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Gentleman Lost : Are They All Gone, or Is It Just the Nature of the Times That Makes It Seem That Way?

December 17, 1995|Colman Andrews | Colman Andrews is executive editor of Saveur. His last piece for this magazine was about neckties.

"I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but can't be helped anyhow." --Daisy Ashford, "Young Visiters"

*

In the early 1950s, when I was 8 or 9, my parents started sending me to ballroom-dancing classes at the Beverly Hills Women's Club. One night a week, along with several dozen other boys and girls of similar age, I was taught to shuffle my small feet in tentative approximation of the fox-trot and the waltz and, at the same time, received a measure of polite indoctrination in the social graces.

I had to dress for the occasion, in a pint-sized blue suit, with a clip-on necktie and a pair of shiny black lace-up shoes. So attired, I was taught to bow from the waist to a female counterpart, who was usually wearing a gauzy pink or yellow party dress, before asking, "May I have this dance?" She was to reply, "Yes, you may," with a curtsy. (Refusing would have been unthinkable.) I was also taught not to speak in a loud voice, not to push or butt in when it was time to line up for the punch bowl and not to hold my punch glass with both hands "like a chipmunk."

My mother didn't leave everything to the Beverly Hills Women's Club. The lessons of the dance floor and the punch bowl echoed what I learned at home: make eye contact and shake hands firmly; say "Please" and "Thank you" at every reasonable opportunity and write bread-and-butter letters to acknowledge hospitality; don't talk with a full mouth or chew with an open one; hold doors and coats for girls and grown-ups, and, in general, treat both with exaggerated respect....

I was learning manners. I was learning how to be a little gentleman, or at least to act like one. I know exactly what Gore Vidal meant when he asked rhetorically, in an interview not long ago, "An air of gentility isn't difficult, is it, if you're nicely brought up and have gone to dancing school?"

It didn't last, of course. As I got older, I stopped hanging out at women's clubs. I stopped drinking punch and forgot how to dance. I went years without writing a bread-and-butter letter, and spoke as loudly as I damn well wanted to. About the only time anybody called me a gentleman was when one of my high-school teachers said something like, "Perhaps the gentleman in the back row would like to share his little joke with all of us?"

By the time I started tentatively thinking about manners again--inspired in part, I've always suspected, by the fact that a door I passed through frequently in the UCLA building where I studied philosophy was marked "Gentlemen" instead of merely "Men"--the world had changed. The social fabric, at least the one I'd grown up cloaked in, had colored and was rent (and high time, too). Gentility, always something of an evanescent quality (an air indeed), seemed to have evaporated, and gentleman , in any non-ironic sense, had become almost a dirty word--"Defamed by every charlatan/ And soiled with all ignoble use," as Tennyson had put it somewhat earlier. Holding doors and coats was suddenly not a good idea at all. The little gentleman in me lay low.

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Today I am myself a parent. I don't have any little gentlemen of my own, but I do have two young daughters, and it has occurred to me to wonder whether they are likely to encounter any gentlemen, little or big, as they grow up--whether there are any gentlemen left around here--and, for that matter, whether encountering a gentleman is something that I'd wish for them. Is it true, for instance, that a gentleman is, by definition, sexist--a socio-sexual Neanderthal who expects all women to be "ladies" and to say, "Yes, you may?" Is a gentleman, by definition, a sap, a wimp, a weenie? Is it precious or pretentious or archaic or just plain silly for an American male in the final years of the 20th century to attempt, or want, to be a gentleman? Oh, and is being a gentleman a goy thing?

The answers to such questions depend partly, of course, on how we define gentleman . The immediate derivation and core meaning of the word seem obvious: A gentleman is a gentle man. Fair enough. But gentle , in this case, doesn't have to do with delicacy or politesse; it means of noble origins or high social standing--from the Latin root gentilis , "of one's clan." (If you're not a gentleman, you're Not Our Kind, Dear--and vice versa.) That's the sense the Oxford English Dictionary is using when it gives, as the first definition of gentleman , "A man of gentle birth, or having the same heraldic status as those of gentle birth."

How did we get from there to Cary Grant? How did a piece of heraldic terminology, linked inexorably with lineage and social class, come to mean just a suave guy with good manners, an old-fashioned value system and maybe his own tuxedo?

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