Grande dame of etiquette for America’s polite society

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Correct etiquette, also known as good manners, is all about making other people feel comfortable. At a great London banquet, Queen Victoria famously drank the water in her finger bowl. She had no choice. Her guest, the Shah of Persia, had done it first.

For the last half century, Elizabeth Post’s mission had been to bring thoroughly up-to-date, for modern times, the standard for manners laid down in 1922 by Emily, her grandmother-in-law, in her Etiquette; the Blue Book of Social Usage. That she succeeded cannot be doubted. Elizabeth Post, keeper of the flame of the most famous name in American manners, died in Naples, Florida, on April 24, two weeks short of her 90th birthday.

Europeans often look down on Americans, supposedly if not actually classless, for their informality, seeing in it a crudeness of social behaviour. But the popularity of Emily Post’s rule-book indicated a hunger in the new world for at least some of the ways of the old. Her decrees, that, for example, “no young girl of social standing may without being criticised go alone with a man to the theater,” were widely heeded, at least in the theatre-going classes.

Elizabeth Lindley, known to family and friends as Libby, was herself to the social manor born, on May 7 1920 in the exclusive town of Englewood, New Jersey. Her grandfather, Cyrus Field, had laid the first transatlantic telegraphic cable in the 1850s and her father was a vice-president of the New York Stock Exchange. True to her class, she attended the elite Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, but, again typically, she never contemplated taking her education further.

In 1941, she married George Eustis Cookman, a US navy lieutenant, but two years later he was killed in action in the Pacific. In 1944 she married Emily’s only grandson, William Goadby Post. She later confessed to being nervous about first meeting the doyenne of manners but found her “the sweetest, most natural, warm-hearted unaffected person I ever met”.

But it took the best part of another 20 years, after a period when she lived in Colombia, where her husband sold trucks, before she took over her grandmother-in-law’s mantle. As Emily declined in health (she died in 1960) other writers were brought in to update the book and ghost-write the regular syndicated columns. One night Elizabeth’s husband asked her to look over some of their work which he had brought home and she simply concluded she could do better. And indeed she wrote the 11th edition of Etiquette, published in 1965, and many of the five later versions, under the title The New Emily Post Etiquette, as well as other books and advice columns, mostly in women’s magazines.

Over the years, she transformed a cottage industry into a perfectly modern family business, operating out of the Emily Post Institute in mid-town Manhattan and later in Burlington, Vermont. Since the mid-1990s, it has been run by her daughter-in-law, Peggy, with several other children and grandchildren involved. It branched out into new areas, including running courses for captains of industry and finance on how to conduct themselves in public.

But the constant challenge was to adapt to changing times and social mores, especially given the upheavals of the radical 1960s. By common consensus, in this Elizabeth Post was remarkably unstuffy and open-minded. Etiquette, she thought, should not be “restrictive or unpleasant”, but could help out with “sticky situations”.

Still, there were some old shibboleths from Emily that did stick. Asking a woman her age was “a thoughtless question”, published divorce announcements were counter-productive since they revealed failure (“personally, I don’t think it’s anything to crow about”) and breast-feeding in public was ill-advised because it made other people uncomfortable. She never really liked trouser suits, and certainly not at proper luncheons, and thought women should cut hamburgers with a knife and fork before picking up half with the fingers.

On the other hand, she had no problems with wife-swapping (“if four people want to do it, that’s their business”), reluctantly accepted that the era of “ladies first” (opening doors etc) had passed with the rise of the women’s movement and offered lots of helpful hints about how to introduce a live-in lover or partner who was gay or of a different race (the 1967 Stanley Kramer movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, had, after all, captured public imagination).

She even reversed herself – and Emily – by decreeing that it was no longer “degrading” to take doggie bags of leftover meals from restaurants. Nor, if economic times were rough, did she have any problem with hosts asking guests to bring their own bottles to parties, though guests might write their initials on them so “heavy drinkers don’t go home with full bottles of Scotch”.

And in life’s rites of passage, above all weddings, she was regarded as biblical, though also far from alone, as the success of Amy Vanderbilt and the more irreverent Miss Manners (Judith Martin, in real life) showed. No details were left untouched, including the correct dress for a pregnant bride (“she may modify the virginal effect by choosing a definite off-white”). Today’s modern wedding industry, lucrative to all but the parents of the bride, is in good measure built on her advice.

Elizabeth Post, survived by her daughter and three sons, lived a full life outside etiquette. She painted water colours, played golf and was an avid deep sea fisher, once holding the record for the largest tarpon ever caught by a woman in American waters. And, according to Peggy Post, “She didn’t say ‘tsk, tsk’ at all.”

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