Colonel Mann and Mrs. Post: Manners,
Morals, and Class in Modern America
The rudest man of the twentieth century was a master of every social grace.
A paradox? Not entirely: as Amy Vanderbilt wrote in the first edition of her enduringly popular etiquette guide, "some of the rudest and most objectionable people I have ever known have been technically the most `correct'." And Colonel William d'Alton Mann might have been born to prove her point. He appeared in New York in the 1890s, at the dawn of a turbulent era of world war, boom, and depression. Yet if one could believe his Who's Who entry, Mann was everything turn-of-the-century Americans most admired: Civil War hero, entrepreneur, business tycoon, millionaire, inventor, editor, publisher. He presided daily over his own table at Delmonico's, the grand restaurant at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. Like most real and would-be metropolitan aristocrats, he kept several residencesa Manhattan brownstone, a country house in Morristown, and a private island retreat on Lake George in the Adirondacks, where he dispensed seigniorial hospitality to friends and employees alike. He was a family man, with a faithful, dowdy wife and a daughter on whom he doted.
Yet by 1905 he was being roundly vilified by every respectable newspaper in the city and several national magazines as a social menace, a coarse criminal mocker of every bond that united the privileged world of New York's elite. And for this hurricane of civic outrage, Mann, if he had to trace theblame to a single person, might well have pointed to a then obscure and deeply unhappy young society matronthe thirty-three-year-old Emily Post, a decade and a half before she launched her public career as the century's leading doyenne of manners and protectress of etiquette.
Mann's origins were shadowy and probably humble (his life was thoroughly and entertainingly chronicled in 1965 by New Yorker writer Andy Logan). Born in Sandusky, Ohio, on September 27, 1839, to a family of thirteen children, he studied engineering for a while, then earned first a captain's and finally a colonel's commission in the Civil War, ultimately distinguishing himself at Gettysburg. He also raked in a fortune in royalties by inventing an equipment-toting rig for infantry troops, then licensing it to the U.S. and Austrian armies. After the war he settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he manufactured cottonseed oil, dabbled in railroads and oil swindles, founded the Mobile Register (which still publishes today), ran for Congress, and invented a luxury railroad car, the "Mann Boudoir Car" (the prototype design for the Wagons-Lits still in use on Continental European railroads). In appearance portly, white-haired, snowy-bearded, he might, depending on his mood and the state of your relations with him, appear as either a beaming Santa, thundervoiced Jehovah, or swaggering Falstaff.
In 1891, his brother, E. D. Mann, vanished in the aftermath of an obscenity conviction and left his businessa soon to be notorious New York weekly named Town Topicsleaderless. The magazine had begun life some years earlier as The American Queen, edited by Louis Keller, the founder of the Social Register, and "dedicated to art, music, literature, and society." Under E. D. Mann, however, while preserving a tone of strict propriety, it ripened into a scandal sheet, faithfully reporting high-society peccadilloes and often identifying perpetrators by name.
With his brother now incommunicado at a location unknown, Colonel Mann came to New York, assumed the editorship, and gradually raised Town Topics to a hitherto unmatched mastery in the art of scandal. The gossip was personal, vicious, salacious. But the sophistication with which Mann served it up was a world above that of latter-day tabloids like the National Enquirer or the Globe. Mann himself rewrote and edited the magazine's opening "Saunterings" feature. The prose was refined, funny, elegant, and razor-sharp, a clear precursor of The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" in its soigne' tone, but with a hidden payload of brutal satire underneath the polish. As the Saunterer, Mann became a celebrity in his own right, and apparently an intimate of the very elite he took delight in savaging. "When mature spinsters take it into their heads to indulge themselves in a little souse party," a typical item commenced,
they should do it in the privacy of their house. I thought this at the reveillon at a certain hotel on New Year's Eve, when I saw the hennaed head of a fair but fat and fully forty maiden vainly striving to direct her uncertain feet on a zigzag course around the tables. Ordinarily she is a very handsome lady, but youthsweet, sweet youthis the only period at which one may be drunk and still retain some degree of attractiveness.
