Manners mean more than money

National Post  Saturday, February 19, 2000

OId society paid lip service to the adage that money didn’t count. It also steered clear of the press. The inveterate rule for a lady was that she was only to be mentioned in the newspapers three times in her life: when she was born, when she married and when she died. The whole premise was based on not appearing in newspapers and not inviting the press to your party. The wealthy didn’t want to encourage publicity for fear of inviting invasive eyes. Obviously that went out the window in the late 1960s and early ’70s when there was an influx of new blood, new money and new interests, and materialism replaced snobbishness.

The wealth and showiness of nouveau society reached its apex in the 1980s with the glitter girls, wives of wealthy men who wanted to do good works- which is an old pattern- but who also enjoyed cafe society’s glitter aspects. Of the socialites, half wanted to raise money and half craved attention. They seemed like renegades at the time, but they were still part of longstanding tradition in their emulation of its practices. They were ex­emplified by Catherine Nugent, who played the game so assiduously that she captured the fancy of the press. She enjoyed the attention and co-operated fully.

Around this time the nouveau riche wives of wealthy men were also making a mark on U.S. society. These were not women the rest of us might want to know. They did things like demanding first-class seats on an airplane for their pets, fawning over and flattering pow­erful people, putting on social events rife with pomps and vanities. They were characterized by Tom Wolfe as social X-rays in his 1987 best-seller Bonfire othe Vani­ties. But they had street smarts and a kind of brittle energy that attracted a certain crowd and drew attention to their causes.

We are living now in what is a pluralistic, multi-ethnic world where business is all. There are no definitions as to what constitutes society any more. There are more focuses, more events and they former a wider and wider net. There is no divine right to run things. The more recent society leaders-  i.e. the glitter girls and their like- are disappearing, but the new guard-  i.e. the very young, very rich, high-tech entrepreneurs- is not necessarily looking to them for guidance. Whereas the glitter girls learned their lessons very carefully from their predecessors, indeed copied and imitated them until their habits became almost caricaturish in scope and dimension, this new group is paving its own way, setting its own standards. 

Ironically, the youthful society of the millennium while scorning the wiles and ways of the glitter girls, looked further back for its direction to old society. Implicit in that hierarchical world were shared values and codes of conduct that brought you social acceptance. It wasn’t just money; it was the way you spoke and how you held a knife and fork. Obituary writer Donn Downey wrote of Zena Cherry that she didn’t know how to define a lady or a gentleman, but she knew one when she saw one. He quoted her as saying that a street cleaner could get into her social register as long as he had certain graces. Deference, at least, was paid to the fact that there had to he something beyond the means, i.e. the money, that got you there. You had to have certain graces, live a certain lifestyle. “Beware the vulgar nouveau riche” has always been a rallying cry of old money.

Summoning up echoes from the past, some of the new rich, belying their self-confidence and unwillingness to be cast in old moulds, are retuming to the never-ending quest for social acceptance, but with a modem twist. For this young brash society that works hard and plays hard wants to be taken seriously. Its members know their money can take them only so far in that regard.

In search of a profile, 36-year-old Scott Paterson, the chief executive of Yorkton Securities- a Toronto-based investment banking firm that specializes in technology underwritings- asked writer Peter C. Newman- who had included him as one of Canada’s new titans in bis recent bestseller of the same name- for advice. Peter Newman referred him to Ray Heard who was retiring as a senior advisor to top banker John Cleghorn and has many personal and press connections. Mr. Heard went to work for Mr. Paterson at Yorkton in September of 1999. Can you buy a social image? The answer these days is probably yes. Yorkton and Mr. Paterson are be coming recognizable names in the press.

The death of Zena Cherry in January signifies the passing of an era that may never come again. On the same day her obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail there was an item in that paper pointing out that former Toronto Sun columnist Sylvia Train is offering a course on Know Your Manners. Several weeks earlier in the National Post there was an article by Susanne Hiller on teaching manners to business people. A company called The Business of Manners was offering a one-day seminar at $195 a pop over a four-course luncheon at the Elmwood Club. On the menu: instructions on what fork to use. Suddenly everything old is new again. The antiquated etiquette and manners of women who traditionally filled the hostess role are returning. But only as a sidebar or sideline. For feminism has blown that role out of the water. So has a pluralistic society arid a con­sumer ethos that says everyone is equal except in the ability to earn money.

But the idea of grace and decorum and civility and giv­ing hack to society and a serious -as opposed to a frivo­lous- public persona seem to be coming back. And they will be revived because they will be perceived as useful in making the quality of life more bearable.That’s what a lady and gentleman do- make life easier for the rest of us. And so we have the well-deserved accolades for Zena Cherry- who was always a lady in the sense that she was invariably gracious and refined- and the anachronistic sprouting up of etiquette teachers. And a youthful investment banker asking for professional advice on how to acquire an appropriate image.