two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Emily PostLaura Claridge, whose previous works include biographies of Norman Rockwell and Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, has penned the first-ever biography of Emily Post. She illuminates the woman behind the name while charting Post’s rise from vivacious Gilded Age debutante to "the autocrat of etiquette."

The Topic: In 1905, neglected society wife Emily Price Post endured unimaginable public humiliation when her stockbroker husband’s extramarital exploits made front pages across New York City—the direct result of his refusal to be blackmailed. She dutifully supported him at the subsequent trial but sued him for divorce in 1906. Faced with having to provide for herself and her two sons, she began to write, producing novels and magazine articles until publishing Etiquette in 1922 at the age of 50. An immediate success, it sold more than 1.5 million copies before Post’s death in 1960. Post’s emphasis on manners over money and her steadfast belief in an egalitarian "Best Society" comprised of the "best behaved" appealed to a regimented social order on the cusp of great change.
Random House. 544 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375509216

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Claridge’s book hints at becoming a cultural or literary analysis, offering glimpses of Post’s historical context and writing style. But it remains a highly competent biography, the beginning, one hopes, of a whole new field of Emily Post Studies." Liz Brown

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"An exhaustive researcher, Ms. Claridge … has in this book provided beguiling new details about the taxonomies that governed Post’s life. … Sometimes Ms. Claridge’s insights into Post’s behavior seem speculative." Dinitia Smith

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Only a few terse sentences go to the mistress who put Emily and her soon-to-be-ex husband on the front pages of every New York paper. Emily Post is a rich portrait of an era, but—like its subject—it has little time for idle gossip." Katharine Critchlow

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Much of Claridge’s narrative is devoted to an examination of Post’s career, and accounts of contractual negotiations—not to mention tallies of sales and circulation figures, exegeses of revisions and lengthy quotes from reviews—don’t always make for compelling reading. Such details do, however, provide a measure of the ways in which a girl who just wanted to be a worthy heir to her father turned herself into one of the most powerful women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, according to a 1950 poll of women journalists." Amanda Vaill

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Claridge hails from the leave-no-detail-undisturbed school of biography; she can’t resist a quiver of the thermometer or of the stock market, of which there were rather a few between 1872 and 1929. … At times she strains against the facts, or seems willfully to misread them." Stacy Schiff

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Claridge undercuts her subject in the introduction with the cruel and unwarranted statement that Post was ‘lacking the intellectual skills to articulate her own cultural philosophy.’ Rather, it is the author who is lacking. She has not researched the subject of etiquette, and yet draws conclusions based on mistaken notions." Judith Martin

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Infelicitously subtitled Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, it’s a clumsy fusion of biography and social history. … Sad to say, no detail, no information, no analysis has been left behind, however puzzling, however awkwardly appended, however superfluous." Joanne Kaufman

Critical Summary

Despite her limited access to Emily Post’s personal papers, Laura Claridge does her best to bring Post to life against the ever-changing cultural landscape of the early 20th century. While the New York Times praised Claridge as an "exhaustive researcher," other critics complained of the author’s frequent digressions and the glut of useless information: "Do we need the curtain time of the production in which Emily had a bit part at age 6?" bemoans the New York Times Book Review. Some critics also questioned Claridge’s interpretation of facts and her unfamiliarity with matters of etiquette. However, Claridge does succeed in unveiling the fun-loving, banjo-playing workaholic behind the myth—and forever demolishes the image of the fussy prude obsessing over fork usage.

Supplemental Reading

Emily Post’s Etiquette 17th Edition | Peggy Post (2004): Updated by Emily Post’s great-granddaughter-in-law, this latest version of the 1922 classic guides the reader through the pitfalls of 21st-century life—from online dating and cell phone usage to questioning a potential sex partner’s past and displaying body piercings at a job interview.