Nor were all Mann's targets left thus mercifully nameless. When her 1915 charity ball at Sherry's slid into rigor mortis at the intended height of the festivities, and an exasperated Mrs. Alexander Blair Thaw, the Pennsylvania Railroad heiress, hurled herself in a tantrum upon the balalaika orchestra (which had donated its services free of charge), "Saunterings" gleefully identified her.
In 1904, the Saunterer unleashed a scathing attack on the twenty-year-old Alice Roosevelt, just beginning her controversial social career:
From wearing costly lingerie to indulging in fancy dances for the edification of men was only a step. And then camesecond stepindulging freely in stimulants. Flying all around Newport without a chaperon was another thing that greatly concerned Mother Grundy. There may have been no reason for the old lady making such a fuss about it, but if the young woman knew some of the tales that are told at the clubs at Newport she would be more careful in the future about what she does and how she does it. They are given to saying almost anything at the Reading Room, but I was really surprised to hear her name mentioned openly there in connection with that of a certain multi-millionaire of the colony and with certain doings that gentle people are not supposed to discuss. They also said that she should not have listened to the risqué jokes told her by the son of one of her Newport hostesses.
Mann typically wrote "Saunterings" items up from notes supplied by eavesdropping servants or hired spies disguised as ball musicians. But the unsavory side of this information-gathering system hardly fazed him. "There is no feature of my paper of which I am more proud," he wrote, trumpeting Saunterings' "reformative and regenerative influence. To save the sinner by rebuking the sin is an achievement over which the angels rejoice." Mann ducked lawsuits by a clever device: describing the scandal without naming names in one item, then following it with an apparently innocuous social note that just happened to identify the miscreants. Readers quickly cracked the code; Town Topics was never successfully sued for libel.
The colonel stoutly maintainedand from all the evidence really seems to have believedthat he was performing a public service. Taunting the errant to purge incivility, however, was not his sole aim. For behind its satiric commentary on the manners of the rich, Town Topics was actually the front for a blackmail operation perhaps unique in history. Having nosed out a lapse, Mann would dispatch a henchman, who would threaten to publish in "Saunterings" unless the culprit either bought advertising in the magazine or a block of its essentially worthless stock.
If the victim balked, a damaging item duly appeared (to be followed by as many more as the magazine's considerable ingenuity could gather). Butfiendishly enoughthe outcome was just as bad if the blackmailer cooperated, because Mann, in mock gratitude, would then plant not one but a whole series of flatteringindeed, suspiciously unctuousnotices in "Saunterings." This merely had the effect of revealing to the ever-growing number of those who knew how Town Topics worked that the subject had either paid (out of vanity) for favorable coverage, or (out of fear) to hide a shameful secret. And, of course, when the payoff took the form of an advertisement in the magazine, its appearance blazoned not only the advertiser's business but the probability that he'd forked over liberally to conceal a blackmailable secret. By paying, in other words, one simply purchased a different, more ironic kind of exposure; to anyone well attuned to the magazine, it became completely impossible to distinguish between florid compliment and corrosive insult.
Mann enjoyed the double if paradoxical rewards of crime and sanctimony until 1905, when he miscalculated by making an ill-judged attempt to blackmail Emily Post's husband, Edwin. A Wall Street stockbroker mired in a financial bad patch, and on strained and distant terms with his wife, Post had been supporting a Broadway chorine in what the euphemism of the day called a "white apartment" in Stamford, Connecticut. Unable to disgorge the $500 demanded by Mann, Post confessed to Emily. From the very beginning, her sense of propriety differed sharply from the false modesty that would have counseled hushing the matter up at all costs. Instead, she advised him to contact the district attorney and set up a sting operation. He did. Mann's agent, Charles P. Ahle, was arrested in Post's Wall Street office on July 11, 1905, triggering a public sensation, which was to fill the columns of newspapers and titillate readers for nearly a year. Collier's magazine, prompted (its publisher claimed) by the scabrousness of the attack on Alice Roosevelt, launched a series of sharply worded articles, disclosing that Mann had been paying a city juvenile court judge, Joseph Deuel, to vet Town Topics for actionable items. This was bait laid for Mann, but Deuel hotheadedly seized it, suing Collier's editor, Norman Hapgood, for libel. A jury took exactly seven minutes to declare Hapgood innocent, and the district attorney, sifting through Mann's testimony, promptly charged him with perjury, and subjected him to a criminal prosecution that kept the fires of scandal burning well into the spring of 1906.
