous affair with a showgirl, and raised her two sons as a single parent. She made a living through her writing - initially in the form of articles in newspapers and magazines like Harper's and then with her ensuing five novels. Once "Etiquette" was published in 1922, Ms. Post became a celebrity, and by the 1930s, her syndicated column appeared in hundreds of newspapers. She also became a radio personality.
In its 38 chapters, Ms. Post's book of etiquette covers every form of proper behavior, from what to wear on which occasions, to how to write appropriate notes and letters. Despite her privileged background, Ms. Post promoted an egalitarian view of good breeding and describes the less affluent woman as "often the jewel of deeper water in the social crown of her time." She peppered her commentary with humor, such as making up names for characters behaving in a particular way, like the "Parvenus," the "Richan Vulgars" and the "Gildings."
Ms. Claridge's biography chronicles Ms. Post's first visit to Martha's Vineyard in the mid-20s with her New York friend Katharine Collier, a frequent summer visitor. Eventually she bought a 1778 Edgartown house and renovated it in 1927 with help from her architect son, Bruce Post. In the years that followed, she would regularly spend six months living at her Vineyard home.
The Post garden was well known on Martha's Vineyard. Ms. Post was so particular about the colors in it that if blossoms in certain, offensive shades of red or yellow appeared, she had them pulled up immediately.
A number of Islanders, including Yvonne Sylvia and Betty Osborne, worked for Ms. Post, and she often continued to write to them with affection after their employment ended. When in residence, she walked weekly to the movies with her employee/companion, Hilda Ogren. Ms. Post wrote her favorite book, "Children Are People," in Edgartown during the summer of 1940.
Ms. Post's pronouncements on proper manners live on through the Emily Post Institute, based in Burlington, Vt., and now represented by her great-granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post. Emily Post's great-grandson, Peter Post, writes an etiquette column for the Boston Globe and has published a number of books on etiquette.
The author of several biographies, Ms. Claridge received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to write "Emily Post" and won the Neiman Foundation for Journalism's J. Anthony Lukas Prize for a Work in Progress.
Author's Talk, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2 pm, Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. Laura Claridge will speak on her book, "Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners." Refreshments. Free. 508-627-4441.
Brooks Robards regularly writes on art, film, and books for The Martha's Vineyard Times.