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Posts Tagged ‘etiquette’

Call Me Madam

November 20, 2014 | by

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Photo: Karen Horton

In my defense, I was really little when my mom took me to my first concert at a grown-up concert hall. The music was for children, but I was still too babyish; I demanded to leave in the middle of act I so I could pee. I have no memory of what we heard that day, but the elegant bathroom made a huge impression on me. “Who was that lady?” I asked my mother, after a uniformed woman had handed me a paper towel and my mom had dropped a bill in her basket. And she explained: that was a Madame Pipi.

For a long while after that, I was obsessed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask me. And I would answer, “A Madame Pipi.” It seemed to me the most glamorous job in the world; to be surrounded by grandeur, dressed in a smart uniform, and have a bowl of money, besides. To a small child, all grown-ups seem important and magisterial; bathrooms loom large; the adult measures of income and status do not apply. I made myself a Madame Pipi outfit with a small apron, although my parents would not allow me to be on duty when we had guests. Read More »

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Charm

September 22, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm (1962)

When I was in tenth grade, I went through a phase when I cut class all the time. Not in a fun way—I never told any of my friends what I was doing—or to be rebellious. In retrospect, I think I must have been depressed; I simply could not face other people, or think beyond hiding myself in the library in a small nook on the second floor. For some reason, I always read The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm, from 1962.

Polly Bergen died this week at the age of eighty-four. She was a polymath: an actress, singer, professional sophisticate, and (evidently) advice-giver. I knew none of this when I first picked up the book—why it was in my high school's library is another open question—but quickly I learned about her country-music career, her success in films like Cape Fear, and, of course, the development of her signature look, which involved big glasses and a pouf of a dark coif. It’s not hard to see what attracted me; the cover features Bergen, in evening dress, peering out seductively from behind a cellophane curtain.

Bergen would go on to be a successful entrepreneur—she sold makeup, jewelry, and shoe lines—and an outspoken feminist. She was what was known as a “big personality” in the day, and was open about her ambition and strong will. Her recent obituaries have been laudatory, and quite moving.

In tenth grade, I didn’t know anything about Bergen’s life past 1962, but during those few months of intense intimacy, her brassy sixties-era confidence was deeply comforting. I liked how definite she was about beauty tips, the elements of charm, and the importance of establishing a “type.” I remember her writing that she was really only herself in her glasses; I liked that this was an essential part of her glamor.

One day, I got caught by my favorite teacher. He had checked with the nurse’s office and found that I had lied about being sick. (I had been in the library, reading The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm.) This man was a wonderful teacher; I loved his history class, and I knew he liked me, too, and thought I was smart. I know exactly why I had skipped his class that day. I was ashamed; I had not wanted him to see me depressed and unprepared and as I really was. I wanted to keep his good opinion. “Why did you lie to me?” he said, seeming really hurt. And I didn’t know what to say. Of course, he didn’t like me after that.

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Bringer of Jollity

May 27, 2014 | by

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“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

A friend described to me yesterday what he considers the Three Degrees of Being Stood Up. As he explained, these proceed as follows:

First Degree: Standing someone up entirely, with no warning, and no subsequent apology.

Second Degree: Canceling on someone at the last minute, possibly after he or she has set out for the appointment in question.

Third Degree: Breaking a date.

He agreed that we have all been guilty of the third. I know I have, too often, and, indeed, was somewhat surprised to hear it grouped with the other two offenses. And yet, he was right: such things inconvenience others and maybe even hurt them. Besides practical questions of schedules and reservations, there are matters of disappointment and broken trust. After a certain point, you cease to depend upon people who make a habit of breaking dates. Maybe that’s what we want.

It was funny that this should come up just when it did, because only a few days before, another friend had observed, “people should have the self-esteem to know that their absence matters to other people.” Read More »

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Lisa

May 15, 2014 | by

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John Singer Sargent, A Dinner Table at Night, 1884

Last week, I was invited to a fancy dinner in honor of a personage in the international art scene who had curated an interactive installation in an urban high school. More specifically, my rather more impressive friend was invited, and he asked if he might bring me. Not being much of a personage in the international art scene or otherwise, I was both excited and nervous. The night before, I tried on and rejected several dresses before deciding on a black lace vintage frock I had picked up at a thrift store some months before, and had altered but never worn. Having had a haircut four days before, I decided to eke a little more mileage out of my increasingly mangy blowout, and I put on my old denim jacket as a sort of security blanket.

The dinner was held in the private room of an austerely chic downtown restaurant. It was already filled with people when we arrived—some recognizable, many beautiful, all looking like personages. The room contained several long tables bedecked with place cards. I accepted a glass of wine and tried to look less anxious. But when my friend went outside for a cigarette, I went with him.

When we returned to the room, everyone was seated. Someone called to my friend to come sit next to her; he had been placed near some famous people in the center of the table. I looked around, but I already knew: there was no place card for me. Everyone else was seated. A waiter murmured in my ear that someone hadn’t shown up; I could sit in her seat for the moment. Read More »

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Inappropriate

March 28, 2014 | by

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Every funeral is unhappy in its own way. In the case of a second cousin of mine, this way was unexpected. There was grief, yes, and remembering, and laughing, and subterranean tensions, and tearful reunions, and the occasional old score to be settled. None of this is what I mean.

The funeral had proceeded along the normal lines. She had lived a long and full life. Children and old friends had spoken. There had been a brief, ecumenical homily, as suited her unreligious nature. The master of ceremonies, an old friend who happened to be a rabbi, gave instructions as to the next steps in the proceedings—a trip to the cemetery, for those who were going, and later an open house at a son’s apartment. There was the general rustling that accompanies imminent departure.

And then, a woman rushed in from the back of the room. Read More »

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Disgusting Lives

March 11, 2014 | by

Goops and how to Be Them

From the cover of Goops and How to Be Them, 1900.

The other day I visited with a four-year-old friend; we read a book called Manners. As the title implies, this is a guide to basic children’s etiquette, with an emphasis on consideration for others, and it was cute and instructive. But I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t have quite the élan of The Goops.

Created by the humorist Gelett Burgess (also inventor of “the blurb”) in the late nineteenth century, the Goops were humanoid characters with enormous round heads who behaved disgracefully—children could profit from their example and get an illicit thrill from their antics. “The Goops” comic strip was a recurring feature in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. The book, Goops and How to Be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants Inculcating Many Juvenile Virtues Both by Precept and Example, with Ninety Drawings, came out in 1900 to instant acclaim. I can still remember the opening lines:

The Goops, they lick their fingers,
and the Goops, they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth,
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!

Read More »

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