In the midst of all this, another, even more titillating scam came to light: a keepsake folio, bound in green morocco, profusely embossed in gold leaf, printed on the heaviest and crispest vellum, and floridly titled Fads and Fancies of Representative Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Being a Portrayal of Their Tastes, Diversions and Achievements. It too was a front for blackmail and extortion, but here the stakes were higher. Inside were short and apparently flattering biographical tributes to eighty-one eminent Americans, including a past president, Grover Cleveland, and the chief executive then sitting, Theodore Roosevelt (whom Mann must have thought above holding any grudges over Alice). To gain an ironically flattering mention in Fads and Fancies (and avoid a public sniffing of one's dirty linen in Town Topics), one paid a minimum of $1,500, but some subscriberspresumably those with the biggest bank accounts and the most explosive secretsforked over as much as $9,000, essentially to immortalize themselves as victims (and hence as guilty provokers) of blackmail.
In its singularly insolent way, Fads and Fancies is a masterpiece of double entendre. It opens with a declaration that "the plates from which the impressions were made have been destroyed." Reassurance to the bibliophile? Or a derisive echo of the blackmailer's promise to destroy incriminating material? The introduction teeters delicately between gushing with appreciative wonderment and throwing down a gauntlet: "American society! What is it? Who gives it the right of being? Whence is it derived? What influences have borne upon it and shaped it?" This pointed question gets no answer, but there is an explanation of high society's usefulness to the less privileged onlooker. "It is the touch of romance in their workaday world," it dryly continues, "to read in the papers of how such a one, who has risen from their ranks by his own energy and ability, is now disporting himself among the world's greatest on equal terms."
With all Mann's schemes exploding to a chorus of scorn, it looked, to the relief of polite society, as if fashionable New York was about to rid itself of its most dauntless and pernicious pest. But they'd underestimated their enemy. Mann ultimately beat his perjury rap, and while it's not clear that he ever fully reassembled his blackmail apparatus, Town Topics lost little of its bite, declining only after his death in 1920. It lingered on into the 1930s, when, to the relief of the sinning elite and the chagrin of everybody else, it folded.
Are Manners Moral?
Colonel Mann's saga was a juicy scandal in its own right. But it also betokened a sense of crisis about manners that marked the early years of this century. Between 1900 and 1920, the nation's popular magazines were full of articles assessing the state of American social behavior and carrying titles like "Has the American Bad Manners?" (Ladies' Home Journal, 1900), "Decay of American Manners" (Harper's Weekly, 1903), and "Are We Ashamed of Good Manners?" (Century Magazine, 1909). Interest in the subject peaked in 1922 with the runaway success of Emily Post's Etiquette. Though it echoed popular late Victorian etiquette authorities like Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1826-1903), Post's book soon overshadowed them, in part because it acknowledged the treacherous and shifting ground under the subject, and addressed frankly a widening conviction among Americans that good conduct and morality were becoming unglued from each other.
