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In a Manner of Speaking, She Offers Polite Advice

October 29, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Born a perfect lady in an imperfect society, Miss Manners is the pioneer mother of today's civility movement." So begins Judith Martin's tongue-in-cheek official biographical statement.

Martin, 62, adjudicates social behavior as Miss Manners for the etiquette-challenged in a United Features syndicated column carried by more than 200 newspapers. Her books offer advice, rebukes and wry commentary about virtually every important social activity and most human foibles.

However, when Martin first proposed her column to a Washington Post editor in 1978, neither she nor her skeptical editor could have predicted its eventual resounding success.

"This was considered an oddity," she said. "People read it, I suppose, for laughs."

Martin actually is third in a lineage of 20th century manner-matriarchs. In 1922, debutante-turned-writer Emily Price Post authored "Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home," a surprise bestseller whose sales rivaled those of Sinclair Lewis' then-popular novel "Babbitt."

Refusing to become a despot of etiquette minutia, Post declared, "Nothing is less important than which fork you use." She implored readers to embrace kindness and consideration as the spiritual roots from which good manners could arise.

Post was succeeded by blueblood Amy Vanderbilt, first cousin of shipping/railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and great-great granddaughter of one of the founders of Bank of Manhattan.

Deeming herself a "journalist in the field of etiquette," Vanderbilt researched the manners of genteel Americans, and compiled her findings in "Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Guide to Etiquette" 30 years after the publication of Post's social behavior bible. Vanderbilt, too, believed that etiquette should be based on its contemporary usefulness, declaring that it was "patently ridiculous to live by rules laid down by people of another century."

In the late 1970s, along came Judith Martin. Daughter of an economist from Madison, Wis., who found employment with the United Nations, Martin embraced the opportunity to closely scrutinize arrays of social customs and protocol. From a young age, she also was fascinated by the etiquette dictates of cultures past, for, she explained today, "if you want to know what a society was doing, look at what it was told not to do."

Apparently, she was a quick study in social graces: "My father used to say, 'How come you're so upper-class and we're so lower-class and you're our daughter?' " she later wrote.

After graduating from Wellesley in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in English, she accepted a summer job with the Washington Post as a copy girl. Though the job proved the springboard for greater callings, it was unsatisfying. Martin later described the experience as "monotonous work with terrible hours--a take-home pay of $27.50 a week, and the opportunity to get screamed at a lot."

Martin proved herself a very valuable and versatile asset to the Washington Post. In 1960, she was promoted to do feature writing, eventually covering White House dinners and Embassy Row cocktail parties. She also wrote reviews of books, plays and movies.

During the Nixon administration, Martin gained unexpected notoriety by becoming the only journalist banned from attending Tricia Nixon's wedding. "The First Family does not feel comfortable with Judith Martin" came the word from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Perhaps this was because of Martin's occasionally uncomplimentary musings about the Nixons (in one piece, she noted that Tricia Nixon dressed "like an ice-cream cone"). During those pre-Miss Mannerian days, Martin penned a few essays for the Washington Post that might have arched the eyebrows of her alter ego.

In the title of one of her essays she used an expletive, intentionally misspelled. The article talked about the pros and cons of living in a "poverty pocket" in Washington. Another detailed Martin's rather unrestrained reactions upon discovering that her order of 19 lampshades had been delivered with only 18 tassels. That one she called "The Best Consumer Voice Screams."

In 1978, Martin launched her etiquette column, after gaining a robust following for her sage advice in the Post's women's pages. She was applauded for her deft, often slyly humorous treatment of a subject that can be stultifying in its dryness.

Adopting a Gibson Girl-retro look--somewhat similar to that of statuesque, meticulously-groomed Emily Post--Martin appeared publicly in high-necked blouse, brooch and upswept chignon. She also answered reader inquiries in a literary style akin to Post's Edwardian-style prose, an affectation not to everyone's liking in this Internet Age of short and sweet.

"Although the questions she addresses are very good, the way in which she responds is a bit antiquated and confusing at times," said Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. "If she would just answer the questions straight, I believe she'd draw even more readers' interest in the subject."

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