Sunday, January 9, 2011

Whatever Happened to Class?

My grandmother, Annette Andersen, age 16
I learned most of what I know of etiquette, table manners and how to behave in public from my mother. And my grandmother Annette, my father's mother, who was born in the United States but spent the first years of her life in Denmark, her parents' homeland. She came back to this country at the age of 16 .

It was undoubtedly the result of her upbringing, her experiences working as a parlor maid in some of the best homes on Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square and at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut ("They came as girls, they left as women"), as well as the traditions of the times, that resulted in her unwavering sense of what hospitality and good manners meant. When you visited her home for a meal, you sat at a table set with linen and silver and were served beautifully prepared food.

Friends of the family would drive over from the suburbs of Philadelphia to her house in Haddonfield, NJ, other Danes who weren't necessarily relatives, but whom we nevertheless called Aunt and Uncle -- robust women who wore silk print dresses, sturdy shoes and necklaces of heavy amber beads, and quiet older men with grave, handsome faces who wore suits and smoked good cigars. They would eat something and then get down to a few games of pinochle, accompanied by beer and Aquvavit. The men might take off their suit coats and loosen their ties, but that's about as informal as it got. No one showed up in baggy pants, Bedazzled sweatshirts and flip-flops. Nails were painted, pants were creased, shoes were shined. That's just the way it was. That's what I became used to growing up.

"The point of all this?" I hear you cry.

Over New Year's weekend on Long Island I found myself in a conversation with some people about etiquette and manners and, well, class. Etiquette, of course, is now considered passe and elitist, a set of arcane and anachronistic rules and regulations observed solely by bloated, gout-stricken robber barons and their wives, empty-headed old bags who talk like Billie Burke and never clean their diamonds. Even the high priestess of etiquette, Emily Post herself, was concerned back in 1922 that "manners seem to have grown lax, and many of the amenities apparently have vanished". Nevertheless, her book, which contained chapters devoted to "One's Position in the Community", "The Well Appointed House" and "Dinner-Giving with Limited Equipment", was more philosophy than a list of minutiae. "Manner," she said, "is personality -- the outward manifestation of one's innate character and attitude toward life... Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners. "

Ethics. Imagine. Not just which fork to use for the fish or how to eat a crustless cucumber sandwich. Ethics.

It seems to me that etiquette plus ethics equals class. 

If I'm not mistaken, there's a telling scene in a charming movie called "Princess Caraboo" in which a mysterious young woman, who is supposedly a princess from some exotic land, appears in England and is taken in by a wealthy couple who hold a banquet in her honor. At some point during the meal, she picks up her soup and begins to sip right from the bowl, to the horror of all the upper-crust Brits at the table. But the lady of the house, sensing the girl's embarrassment, picks up her bowl and begins to drink her soup as well, soon followed by everyone at the table, thus putting not only the "princess" but everyone else at ease. That's etiquette. And class.

But I often wonder, as Velma Kelly and Mama Morton do in "Chicago", "Whatever happened to class?" Why do I feel like such a fuddy-duddy when I cringe at someone on a cell phone repeatedly dropping the F-bomb in public? Why is it so unreasonable to expect people in a movie theater to watch the movie and have their conversations later?

I don't get a lot of what passes for humor any more. It's not just the language or the blue subject matter: there's nothing funnier than a good dirty joke well-told. But so much of what passes for humor these days is just mean-spirited and unpleasant and, frankly, laziness on the part of people who can't be bothered to sit down and create good material.  I've lost patience with people like Roseanne, who based her whole career on being a working-class Everywoman; Margaret Cho, the once-hilarious Hollywood underdog; and Kathy Griffin, a reasonably talented comedian, all of whom worked hard to achieve some well-deserved success, but who somewhere along the line devolved into what the cognoscenti would call "in your face, take-no-prisoners" divas. Which I freely translate as "braying, self-important, class-free loudmouths". People like Sandra Bernhard.

I will never understand Sandra Bernhard. 

"Reality" TV certainly hasn't helped. I don't follow the exploits of "The Real Housewives of (Pick the City), but based on the TV promos, they appear to be overripe call girls whose days seem evenly divided between attending charity "fashion" shows and pulling out each other's hair extensions. Classlessness is actively celebrated on the several shows that have given New Jersey an even worse reputation across the globe: why would people willingly allow themselves to be shown on television behaving badly, getting drunk, throwing up and sleeping around? For the paycheck, I suppose, and the "fame". These people are getting far more than Warhol's famous fifteen minutes, and I hope they have something to fall back on when the world gets tired of them and moves on. At least the girls on "Jerseylicious" can do hair and hock some of those gigantic earrings.

I'd like to think that, for the most part, these people are all just playing their parts (and brilliantly at that) for the benefit of an eager-to-lap-it-up public which simply isn't in on the joke; that when the lights go off they're just regular folks like you and me, who don't take themselves nearly as seriously in private as they do when cameras are rolling. 

But if, as Emily Post believed, manners are the outward manifestation of a person's character, maybe we know all we need to know of these people: cable TV's latest batch of spoiled, tantrum-throwing brides-to-be. (Why the grooms on these shows don't head for the hills after episode number three is a mystery to me.) Half-baked celebrities. Any of the numerous "comedians" who presume to tell the rest of us what to think and how to vote. Or the loudmouth on the cell phone in the supermarket line.

"Holy crap.
What a shame.
What became

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