Fated enemies though they were, Mann and Post, had they ever met, could nonetheless have seen eye to eye on one key point. Both took manners seriously; neither thought them a trivial study; both saw them as indissolubly linked to the gravest issues of morality. Blackmailer and extortionist he may have been, but a genuine moral indignation fueled Mann's attack on the hypocrisy of the gilded class he'd stealthily invaded. He despised the perverse misuse of social polish as a cover for vice. Manners, he thought, ought to reflect morals and reinforce them, not cover up for their absence. And Post, though she belonged to that class by unassailable birthright, agreed emphatically as to the moral importance of manners and the extent to which her compatriots often casually betrayed them. "The code of ethics," Emily Post wrote, "is an immutable law of etiquette." True good manners were therefore the reverse of vacuous rituals. "The code of a thoroughbred," she continued, "... is the code of instinctive decency, ethical integrity, self-respect and loyalty."
As the twentieth century closes, Americans seem troubled anew by the state of their manners and seem also to agree that the problem is serious, even momentous. But is civility really on a par with more obviously fateful ethical issueswar, murder, euthanasia? Philosophy, in fact, has traditionally been very much of two minds about the moral significance of manners. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great seventeenth-century English social theorist, disparaged etiquette, defining it in his best known work, Leviathan, as "how one should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company and such other points of the small morals." Hobbes meant the latter phrase pejoratively, ranking good manners far beneath issues of real moral moment.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the hugely influential eighteenth-century German ethicist and metaphysician, characteristically took a more nuanced and convoluted position. On the whole he seems to have thought etiquette ("accessibility, affability, politeness, refinement, propriety, courtesy, and ingratiating and captivating behavior," as he defined it in an early lecture at the University of Königsberg) a concern separate from and inferior to morals. Manners, he argued, "call for no large measure of moral determination and cannot, therefore, be reckoned as virtues." Yet he didn't finally dismiss them, for "even though [manners] are no virtues, they are a means of developing virtue.... The more we refine the crude elements in our nature, the more we improve our humanity and the more capable it grows of feeling the driving force of virtuous principles."
Advocates of manners often repeat this idea forcefullynone more so than Edmund Burke (1729-1797):
Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.
Elsewhere, Burke accorded even more importance to manners, assertingin the brief and tantalizing way so characteristic of himthat they actually help to form laws. "Whilst manners remain entire," he wrote in 1777, "they will correct the vices of law and soften it at length to their own temper."
Conservative such convictions may be, but they are also common, and not merely theoretical. Judith Martin, for example, sometimes makes tongue-in-cheek assertions to the effect that "Miss Manners does not mess around in that morass known as morality." Yet many of the problems she confronts, even where they start with protocol, escalate into questions of right and wrong. In the summer of 1996 she advised the relatives, friends, and recoverers of the victims of the just-crashed TWA Flight 800. "The more horrendous the situation, the more you need etiquette," she was quoted as saying in Newsday. "This is why etiquette is so extremely strict in situations where the issues you are debating are of major importancethe courtroom, the government legislature, diplomacy." Indeed, a breakdown in manners can deteriorate into a confrontation where both morals and laws are violated, and what ought to be an easily settled interpersonal ruction flashes into violence. On the Fourth of July in 1995, a group of teenagers riding in an old Chevrolet on Interstate 17 near Phoenix accidentally sideswiped a pickup truck during a maneuver to avoid another car. But when they exited the freeway and tried to talk to the driver of the truck, a passenger leaped from it and shot a sixteen-year-old sitting in the Chevrolet's back seat, leaving him a quadriplegicprobably for life. Small morals aren't really small if they can tame the passions that lead to this kind of tragedy.
In her book The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Gertrude Himmelfarb deplores what she sees as a perverse modern urge to wall custom and convention off from morality, reducing right and wrong to questions of personal taste and preference. "Virtue" (as opposed to the contemporary "value," a term Himmelfarb despises as indicative of moral relativism) is her word for an organic normative blend of manners and morals that she views as characteristic of a now lost time and place of grace: Victorian England. According to Himmelfarb, Edmund Burke foreshadowed a widespread middle-class Victorian conviction that manners are "the harbingers of morals writ large, the civilities of private life that were the corollaries of civilized social life." By observing superficial civilities punctiliously, Himmelfarb thinks, Victorian society affirmed in everyday life its allegiance to deeper ethical values as well. The benefit, she argues, was double. Normal existence was more graceful and pleasant than now; catastrophic breaches were rarer.
