Should Women Propose in Wartime? Charlotte Ford’s New Etiquette

Charlotte Ford, the eldest daughter of Henry Ford II, speared

some lettuce on her fork and let out a husky chuckle. “It’s a little hard to do

an interview and eat at the same time,” she said, as we sat over a simple lunch

of chicken salad in the dining room of her Sutton Place apartment. “So we’ll

all forgive each other for talking with food in the mouth.”

Outside Ms. Ford’s apartment, an icy wind was coming off the East

River, where Coast Guard cutters kept watch on the United Nations building.

Though almost a week had passed without any real terrifying news, New York was

still afraid to exhale. The urban civilization that we cherished, its routines,

luxuries and social mores, had been thrown into disarray. In the aftermath of

Sept. 11, what was considered proper conduct in this new world? A chorus of

public officials had told us to move on with our lives, but they never

explained how. Could we attend a party in these emotionally raw times? Throw

one? Tell jokes? Or leave a failing relationship?

New York no longer needed a guide to proper behavior in the

gilded electronic age. It needed a manual of manners for the new guilty age.

And so it seemed like a good time to talk about etiquette. The

December issue of Vanity Fair was

reexamining the life of Emily Post, and Ms. Ford, who had published a

best-selling etiquette book in the 1980′s- Etiquette:

Charlotte Ford’s Guide to Modern Manners (revised and updated some 10 years

later)-was coming out with a new one, which she’d written with Jacqueline de

Montravel: 21st-Century Etiquette:

Charlotte Ford’s Guide to Manners for the Modern Age .

“I don’t think there’s much I would change because of Sept. 11,”

she said over lunch at her home. “I’m always saying that etiquette really is

consideration of others. Thoughtfulness, basic manners-those things don’t

change.”

The meal was served at one of two large round tables in her

dining room, watched over by two ancient-looking carved wooden Buddhas. Ms.

Ford, who just turned 60, wore a chocolate-brown cashmere sweater and tweed

pants. A headband held her blond hair back, preppie style, and around her neck

was a chunky necklace made of wooden berries alternating with gold leaves.

Ms. Ford passed the salad dressing. “I think manners are always

important,” she said. “People have become nicer for some reason in New York.

It’s amazing. Cab drivers don’t honk their horns as much. People are nicer in

stores. But I think it sort of takes you back and makes you think about what

your priorities are in life.

“I’m wondering if this is going to be temporary or not,” she

said. “I walked out of a doctor’s office the week after this happened, and the

woman in front of me held the door for me. I said, ‘Oh, thank you so much.’ And

she stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Do you think that everybody is nicer in

New York?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ Maybe it’s more important to be a little nicer

than to be nasty. And it takes so little to be nice in life. It takes so little

to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘oh, I’m sorry.’

“Outside of New York-my daughter lives in Michigan, and I’m sure

they care and everything, but it’s like nothing happened. They’re not curious,”

she said. She was referring to her daughter Elena Ford Niarchos, from her

marriage to the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. “Here, you say to

somebody ‘How are you?’ and they say, ‘We’re trying to get from here to there,

trying to keep body and soul together’-and you know that they’ve obviously had

a tragedy in their family. Here, everybody knows somebody who knew somebody.”

That brought up a key question: When a new acquaintance is made,

what is the proper way to determine if that person has been directly affected

by the events of Sept. 11 and afterward?

“You talk first about how tragic it is, and then you say, ‘Did

you know anybody?’ And then that sort of opens up Pandora’s box,” Ms. Ford

said. “And then I think the only thing you can say is, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so

sorry.’ There really isn’t a lot you can say to comfort people.”

Were there any questions that should be avoided?

“I wouldn’t push people to talk about tragedy,” she said. “Some

people like to talk and get it off their chests. Others like to withdraw. I

think sometimes when you approach a subject, you’ll get a clue right away if

they want to talk or don’t want to talk.”

Then, of course, there are the people who haven’t been directly

affected by the events of the last two months, but who insist on telling

everyone in earshot about the Cipro prescriptions that they’ve cadged out of

their doctors and the Israeli gas masks they’ve got in their briefcases.

“I think most people have tremendous anxiety, whether they admit

it or not,” Ms. Ford said. She paused, held her hand to her mouth and coughed

the way that every other New Yorker seemed to be doing these days. “I looked

out my window this morning. The U.N. is right down here, and I see all these

Coast Guard ships and I think, ‘Am I safer, or should I be more nervous?’” She

smiled. “We do have to get on with our lives, and we should get on with our

lives. But we’re in the middle of a world war. You can’t forget it. It’s here.”

Ms. Ford grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and came to New York in

1959. She said that, in the aftermath of the attacks, “I never thought about

leaving.”

Indeed, she seemed to have suffered the same kind of urban

agoraphobia that has affected many locals. “Other people I know have packed

their bags and gone to live, if they have a second house somewhere, they’ve

taken the kids and gone there.

“I’m a fatalist, though, you know,” Ms. Ford said. “When my time

is up, my time is up.  It’s a very

uncomfortable time.”

That discomfort extends to New York’s night life, which has been

laced with guilt and confusion over what constitutes proper behavior.

