Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Missing Moatsie

Is there an afterlife for the Alice-Leone Moats addict, after the matronly curmudgeon has passed on to cast a cool eye on the social arrangements of the Hereafter. (She died, I found out from the Inquirer librarian, May 14, 1989. Missing her stuff, it had seemed much longer ago.) After weeks of moping, I came up with the obvious answer: take a fix on her books. I began with her first, No Nice Girl Swears. Miss Moats (I'm sure she'd flinch angrily in her casket if I used the feminist honorific Ms.; indeed, I'm terminally skeptical of the journalist who used the diminutive "Moatsie" in referring to her; it seems the kind of hypercasual locution that would make her reach instinctively for her mad money.)

In some ways the twenty-three page rumination she wrote for the jubilee edition is more interesting than the dated advice of the main text. The "nice girl" title was not hers, but a funky substitute of a woman working in the office of her literary agent. Her title was "Modern Manners."l933 modern, that is. Indeed, she brags rather than complains that it is the only one of her many books "ghost" written. (But she was the ghost.) At a literary cocktail party, the publisher George Putnam exacted an instant promise out of her to organize and help write a "book of etiquette for young girls".

A few months later when he surprised her by calling to see if the book was done, she made the mistake of apologizing that she didn't have a secretary. He hired her one. And that fat was in the fire. Her account of how her secretary and she couldn't get started in the free skyscraper office at 42nd and Fifth (a real estate beau from Hohokus, New Jersey provided the space) deserves a Neil Simon treatment.

It ultimately became the publishing sensation of l933, with King Features syndicating it to the nation's newspapers under Hearstian headlines like NEW VOLUME TELL DEBS HOW TO HANDLE DRUNKS and ETIQUETTE FOR TAXICAB LOVEMAKING LISTS TEN METHODS OF ATTACK. These empty teases confirm the long and respectable ancestry of current supermarket tabloid come-ons. Her advice can be summed up in two directives: always carry taxi "mad money" and use it without much forethought. Readers who expected hot grapplings depicted didn't know Alice-Leone Moats.

Indeed you get the impression, fifty years of taxis later, she wishes the public would stop identifying her with this sensation of one season and remember her for her serious reporting on the Far East and the Soviet Union. Such as Margaret Bourke-White's exclamation in Hami on the edge of the Gobi desert about her husband Erskine Caldwell's reading habits: "That's extraordinary. Skinny darling has written more books and read fewer than any author living. And to think that one of them should have been your book of etiquette." Nice girls don't hitchhike on Tobacco Road either, although she went to finishing school in Aiken, South Carolina.

All her gall is divided into thirty parts. It is not counsel for the timid with apothegms like "Do as you please if you can get away with it." She chides "who cares?" attitudes with a little lecture on the kind of posture frowned at in finishing schools. "Except under the most extraordinary circumstances nobody ever bothers to sit up in a chair."(p.5.)

"By all means," she rationalizes,"sit in any position you like, so long as you have pretty legs." Smoking allowed? Anywhere, except on the dance floor..."for it is too simple to ignite your partner (don't misunderstand) or set a diaphanous dress ablaze." (p.6.) That interpolated "don't misunderstand" is about as naughty as Alice-Leone ever gets. It sort of takes away some of the reputed thrills of the Jazz Age. (Even though published in the depths of the Depression it was touted as a "handbook in the spirit of modern jazz age". It's also O.K.now to powder your nose in public and slap on a bit more lipstick. And no topic or word is taboo nowadays--if you use a "little geographical discretion".

As for nice girls "swearing": "an occasional 'damn' passes unnoticed, /but/ any systematic swearing on the part of a woman comes as a shock." But worse than shocking is tiresome--ladies who preface every sentence with "My God." So strictly speaking, the title of her book of manners should have read "Nice Girls Don"t Swear All the Time Everywhere."

Chapter 2,"Should She Ask Him In?" sounds like it's getting more interesting. Don't count on it. If a girl lives at home, no problem--any hour for any reason. The family, awake or asleep is sufficient chaperone. (Miss Moats must have had broad-minded parents!) It's the working girl living by herself who has to be careful. She sets three rules: midnight curfew, sobriety, and "know your man". Knowing your man is easier said than done, for it appears difficult for masculine mentality to grasp the difference between living alone and living loosely.

