04 June 2007

Miss Manners

Painfully correct: Judith Martin today

These days there are very few great prose stylists whose work can be found in the pages of any daily newspaper. Perhaps there never were many. Yet today one hardy soul graces the Washington Post with carefully crafted, delicately balanced sentences, precise vocabulary, and incisive wit, in two columns per week. Her name, Dear Reader, is Judith Martin.

In the guise of Miss Manners (usually depicted, whether in line drawing or in photograph, in a high lace collar, upswept Edwardian hair, and a tasteful cameo brooch), she dispenses advice on etiquette, answering readers’ letters (in black or blue-black ink, on unlined stationery, please, although of late she’s deigned to read e-mails, too) on such engrossing topics as acknowledgment of wedding presents, correct placement of cutlery, formal greetings at embassy luncheons, and how (not whether) to address unmarried partners of one’s in-laws’ children. Her columns are resolutely up-to-date, often hilarious, never snobbish or starchy, and they provide her with a platform to touch on many other subjects of perhaps loftier substance, as well as one firmly held ideal. For good manners, Judith Martin argues (politely), are a demonstration of consideration and respect for other people, and the rules of polite society are to be applied democratically: treat everyone with good manners, and you treat everyone as equal. (If not equal to you, then at least equal to everybody else.)

Shortly after our graduation, my friend Andy Weems, the finest actor at Brown, got a job at what was then called the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington. He began with spear-carrying parts but rose to Equity eligibility in the role of Ajax, in Troilus and Cressida, a rare, curious little play I have now seen performed more times than seems statistically probable. (I saw it yet again when Andy took the role of Thersites, in an off-Broadway production in New York, many years later.) The director of the Folger production book-ended the play with a dumb show, in which two innocent-looking, non-Equity-eligible children played war games with wooden swords and a toy horse (Trojan, of course). One of these children was Judith Martin’s daughter, the too-aptly named Jacobena.

I’d come to Washington to see the play, first when Andy was a spear-carrier, and yet again, when he took over the role of Ajax from another actor. Calculate that I saw the show twice each visit, and I was already up to a tally of four, for those who are counting. One evening, I didn’t watch the show, but went to dinner with another Brown friend, the photographer Catherine Karnow. We went to pick Andy up at the theater, but we arrived well before the end of the play. In the lobby there were a few other people waiting for the actors to emerge, and among these was Judith Martin herself.

Knowing that I admired her, Andy had told me that she was the mother of young Jacobena and that she’d been around the theater quite a bit during the run of the show. He claimed she’d been spotted at the opening-night party, clutching a glass of scotch and a cigarette in the same hand and laughing like a horse, but this must be attributed to Andy’s keen sense of satire and a desire to tease me, rather than to anything he actually witnessed. The real Miss Manners would never behave in such a way.

Now she and I were together in the lobby, she speaking with her friend and I speaking with mine. But we had plenty of time to kill, and I decided to introduce myself. I approached her.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Martin, but I’m a great admirer of your writing,” I said. I praised her style and wit, and told her that, although I found it difficult to live up to her standards of etiquette, it was great fun trying.

She thanked me — politely, of course. I had come to the end of my piece, and with a few murmured “wells” and “ahems,” I began to back away.

Yet I realized that simply to do so would be to miss a great opportunity. I approached her again. “Excuse me,” I said again. “How does one get out of these conversations where one has nothing left to say?”

“You’re doing fine,” said Miss Manners. “Just keep backing away, and soon you’ll be gone.”