“Is it O.K. to throw a party for no particular reason or worthy

cause?” I asked.

“I think it’s fine to throw a party,” Ms. Ford said. “We have to

get back to normal life. So many people did nothing for so long. And when you

think about what got canceled-whether it was charity or dinner parties or

whatever-life was really put on hold for quite a while.”

Then the next question becomes, How does one invite people to a

party these days, given that the mail is not currently seen as especially

reliable or safe?

“I think in this area we have to bend the rules a little,” Ms.

Ford said. “I wouldn’t ordinarily say this, but I think if people are going to

send out a lot of invitations, it’s O.K. to do it by e-mail or fax or by

calling.”

Similar confusion reigns when it comes to getting dressed for

social events. In her new book, Ms.Fordinvokes Socrates’ “Know thyself” as a

good rule of thumb for personal fashion, but she admits that she is not a fan

of the casual-dressing trend that coincided with the Internet boom.

Ms. Ford said that the night before, she had gone to the

restaurant Estiatorio Milos for dinner. “I had on a black wool skirt and a

little jacket. It was a little bit on the dressy side,” she said, and then her

eyes began to squint with dismay. “I want to tell you, there were people in

this restaurant. Everybody was so casual, and I thought to myself, ‘People make

no effort to look nice at night.’ And I hear that from people who go to the

ballet and to the opera. What is it? They go in blue jeans. That would never

happen in Europe. People have more respect for that kind of thing.”

What about the New York uniform of all black? Was it still

appropriate to wear in a city now dominated by mourning? Ms. Ford had no

problem with that: “I love black. I love color, too.”

I asked Ms. Ford about the boundaries of humor in social

situations. I told her about being at an event at the restaurant Jo Jo on Sept.

25, when Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, the international director of jewelry at

the Phillips Auction House, approached a table of young socialites (including

Alex von Furstenberg, Serena and Samantha Boardman, and Todd Meister) and

attempted to tell a joke about the hot new restaurant in New York being

“Windows on the Garage.” Prince Dimitri told The Observer that he told the joke “in the context” of explaining

an e-mail he’d gotten that had contained jokes about the tragedy. “We were

discussing that, after the fact, there were always these jokes that originate

from Wall Street. It was actually a very serious conversation,” he said. “They

probably just heard the joke.”

The joke was greeted with

silence, and the upstairs area near that table emptied out soon after. Ms. Ford

agreed that “if I had been at that table, I would have gotten up and left.”

I told Ms. Ford that I’d run into a number of women lately who’d

said that the events of the last few weeks had made them want to solidify their

relationships with the men in their lives. Given the circumstances, how did she

feel about women proposing to men?

“Leap year,” Ms. Ford said, throwing in a dusky chuckle. But then

she added: “Since I’ve grown up, things have changed so much. But I think it’s

very healthy. Actually, I asked my husband to marry me. My last husband.”

“Ed Downe?” I said.

Ms. Ford rolled her eyes in a way that left no question about her

feelings for him.

“Actually, I had a few questions about him,” I said.

“Well, let’s see what the question is before I answer it or not,”

she said with a smile.

Ms. Ford has married and

divorced three times in her life: to Stavros Niarchos, Wall Street financier

Tony Forstmann and, most recently, investor Ed (Upside) Downe. In 1992, Mr.

Downe was a member of the “Society Seven,” who were implicated in insider trading.

At the time of her husband’s indictment, Ms. Ford told British gossip columnist

Nigel Dempster, “Just because he’s got a problem, I’m not about to leave him.”

Ms. Ford was practicing the advice at the beginning of Chapter 12

of her new book: “Difficult times require everyone to act with sensitivity and

grace,” she wrote. “It is times like these when treating others with decency is

of utmost importance.”

Mr. Downe did not reciprocate, however, and Ms. Ford divorced him

in 1994, after she reportedly discovered that he had been having an affair with

Mary Conley Baker. Mr. Downe wound up marrying Ms. Baker and being pardoned by

President Clinton. Mr Downe said reports of the circumstances of his divorce

from Ms. Ford were “untrue. There were certain irreconcilable differences,” he

said, but he declined to elaborate.

I asked Ms. Ford why she had stuck by Mr. Downe. “That’s the way

I was brought up,” she said. “My mother did the same thing when my parents got

divorced. My mother never washed her dirty laundry in public, and I always

admired her for that, because it’s such an easy thing to do …. I did marry him

for better or worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health. But then,

when it got past the point of no return …. ” She didn’t finish her sentence,

just said, “Hmmmm.”

Etiquette dictated that I change the subject. I asked Ms. Ford to

tell me about the décor of her dining room, but her descriptions of the

antiquities and artwork were as understated as the décor itself. A beautiful

sepia-toned Oriental screen was described merely as “a screen”: the Austrian

painter responsible for a lush landscape on another wall had slipped her mind;

and of the Buddhas, she would say only that “I bought [them], gosh, years and

years ago.” The carvings were once in another part of the apartment, she added,

but she’d redecorated a year and a half ago. “I got rid of a lot of stuff. I

got rid of all the ghosts in this apartment,” Ms. Ford said. A smile crossed

her face and she snickered.