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Posts Tagged ‘etiquette’

Varieties of Reluctance

September 1, 2015 | by


One of Alex Jardine’s illustrations from The Reluctant Cook.

I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.

Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.) Read More »

Courtesy Counts

August 21, 2015 | by

The MTA takes a stand against clipping and primping.


Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. —E. A. Poe

With time to kill before my train, I moseyed into the New York Transit Museum’s shop at Grand Central Station. A train-mad little boy was going wild, and a clerk spoke to his mother sharply about not touching, which seemed to me tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. There were lots of T-shirts with the logos of different subway lines on them.

The shop was also selling merchandise bearing images from the MTA’s recent “Courtesy Counts” campaign—cheeky subway posters prohibiting “man-spreading,” in-car performances, incivility. My favorite is the one that portrays a female figure brushing her hair while a nearby male clips his nails. “Clipping? Primping?” it says. “Everybody wants to look their best, but it’s a subway car, not a restroom.” Read More »

Dress Code

July 17, 2015 | by


From a 1962 Clairol ad.

My mother called me to ask how much to tip on a haircut. “A normal haircut,” she said.

“I usually tip upwards of 20 percent,” I said, “but of course it’s at your discretion.”

“That seems awfully high.”

“I don’t know, not for something you wear every day. And if you have a relationship with your hairdresser—” Read More »

The Flexible, Forgeable American Signature, and Other News

May 1, 2015 | by


Geheime Korrespondenz, 1891.

  • On etiquette, art, and the increasing complications of public space: “Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph … In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit.”
  • The Patriots’ tight end Shrek Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski has inspired a cottage industry—people can’t seem to write enough erotic novels about the guy. (Sample salaciousness: “Suddenly, all I wanted to do was watch Gronk do his thang-thang in the zone place there. My vagina demanded it.”) Now a couple is suing the author of A Gronking to Remember for using their image on her cover without permission.
  • “Historical fiction has become a byword for middlebrow wasteland.” But Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, whom critics are fond of comparing, have written novels that make a compelling case for the genre—so much so that people have started bickering about whether they’re really “historical” fiction at all …
  • “I think something happened, somewhere around Love’s Labour’s Lost and the early history plays and going into Romeo and Juliet. Either he fell in love or he just grew up, but something happened to him where he suddenly ‘got it’ about women and there was a profound shift in his writing.” In which Shakespeare gets acquainted with the female psyche.
  • The demise of the signature: a new poll suggests that very few Americans give a hoot about our John Hancocks. “While 61% of responders sign paper at least once a week or more, nearly half do so in a hurry and a full 30% just scribble something fast to get it done … 30% said they have a ‘flexible’ signature, with 64% saying it’s because of computer use. A full 81% of people admitted to faking someone’s signature three or more times a year, and a quarter said they wouldn’t be able to tell if someone had forged their own.”

Call Me Madam

November 20, 2014 | by


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 »


September 22, 2014 | by


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.