Last year, my husband and I were in Washington, DC, on inauguration day. As we were driving to a friend’s house, out of the car window, I saw Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners, walking down the street in the opposite direction, wearing a huge white winter coat and pearls.
Her advice column used to run with an illustration of a Victorian lady at her typewriter. And that day in Washington, Ms. Martin was wearing her thick silver hair in a Victorian-style bun just like the illustration. Seeing her in person after so many years of thinking of her as the illustration was like seeing Christopher Reeve in the movie Superman after years of reading comics. There’s a breaking down of the third wall, the illusion that one is stepping into the newspaper.
“Stop the car!” I said. My husband pulled over.
I have been a fan since I was probably six years old, reading her syndicated column in the San Francisco Chronicle. I loved columnists, especially absurdist or sardonic ones. From age six to ten, my favorite columnists were Judith Martin and Calvin Trillin.
Miss Manners, speaking about herself in the third person, once wrote something like, “People often accuse Miss Manners of wishing to be born into an earlier time, but this is not true. There are two innovations that Miss Manners cannot live without: Feminism and indoor plumbing.”
A few years ago, she posed for a photo shoot that was featured prominently in Ms. Magazine. She sat at a small table set up for afternoon tea, but the cookies were, unexpectedly, little female symbols. The photos captured Ms. Martin's trademark juxtaposition of genteel propriety and scathing social critique.
As she likes to remind the gentle reader who would do away with supposedly insincere and fussy ideas about etiquette: If everyone practiced good manners, there would be no crime or war. (I still think that President Obama should have chosen her for Secretary of War—or excuse me, Secretary of Defense—instead of Mr. Gates.)
This is a woman who wrote books titled Miss Manners Rescues Civilization and Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Both titles, in my opinion, helped clear the way for New York publishers to allow such brilliant literary titles like A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius.
“Should I…get out of the car and…run after her…and invite her to join Red Room?” I asked Abe, tentatively.
He looked at me very seriously from behind the wheel of our now parked car. “Well,” he asked, “What would Miss Manners say you should do?” And he tried not to smile. I figured she would probably say that the gentle reader should proceed to her friend’s home, without accosting Miss Manners, so as not to make Miss Manners late for rescuing civilization. So that's what we did.
[I'm joining the entire Red Room community in writing a short blog post on this week's topic: "Bad Manners." We'll choose at least one of these blogs to be featured on Red Room's homepage next week, and we'll choose three blog writers to receive free books from Red Room Authors. Submit your blog entry by Friday at 10:30 a.m. PDT [GMT-0700] for consideration. Be sure to tag the entry with the keyword term "bad manners” so we can find it.]