I have a theory that elegant people have an aura of impenetrable private sadness, and that good taste and impeccable manners are life’s consolation. Perhaps they conjure sprezzatura, the Renaissance ideal of artful nonchalance, that makes it all conceivable.
My parents both grew up with far less than I did, and my childhood was an endless promenade of things people who have never had money suppose that rich people do: French lessons practically from birth, a tapestry or two, a miniature set of salt and pepper at each place setting, a baby grand piano that gathered dust, and books everywhere, although I never actually saw them read. While my sly and mesmerizing mother, born in New Orleans and raised in a working-class family of six rambunctious siblings in small-town Louisiana across Lake Pontchartrain, took my two siblings and me to the Smithsonian constantly, my father embarked on imparting us with an extremely strict etiquette course of his own design, primarily informed by the fact that he was born in 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression, to a mother who herself was born to a newly-arrived family of Swedish immigrants in 1899 (his father improbably survived a Transatlantic voyage from Italy as an infant, in steerage). I was born in 1979.
No one in my family would wear jeans to anything but a sporting event or suggest any group activity with children’s preferences as its motivation. My brother and sister are a little more of this world, with their school spirit, but I remain allied with the Old Guard. My grandmother was fond of saying, “Children should be seen, but not heard,” and many of my dinners were taken, dressed for it, in fashionable restaurants with adults. Children and adults resided in our entirely separate spheres, with an attendant formality, which is not to say that I didn’t have a plethora of whimsical and imaginative aspects to my childhood. I had a two-story playhouse that my father built for me (modeled after one we’d seen from the window of the hospital where my mother’s father died in Mississippi) in our backyard, which was so large that my brother, once presumed to have run away, was found a few hours later watching a portable television in a tent. To each, a domain.
The house I grew up in was sprawling and filled with labyrinthine passageways, oddly tumbledown, and useful for avoiding everyone else who lived there. I spent my days in solitude—you could not hear someone calling your name, and this was, of course, before cellphones—and in refuge from my parents, whose mutual covenant was broken, in the most brutal terms (which they shouted at each other daily for a decade with the accuracy of church bells), by my father’s failure to remain exceedingly prosperous and, crucially, generous, and my mother’s failure to remain as beautiful and cheerfully obsequious as she had been as a flight attendant. I could never invite anyone over because it was inexplicable. So, friendless by necessity, from age six or so on, I looked after the younger ones as best I could and pulled the leather-bound edition of The Prince down from the shelf in hopes of gaining insight on how to navigate it all.
There you have the well I drew from. Lots more things would happen, of even more comical badness (years later, my brother, said to have been seen drinking himself under the table with Chartreuse of all things, at my father’s wedding to my mother’s ex-best friend and college roommate, in that very house) but then I left home at seventeen and my life began. I entered the world with careful manners, acute consideration for the suffering of others, cool forbearance, an indomitable instinct for self-preservation, and a credit card for emergencies that I ran up immediately and could not pay off for almost a decade. I am grateful to my parents for all that and more, including an Ivy League education that was paid for by my father, and the fact that, in my early life, when my family traveled together, we flew on a private plane. After their eventual divorce, when everything was truly spent, in every sense, I barely got by at all. Elegance is survival.
Just before I was asked to write this essay, on comporting oneself with elegance in the modern age, I was asked to lay out my thoughts on glamour for the New Inquiry. I mildly demurred, with regard to myself, and pointed to the term’s archaic roots as a kind of benign trickery. Glamour, you go out with; elegance, you marry (if you have any sense).
Glamour is Ava Gardner, long my inspiration, and her penchant for bullfighters. Danger, costume, machismo –– it makes for a perfect cocktail of artfully constructed fantasies.
One of the most elegant women who have ever lived would have to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, for the way in which she divorced the King of France and resurfaced as the Queen of England. As I recall, all anyone could piece together was a single meeting.
Glamour is constructed, elegance is acquired, and charm is innate. For that reason, I think of the state of being elegant as having a kind of democratic virtue, open to all. Most of being elegant is knowing when to say “no,” and how (quickly, neutrally and with as little detail as possible, and more often than not), and cultivating empathy and a set of behaviors that spring forth from that compassionate heart. Civility, it is said, comes from the place where our elbows rub together. Manners are just the common practice.
I used to be unnaturally preoccupied with maintaining amiable alliances in the case that they might someday prove useful in my employment as a freelance public relations representative. Power, after all, lies with she who controls the army. My thirties, although I’ve barely hit my stride in the decade, have taught me immeasurable lessons about elegance in terms of dealings with other people. I no longer cultivate friendships that would be based on anything other than my simple, straightforward and honest desire to get to know the other person better. In my twenties, I was constantly taken advantage of, mostly by emotional vampires of every stripe, because that was what I allowed. I constantly work to improve boundary-setting, and take careful note of what is proffered. It sort of goes without saying then, that people who write letters often make the cut.
This January, I ordered engraved house stationery from Dempsey & Carroll, a small firm in New York, as prescribed by Emily Post: “Thin white paper, with monogram or address stamped in gray to match gray tissue lining of the envelope is for instance, in very best taste.” It sounds as good today as it did in 1922, and it sends the right sort of message. (Her “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home,” is free at Bartleby.com.)