In this moralistic model, even hypocrisy has its uses, becoming, as Rochefoucauld put it, "the homage vice thinks it should render to virtue," rather than the monstrous gap between superficial propriety and deep-down rottenness that Colonel Mann both deplored and illustrated. Himmelfarb cites the diaries of Queen Victoria's four-time prime minister, William Gladstone, which harrowingly record the chasm between his unvaryingly circumspect public utterances and his compulsive secret interest in pornography and nubile prostitutes. Gladstone's need to appear respectable, however ill it matched his real thoughts, may (by serving as a constant and painful reminder of the virtues he wasn't practicing) have kept him aspiring to goodness.
The urge to re-moralize public behavior, upgrading optional niceties into duties in the hope that this will stiffen our moral spines, has been sounding more and more insistently among a wide spectrum of cultural critics, political theorists, and philosophers. Their ranks predictably include conservatives like Himmelfarb, William Bennett, James Q. Wilson, and the late Christopher Lasch, but they include too a surprising number of voices from the center and the left: Richard Sennett, for example, makes an analogous case in The Fall of Public Man (1976), as does Nicolaus Mills in The Triumph of Meanness (1997). Jürgen Habermas, the contemporary German philosopher, has spent a long career attempting to assemble a metaphysics of civility, a system designed to guarantee individual freedom yet at the same time subject it to reasonable government by moral principles: "`Moral consciousness' signifies the ability to make use of interactive competence for consciously processing morally relevant conflicts of action.... Competent agents willindependently of accidental communities of social origin, tradition, basic attitude, and so onbe in agreement about such a fundamental point of view only if it arises from the very structures of possible interaction."
Simplified, this rather abstract formulation means that productive communication is impossible without support from a bedrock of moralsa shared belief (for example) that any useful social interaction depends on reciprocity. And while Habermas is far more concerned with the politics of deliberative democracy than he is with etiquette, his point is nevertheless relevant for our discussion. If social interactions do indeed collapse for want of a firm moral underpinning, then mannerswhich form, after all, a key part of social interactionare vital.
Michael Sandel's widely discussed Democracy's Discontent (1996) contends that American politics, once ruled by a consensus that government should create a climate friendly to the practice of public virtue, has degenerated into what he calls the "procedural republic," a society obsessed at all costs with preserving as absolute the autonomy of the individual. Sandel quotes Benjamin Rush's 1786 Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools approvingly as supplying a moral compass we've since abandoned in favor of moral relativism: "Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property."
Miss Manners would surely agree, as would her predecessors, Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt. Behavior that ignores the proximity and the sensitivity of others may fall short of crime, but remains wrong. The diner sitting next you at a lunch counter who mops her face with a paper napkin, crumples it, then tosses it onto the Formica inches from your plate, commits an antisocial and thus immoral act as well as a rude and unsanitary one. The risk of disease, while small, is real enough to constitute a moral assault if not a legal one. And even discounting the possibility of physical harm, city dwellers in the developed world like to keep their distance from others, instinctively avoiding unwanted contact: observe, the next time you board a jammed train, bus, or subway car, how deftly even oblivious-looking people contort themselves into unnatural postures simply to avoid unseemly closeness to fellow commuters.
Yet every instance where manners are morally momentous counterbalances another where they're trivialsituations where wrongness is plainly a matter not of ethics but taste, and where miscalculations signal only that one hasn't mastered the ways of whatever class or clique one wants to join. In 1922, the year of Emily Post's debut as a manners expert, Doubleday placed a series of advertisements in Redbook magazine for a competing guide (the author, not cited, was Lillian Eichler, and the guide her two-volume Book of Etiquette). Though Eichler, like Post, often stressed the moral dimension of manners, the ads appealed to readers on far different grounds. They were a month-to-month soap opera, recounting the social misadventures of a well-meaning and ambitious but instructively gauche young couple, Ted and Violet Creighton.
