It's time for a visit from Auntie Manners herself:
Yep, you may have guessed her: the one, the only, the formidable Amy Vanderbilt.
Now...how many of you girls have ever caught yourself, mid-afternoon, daydreaming of another time? With yourself (the heroine, the empress!) at the helm of the ship, guiding your thoughts to false memories of the lives you never actually lived? Perhaps some of you picture yourselves toga-draped and trident-wielding, goddesses of violent Hellenic seas; or perhaps some of you envision Elizabethan courtyards, where you sit counting jewels to pass the time. And perhaps yet another small percentage of you gals have imagined yourselves queens of the roaring '20s, Charleston-ing your way from jazz club to cocktail lounge to Gatsby soiree in some low slung Deco gown...oh, Daisy!
My point: wouldn't we all love to go back in time, if just momentarily, to experience a slice of life? How grand. In our minds we can even place ourselves in different eras without all the icky real-life details that muddled things up back in the old days (famine, plague, lack of toothpaste...you get the idea). Our minds have the ability to make history appear quite, quite quaint.
Reading Amy Vanderbilt's famous treatise on proper etiquette, which was completed in 1952 and written for a dying class of gentlewomen, does just that for me. Icky realities aside, it extends a delicate gloved hand and guides me to images of red lips and powdered noses, tea-length dinner dresses, gorgeous home suppers laid out on family wedding china...the whole dream just reeks of pot roast and Shalimar. I can see myself front and center, coiffed and polished, gleaming, with a souffle on one arm and a baby on the other: Hostess.
(And all that minus the boredom, disappointment, and social oppression of the 1950s housewife, of course! Pish. Posh. My, how sumptuous is life without gritty details!)
Did we burn our bras only to later dream of the days when we still had to wear them, PLUS girdles? Ha. Well...yeah: as young women in 2011, we're now so far removed from that lifestyle that it's been lumped into our general consciousness almost as a sort of story, or scene from "Mona Lisa Smile", filed under pretend-games like boys might do with Cowboys and Indians. Call it Homemaker and Hostess, whatever you like. Obviously I don't say this to offend women who actually lived pre-women's lib, or to trivialize their struggles. But for a twenty-something who was born when ladies had long been wearing sweat pants to the grocery store, visions of Amy Vanderbilt and her time of decorum--kindly romanticized by the mind--are right up there with Guinevere and Helen and Juliet and Cleopatra. For me at least. All characters.
So here is an ode to the mid-afternoon daydreams of lives never lived, of rosy-colored scenes from days gone by, the pretty glossed ones that only ever existed in our minds. Off we go to polished silver, off we go to steak tartare. And please, as you read, for the love of doilies don't think about the fact that Amy was not actually a direct descendant of the Cornelius Vanderbilt bloodline; worse, don't you even PONDER the fact that our Queen of Manners threw herself from her apartment window to an early death at the age of sixty-six...now that would just ruin the whole facade! Duh.
Below are a few choice lines, most noted by me with a nod to their laughable obsolescence, from Ms. Vanderbilt's writings regarding food and the table. Enjoy.
- Who needs a book of etiquette? Everyone does.
- A man or woman may take on a superficial patina of breeding, but it is very difficult to overcome slipshod table manners.
- If the nose must be blown at the table, it is done as quietly as possible, without excuse to draw attention to the fact.
- Conversation and laughter should always be modified at table. Loud guffaws are disturbing at any time but worse from a dinner partner.
- It is rude to the point of insult to refuse to drink a toast to anyone. If you can't drink wine, you pretend to do so. A toast with water is no toast at all.
- Grapes: Cut a bunch or section of bunch from bunches in bowl with knife or scissors (never absent-mindedly pull off grapes from centerpiece or arrangement of fruit).
- Birds, Frogs' Legs: The impression of gnawing the bone must be avoided. It is no shame, by the way, for a lady confronted with a squab or half a broiled chicken to ask assistance from the gentleman with her in dissecting it...this is better than running the risk of having the meat land in her lap or, on the other hand, going hungry, if she is really inept.
- Very few homes in the land these days can accommodate the traditional thirty-four guests at one dinner table--or even half that many--in comfort. Who indeed has the space to store all the silver, glassware, and china for such dinner parties...?
- Pretension is so very uncomfortable.
- Afternoon tea as a gentle means of relaxation should be encouraged in this country. Surely it is a pleasant, and incidentally inexpensive, way to repay small social obligations...
- A hostess should never try too hard to get her party going.
The end. Bless your poor, privileged heart Amy Vanderbilt. Now could someone pass the martini tray, damnit?