Once (Again) In Love With Amy

in Voices by

By Jack Sparacino

Amy Vanderbilt

After writing recently about one of the queens of etiquette, Emily Post, it seemed only fair to give equal time to one of her famous kindred spirits, Amy Vanderbilt. Born in 1908, Ms. Vanderbilt published the Blockbuster best seller, “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette.” She also hosted popular TV and radio programs on etiquette and even consulted with the U.S. Department of State. Wow, that was some career. One worth thinking about even today. I must confess that my first response to reading her collection of responses to her readers’ questions, Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette, circa 1952, was basically shock. And laughter. A few examples might help to recall her sharp eye. The gist of her suggestions follows, along with my first reactions in italics.

How to eat various foods

Bacon: May be eaten with the fingers if crispy, otherwise (“with any vestige of fat”) it must be cut with fork or knife and eaten with the fork. Cake: Sticky cake is eaten with a fork. Dry cake is broken and eaten in small pieces. Tiny confection cakes are eaten with the fingers. Cakes “treacherous as to filling,” e.g., cream puffs, are eaten with a fork. (I’ll have the pie, please.)
On the use of iced teaspoons versus parfait spoons, when serving parfait it’s OK to use teaspoons if parfait spoons are not available. (Whew.  What a relief!)

Bowing for a man vs. a woman

“When presented to a lady, he bows first slightly from the waist, eyes on her face, steps forward awaiting her tendered hand. A lady’s bow is a slight inclination of the head, usually accompanied by a smile.” Handclasp optional. (Should the man smile too while he’s awaiting?)

When to use a lace tablecloth

It is suitable for dinner with guests and for a buffet and should be accompanied by fine china. It does not lend itself well to informal table accessories such as earthenware, wood and stainless steel. (Do we have any earthenware, dear, or is that a flower pot?)

How to deal with a spilled glass of tomato juice in a restaurant

If the waiter doesn’t take care of it, go ahead and spread a napkin over the spot yourself “without undue discussion of the incident.” (So much for alerting the media.)

Sending a Christmas card

Never send them second class. “Any communication with a friend which requires an envelope deserves the dignity of a three-cent stamp.” (I wonder what she’d say about e-mailing a card.)

How an executive should answer his phone

“Hello” or “John Black speaking” (if the person knows him well). “John Black of the Ace Company,” if their contact is more casual. (Gotta keep this one by the phone.)
Now, multiply these samples by oh, say a bazillion and you have Ms. Vanderbilt’s entire catalogue of how to behave in public. It’s quite the comprehensive package, though in today’s Lowcountry world we might need to make a few accommodations. Here’s my list:
1. Take two Tylenol as directed and lie down for an hour. When your headache subsides, proceed to number two;
2. Note how far off the wagon, so to speak, modern society has fallen since Ms. Vanderbilt responded to her audience’s need for etiquette guidance sixty short years ago. Some people miss the day when proper decorum was a bit more prevalent. Do we need to swing the pendulum all the way back to 1952? Probably not, but perhaps halfway back or so would be a pretty decent idea;
3. Grant that Ms. Vanderbilt’s catalogue of do’s and don’ts are really more like recommendations than universally hard and fast rules. Here and there one can catch her waffling just a bit and allowing the reader some wiggle room in determining how to proceed correctly.  But let’s face it—we’re not talking about precise specifications for manufacturing jet engines here or putting someone on Mars;
4. Consider how society only functions harmoniously when there are commonly accepted and rational norms and standards of conduct in place. Sure they need updating from time to time;
5. Practice some of Amy’s advice on your dog or cat. Talk about wiggle room, you’ll have plenty and even dogs like a good laugh. If you bow too deeply, put your elbow in the tomato juice, say “hey there” instead of “hello,” or overestimate the crispiness of the bacon and skip the fork, your faithful pet will forgive you. And if none of this works, see if it’s been long enough since the Tylenol for you to perhaps take something stronger. Then maybe watch an old movie featuring polite characters played by Donna Reed, Doris Day, or Cary Grant. You can even try talking back to the screen in admiration and relief. Tell ‘em Amy sent you.