The week concludes with another "etiquette in the news" kerfuffle about a political figure. In brief, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary of the President of the United States, was asked to leave a restaurant called the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, because of her position in the Trump Administration. She was asked to leave by the owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, after Ms. Wilkinson had consulted with her staff. The first course had already been served. Ms. Wilkinson didn't ask Ms. Huckabee Sanders to leave in front of her party, but spoke with her on the restaurant's patio where they could be private. The check was comped by Ms. Wilkinson when the party left.
Unsurprisingly, people have opinions about this - just like they did about Melania Trump's jacket a few days ago - and Etiquetteer has an opinion, too. This could have been handled differently. It would have been less controversial if Ms. Wilkinson had waited until the end of the meal and then spoken quietly to let Ms. Huckabee Sanders know that she would not be welcome to return in the future. And if everyone had kept from posting to social media about it.
This Uncomfortable Situation made Etiquetteer recall two previous incidents. The more recent was Ruth Madoff's dismissal from her expensive Manhattan hair salon Pierre Michel after her notorious husband Bernie's exposure as a financial fraud. This Uncomfortable Situation was handled with Perfect Propriety under the circumstances; when Mrs. Madoff called to schedule her next appointment, "she was told not to return." This solution wasn't possible in the case of the Red Hen dinner; the reservation had not been made in Ms. Huckabee Sanders' name.
The other incident is much more relevant, and might make you retch. One summer Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt had the German Ambassador Count Bernsdorff to stay at the Breakers in Newport. And that would have been just dandy except that it was the summer of 1914, and World War I was declared while he was there. Oops. Invitations to a dinner in August had already been sent out, and when Count Bernsdorff just would not leave anyway to go see about the war, Mrs. Vanderbilt felt she must go ahead with the dinner. She knew her guests would behave like ladies and gentlemen (this didn't stop her from making a few calls to emphasize No War Talk at the table) . . . "But she had forgotten to make allowance for the patriotic feeling of her servants, and as luck would have it her entire kitchen staff was composed of English, French, and Belgians."* Oops!
The night of the dinner came, and everyone including Count Bernsdorff talked (perhaps rather ostentatiously) about everything under the sun but the war. The soup was served . . . but nothing else. Mrs. Vanderbilt actually had to ring her little bell . . . and still nothing happened. At last, a Swiss maid in tears brought Mrs. Vanderbilt a note, which read:
"We the undersigned regret to inform you, Madam, that we cannot any longer serve the enemy in our respective countries. We have thrown the rest of the dinner into the dustbin and we have all left your service. There is nothing else to eat in the house. We hope you all enjoyed the soup, for we took good care to spit well into it, every one of us, before it went to the table . . . "
"It was signed by the entire kitchen staff." Etiquetteer wants to note that the staff of the Red Hen did not display such behavior - and also that Ms. Wilkinson consulted them before taking action.
"Well, that's all well and good, Etiquetteer," you might be saying. "And thanks for the history lesson. But where does that leave us now?" First off, Etiquetteer wants to observe that a need for vengeance is being expressed in American life, much more so than before, and on both sides of the divide. Many on each side want not only for the other side to lose, but to be humiliated. Etiquetteer deplores this trend. Etiquetteer does not agree with those who argue that calls for decorum are delusional and only benefit the empowered.
Etiquetteer would much rather see everyone embrace, and want to embrace, the best of American behavior in spite of the towering differences on both sides. In other words, we need not to follow the example set by President Trump. His inflammatory words and cruel nicknames, not to mention his casual relationship with the truth, are already too well known. The use of profane words and hashtags to criticize the President and members of his administration and family do not help. Being photographed shooting the bird (under any circumstances) doesn't help. (Really, the most Perfectly Proper gesture to make would be to turn one's back.) It feels good to make those gestures, cathartic - but it doesn't help.
In this latest kerfuffle, many have already turned to the Suprene Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision to say that Ms. Wilkinson was wrong. Etiquetteer doesn't see these as simliar cases at all. The baker was ready to decline serving an entire class of people. Ms. Wilkinson was evicting just one person, and for the sole reason of the position she holds in the government. " . . . it was important to her that Sanders was a public official, not just a customer with whom she disagreed, many of whom were included in her regular clientele." The restaurateur made clear that the rest of the party was welcome to stay. They did the Perfectly Proper thing, though, by departing with Ms. Huckabee Sanders.
Etiquetteer understands why this happened, and wishes it had happened differently. For instance, Etiquetteer very much wishes the matter had stayed in the restaurant and not been publicized on social media by the restaurant staff and by Ms. Huckabee Sanders. It is quite obviously distracting us from more important matters! So many people who are cheering this move now may think about it differently when one of their own idols is treated in the same way on another occasion. Let's hope we don't see a rash of copycat incidents.
In the meantime, Etiquetteer will be dining at home for awhile.
*From Elizabeth Drexel Lehr's memoir King Lehr. Read Etiquetteer's review here.