"Too often men overlook the fact that a woman in business earns her money in an office."(p. 10.) The trickier question is what to do when he asks you in. There she is solicitous of the boy friend's wallet by being willing to eat at his place. And in any case one had to follow Cinderella's advice by leaving early. And don't risk your reputation by leaving a man's apartment at dawn's early light. That's taking maximum risk for minimum pleasure.

Has petting a place in a modern book of etiquette? Moats mocks Emily Post's position that this practice "has no more place in distinguished society than any other actions that are cheap, promiscuous, or vulgar."(P.13.) "A sweeping statement, to say the least!" demurs our mentor. "If this august lady's rule were to be followed when separating the sheep from the goats, society would soon dwindle to well below the magical 'four hundred'." She tells her presumably no longer innocent reader that telling seventeen different men that they were the first to kiss her would soon be tested by the candor of the men sharing a bottle of brandy stag. To keep a beau from becoming a lover, avoid all romantic ambiences and in the newest peril (the taxicab) when all bright conversation fails, "there is always the cigarette." And here we had thought all along that fast women succumbed to the Chesterfield habit back then to be sexy and romantic.

Moats is instructive in the etiquette of Christian names in "this casual era." Already there was pressure building for instant bonhomie. "Ordinarily a young man and a girl use Christian names shortly after they've met, but it's up to the girl to take the initiative. It is impossible to give the correct length of time which should elapse before switching from 'Mr. Tabel' to 'Joseph'. Rely on your woman's intuition. During that uncertain period use 'You'." (p. 23.) Yawn.

Excuse me, Miss Moats. The same hierarchies of deference are spelled out with respect to older, different sex, nature of relation. It's South Carolina showing once more. Similar reticence surrounds the simple problem of how to encourage or discourage a young man who wants to see you again. If you want to take the initiative, invite him to a cocktail party but don't use his Christian name in your invitation.

Chapter seven through sixteen explain the politics of debutante balls. I have never felt so grateful to have grown up lower middle class. The sheer all inclusive obsessiveness of its details make me restless. But you can see with her conditionals and provisos that the system was already breaking down as a cordon sanitaire for society girls. The next three chapters are on getting married--or remarried. Which is to say, the payoff for the preceding ten. Never has a windup seemed so disproportionate to a pitch.

Then there are two chapters of traveling. You have the impression she is talking about really knockout women traveling alone. "The only way to avoid being picked up is to develop the psychology of the averted eye." (p. 115.) Heh, this is not Manhattan, 1989. This is taking the train from New York to Philly 1933! She must have been reading "Sister Carrie". Her advice on how to avoid talking to dining car "companions" is astonishing.

One of the real pleasures (and on American railroads perhaps the only pleasure) of traveling by train is the spontaneous conversations you can find in the bar car or the diner. Certainly the microwaved semi-fast food is not one of them. The stuff actually makes you want to fast. "You are not expected to talk to them," she advises, "but it only courteous to acknowledge their presence with a slight smile on sitting down and on leaving the table." (p.116.)

I'm glad I never received one of those discreet grimaces because I'm sure it would have unleashed a barbarous guffaw from me. "The main object, when traveling," she continues, "is to remain inconspicuous at all times." This by way of recommending a "smart suit of some dark material, or a very plain dress under a coat, with a small brimmed hat (the object being to hide as much hair as possible and keep it in place). . ." (p.119.)

Aw, Moatsie. Tell me you're kidding. She must have really suffered from "garrulous strangers" in her travels--for all the defenses she advises her readers to devise. She's much less tight when advising her pupils how to spend a weekend out of town or how to behave on vacations, presumably because her social contacts are less heterogeneous in those upper class milieux. Something of a snob, the Young Miss Moats must have been, or (could it have really been shy?) I think she overcame both disabilities, to judge from her work in the Inquirer in the 1980's.

Her last advice is on how to handle drunks. She is ruthless. Grab your mad money and run. I can't believe that if a real boy friend got sick from drinking, she'd abandon him. But that's what she counseled. "When your escort passes out in a public place, waste no time worrying over him. Get up and leave quickly; take a taxi and go home. If you are fond of the young man and don't wish him to get into too much trouble, you might take his money and other valuables before departing, leaving him only taxi fare. If you do this, he won't be able to get into any further mischief when he recovers."

Alice-Leone, you were one mean broad. But beguiling. Moatsie, I miss you. Ah well, I still have your serious books to do. That's a small consolation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What was the name of the finishing school in South Carolina?