Books are a tremendous source of refinement, especially if they are about heiresses. Serious Pleasures, about the life of Stephen Tennant, is an endless pool of inspiration. I often reflect on his enviable inability to be embarrassed. A particular source of delight, if not instruction, may be found in the tale of any American who married into the English aristocracy. For instance, Gladys Deacon, who once wrote to her husband, the Duke of Marlborough: “Am I not the last of the Marlborough gems, Greek in temper with a more modern dash about certain parts?” Elegant? Doubtful, but that would be how to say it. Much of what I read for pleasure is biography and memoir, and my library at home could be said to have one section: “Fabulous Lives” (anything by Hugo Vickers or Mitchell Owens to start)… Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a companion to Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living, Maugham’s Cosmopolitans twinkling alongside The Letters of Noel Coward (“I have a Ritz mind and always have had.” Diaries, April, 22, 1960), and Calvino’s Baron in the Trees pressed close to Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence. I’ve always found the charm of books to be that they allow us to privately practice for life, and am informed enough to surmise that there must be a ballroom with my name on it.
A further glance at my bookshelf reveals Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s Entertaining with Elegance, unearthed at a used bookstore, teeming with cats, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and invaluable, and Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige, read as a sort of talisman against the worst sort of taste and snobbery. She loathes napkin rings—I disagree; they’re a wonderful element of the transporting fantasy of dinner with intimate friends at home—but makes the excellent point that the simplest expression wins. Elegance dictates that there is a superior way, and it seldom has anything to do with spending lots of money. One bottle of decent champagne is worth six of the lesser stuff, and a holiday close to home will always be more elegant than a planet-scorching trip to St. Wherever. Europe on an extremely tight budget? I ventured to cities like Antwerp, Edinburgh, and Dubrovnik. Perhaps not Paris, London and Venice, per se, and yet special all the same.
The summer that I spent bopping around ashrams and a West Coast zen practice center, my early career in the labor movement, my first year of self-employment: all of these scenarios, in one way or another, sharpened my appreciation for what matters. Simplicity, in all things, is worth the pursuit. Consider, for instance, the klismos chair, pioneered by the Ancient Greeks and still a common design of the highest order today. Wabi-sabi and Mono-ha are Japanese schools of thought based on essential forms, and the relationship between nature, the passage of time, and order imposed by humans.
When I buy clothing, I spring for something well-made, or I buy something classic. Price is important, but so is principle. I support American family firms whenever I can. Cheap clothes are made with cheap standards, by human beings who deserve consideration of how they toil. I’d find it hard to take a man seriously if he seldom wore his own tuxedo. It’s no honor being the best-dressed person, either; it’s a sign to find a more beautiful room. Dressing down, when the occasion is worthy, is too sorry to contemplate. I’d rather have one decent dress that I washed every night in the sink than wear polyester.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the glorious Jazz Age expatriates and influences on the work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I found one photograph of Sara, sitting on the beach at Antibes with her long pearls slung over one shoulder. Soon after, Estate Jewels posted a picture of a sixty-four-inch strand of thirty-year-old Chanel pearls. I bought them to wear with my swimsuit in California next week. Studied observation and selective emulation is how I’ve learned everything that I know.
When I realized that I needed a desk in December, I trawled 1stdibs.com, in the hope that, on my limited budget, I might trump mass-made. I type this now on a desk that is sensuously carved green-and-gold 19th Century Portuguese, with myriad secret compartments, from the same dealer, Gottlieb Gallery, that I bought a nine-foot Chinese folding screen from, in lieu of a wall where I needed to create an extra bedroom. I live with my sister in an abode of supreme tranquility, and our brother flies in for a week a month. Both my parents visit, although not at the same time, and the next step might well be a house in the country where we all could enjoy, with providence, a mellow old age. Elegance is forgiveness, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, and the understanding that everyone would like to minimize the anguish that is a natural part of life, even if they don’t necessarily know how or where to begin. There is today, and now.
It is impossible to write about elegance without including a cautionary note for when it is required most, as social media is the enemy of the failed love affair. Whether it is your heart that has been broken, or another’s cast aside, restore your equilibrium to a place of dignity, however shaky, and refrain from commenting in any way that you might some day come to regret. It is for good reason that celebrities often reply, “no comment.” No matter how savage the scandal, or the often attendant humiliation, pain, like all else, is finite, and no one person in this world is more interesting or important than anyone else.
During my last love affair, I was an immensely stupid creature, and in retrospect, those two years of my life cost me far more than I had to spend. My foolishness laid not in my expectations, but in my steadfast refusal to accept that they would not be met. In the one letter that he sent me, outlining his vague discontent in response to my professed heartbreak following our last falling out, which devastated me, he addressed me as “Ms. Cerand.” It was no grand gesture, and we were not suited in temperament at all. I had often been arrogant in matters of the heart, and thus ultimately found a measure of gratitude for the lesson in humility. Elegance is acceptance, often when all has ended in disappointment. There is always an opportunity to transcend, and move beyond, limiting circumstances. Cut your losses, mind your manners, and, if possible, leave the country.
Finally, if there is one maxim that supersedes all others, it is that the person who issues the invitation picks up the check. If you can’t afford dinner, arrange drinks. Or a picnic. If truly elegant, the person who has more money would pay. If in doubt, that would be you.