In the February 1922 installment, they've been invited by Mr. and Mrs. Brandon to an elegant dinner party. "They were to dine at the Brandon homeactually be the guests of William Brandon! ... But were they ready for it?" Mr. Brandon is considering Ted for an executive job, and since Ted's rival Roberts and his wife are also guests, the dinner is a test.
"The first two courses of the dinner passed rather pleasantly," the narrative begins.
But then, something happened. Violet noticed that Mrs. Roberts had glanced at her husband and frowned ever so slightly. She wondered what was wrong. Perhaps it was incorrect to cut lettuce with a knife. Perhaps Ted should not have used his fork that way. In her embarrassment she dropped her knife and bent down to pick it up at the same time that the butler did. Oh, it was humiliating, unbearable! They didn't know what to do, how to act!
In the evening's crowning abasement, Ted mistakenly follows the ladies when they adjourn to the drawing room, provoking the "amused glances of the others." Hence he's not surprised when Mr. Brandonpolitely waiting until Violet is out of earshot, retrieving her coattells him they've failed the exam. "I'm sorry, Creighton, but I've decided to consider Roberts for the vacancy. I need a man whose social position is assured."
Ludicrous as the vignette appears at this remove, it raises a serious issue. The Creightons and the Brandons obviously agree on the importance of etiquette, and the ad confidently expected readers would do likewise. But the actual customs described are in themselves empty of moral meaning, indifferent conventions whose only possible use is to denote social class at its snobbiest. And every use made of them by the characters is flagrantly immoral. Even the Creightons, however hapless, are not without guilt. They hope, after all, to use etiquette as a forged passport to worlds they don't belong in. Roberts is worse, wielding social rituals as stealth weapons against an unarmed rival. Mr. Brandon is worse yet: he treats manners as tools of triage for an exercise in social Darwinism. And the ad itself outdoes all of its characters in cynicism, by trading on etiquette to wheedle the reader into buying the volume out of mauvaise honte.
For every instance, in other words, where manners are morals writ in miniature, there's an opposing instance where they either lack moral significance entirely or (worse) serve as vehicles for pretense, fakery, and greed. And if manners aren't always good, rudeness isn't always bad. History's truly immortal louts tend to be conscious opponents of the codes they violate, mockers of pretension, satirists who rarely view their acts of rudeness as immoral. Quite the reverse. Rudeness, they seem to be telling us, can supply the good swift kick a besotted society deserves and needs. Plato's Athens, conventionally the apotheosis of civilized Western urbanity, endured Diogenes the Cynic, who (according to tradition) dwelt in contented filth under an overturned bathtub outside the city gates, heaping ribald scorn on philosophers and citizens alike. A characteristic high point in his career occurred when he wandered into a lecture at which Plato was pontificating on human nature before the cream of Athenian youth. "Plato had defined man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, `Here is Plato's man.'" Yet Diogenes figured to his fellow Athenians not as a nuisance but a valuable gadfly (as even Plato conceded, red-facedly adding "having broad nails" to his definition of man).
Nor did the impulse to use rudeness as a moral corrective expire with Diogenes. In early 1996, at a Washington meeting of city officials, Sandi Webb (a councilwoman from Simi Valley, California) leaped to her feet, gave U.S. senator Diane Feinstein the finger, then stomped out. "I blew it," Webb later conceded, in a characteristically mid-nineties version of public apology. "I was so pissed at her, I got up and left." Called to account for such outbursts, the perpetrators typically invoke just such a defense: they know it was unmannerly, but thought an insult just the right note, a needed stink bomb thrown at smug and immoral convention. Colonel William Mann, after all, proved a thorn in society's side because he claimed to understand its mores, to have found out just how his presumed betters were violating the code that should have governed them, and then rebuked them by wielding it not only more expertly than they did but more lethally.