David Bruce: Etiquette Anecdotes

• Businesspeople need to take into account different cultures. Comic singer Anna Russell had an American agent, Eastman Boomer, but she toured frequently in England, necessitating that letters be written back and forth between Boomer and an English business manager. Boomer used to complain, “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. He writes two pages about the weather, the London scene, and enquires after my health, and he mentions business in the last paragraph as though it were an afterthought.” Meanwhile, the Englishmen complained about Boomer’s letters, “What’s the matter with Boomer? He writes when he wants the tour, how much, yours faithfully. Hasn’t he got any manners?” Ms. Russell was able to convince the Englishman to write more about business in his letters to Boomer, and she got Boomer to throw in some schmaltz in his letters to the Englishmen, with the result that the two men ended up liking each other.

• When writer Ben Hecht was a young boy, his grandmother Tante Chasha took him to the Yiddish theater. All went well until a certain point in the play being performed on stage — one character was accused of stealing a diamond bracelet that had been stolen by another character. This outraged young Ben, and he began shouting for the police on stage to arrest the correct character. Ushers came running, and Ben and his grandmother were taken to the lobby, where the theater manager demanded an apology from Ben’s grandmother. She replied, “Yes, I owe you an apology and here it is.” Then she hit the theater manager with her umbrella. Later, she told Ben: “Remember when you grow up — that’s the only way to apologize.”

• Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev paid little attention to time. When the young Alicia Markova was dancing for him, he invited her and her governess out for a ride in the country to see some Spanish dancing and to enjoy tea, but he arrived for the engagement late. Alicia and her governess waited an hour for him, then left, and he arrived an hour after they had left. The next day, young Alicia told him calmly, “You broke your appointment, Sergypop. I know that you are a busy man, but that is no excuse for not turning up when you invite a friend to go out with you.” Mr. Diaghilev apologized, then he made a new appointment for the following day, and when Alicia and her governess arrived, he was waiting for them.

• While conducting at the Salzburg Festival, Arturo Toscanini took pains to preserve his privacy. One day, he went to an obscure restaurant where he hoped not to be noticed, but he was recognized instantly. The proprietor of the restaurant gave the Maestro the best seat, and then he brought him the best wine available at the restaurant. A friend tasted the wine, discovered that it was awful, and advised Toscanini (in a foreign language the proprietor didn’t understand) not to drink it. However, Toscanini drank the wine anyway, and complimented the proprietor on it. Later, he explained that he could not refuse the wine, bad as it was, for the proprietor’s sake: “He was so kind. I could not refuse.”

• Many people who tell stories have the bad habit of stopping repeatedly to ask the listener if he or she has heard the story before. Henry Irving was one such person. In telling a story to Mark Twain, he stopped three different times to ask if Mr. Twain had heard the story before. Finally, Mr. Twain could stand it no longer and said, “I can lie once, I can lie twice for the sake of politeness, but there I draw the line. I not only heard the story — I invented it.”

• During a performance of Lohengrin, tenor Leo Slezak still had not met the woman playing Elsa of Brabant. During the performance, following the script, he said, “Elsa, I love thee,” and raised her from her kneeling position and placed her head against his chest, then whispered, “Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Slezak.” The woman playing Elsa then whispered in reply, “Delighted to know you; my name is Ternina.”

• Pope John XXIII regarded some old customs as nuisances, but having respect for tradition, he modified them instead of entirely doing away with them. He was embarrassed by his attendants’ kneeling three times before him whenever they entered or departed from his presence, so he changed the custom so that they kneeled to him only once in the morning and once in the evening.

• Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was a Yiddish humorist. Among the characters he created in his stories were those that became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. In 1906, he came to the United States, where he met Mark Twain, to whom he was introduced as the “Jewish Mark Twain.” Mr. Twain then said that he would like to be introduced in Yiddish to Mr. Aleichem as the “American Sholom Aleichem.”

• Choreographer George Balanchine always wanted the members of his New York City Ballet to behave with consideration in whatever place they visited. Once he became very annoyed in West Berlin when some members of his company boarded a bus after carrying out from a restaurant some china cups filled with coffee.

• Sol Hurok, a concert manager, could be a good host. At one of his parties, his personal assistant Walter Prude knocked over a small table and spilled red wine and coffee on a new white rug. Mr. Prude apologized and offered to pay for the rug, but Mr. Hurok said, “I am only proud, my boy, that you have honored me by coming here.”

• Many snobs criticized Lord Byron for being friends with a prizefighter, John Jackson, but this did not bother Lord Bryon, who said that the prizefighter’s manners were “infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I met at high table.”

• Author Donald Richie once attended a Japanese dinner. As the guest of honor, he was given the head of a fish to eat, and he was expected to eat all of it — including the eyes. Mr. Richie managed to exhibit good manners only after closing his own eyes.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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