The summer my father departed St. Croix for Copenhagen in order to continue his studies in Denmark and Sweden, he was just a few months shy of his seventeenth birth date. Packed away in his valise was a copy of the 1935 edition of William O. Stevens’ The Correct Thing: A Guide Book of Etiquette for Young Men. The little blue book had been given to him as a bon voyage gift by his father, Isaac Gateword James (1893-1978), who knew from personal experience that the information contained in the book’s 156 pages would prove invaluable for his eldest son as he interacted with members of some of Scandinavia’s finest families during his four-year stay with the Hagemann family at their 16th-century castle, Bjersjӧholm, which overlooks the Baltic Sea at Sweden’s southern coastline. The year was 1936; young Gustav was already a very conspicuous 6 feet, 4 inches tall; and he was a black boy from a picturesque Caribbean island en route to a faraway country where even dark-haired white people were a curiosity. Isaac knew, firsthand, the social challenges his son would face because 30 years earlier, in 1907, he had journeyed to Denmark as a 14-year-old to further his education, living with the same Hagemann family at one of their other castles, Borupgaard, in Helsingør, and at their mansion in Copenhagen on fashionable Bredgade. Isaac’s mother, Roxcelina John James (1863-1950), had given him the 1892 edition of Edward John Hardy’s Manners Makyth Man as his bon voyage gift, she being very much aware that a tall, slender, beautiful black boy living amongst European elites would be carefully observed, not only by the masters of the house, but also by the household staff as well as guests. So by 1979, when it was time for me to embark upon my path of higher education, I had been long groomed in the intricacies of polite society, and books on etiquette were as referred to in my household at La Grange as were cookbooks. So packed away in my carry-on were two books on comportment: a 1950s’ edition of The Correct Thing, and Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. Both books would serve me well throughout my undergraduate years at Bradley—so much so that at some point in my early 40s, I decided that I should write a book that would help young men navigate society the way the books I had been privileged to read had guided me. But having cast aside my Georgetown University law degree immediately upon graduating in order to embark upon a career as a designer of upscale women’s fashion, I knew—despite the arguably superficial nature of garments—that even clothes have to be as beautifully constructed on the inside as on the outside—if they are to endure. So it was only fitting that I would approach the reputedly superficial subject of etiquette in the same manner—building beautiful behavior from the inside out, thereby adding intellectual substance to the age-old form.
When I decided that I would make my contribution to the field of etiquette via a book written specifically for young men, my natural inclination was to look carefully at the great books on men’s manners that had guided me with the aim of significantly improving upon them—not only by updating them so as to account for the changing times, customs, and realities of 21st-century society, but also to add substantive content and to chart new territory, in some instances addressing topics that would have been regarded as taboo by previous generations.
The first step was to place myself in an intellectually stimulating environment where I could brainstorm. So I boarded a jet for New York City, arrived at a friend’s apartment, and immediately went to work jotting down—sometimes frantically—all the things I would want a younger brother, son, nephew, company representative, or student, for example, to know about etiquette. Ten days later, chapter outlines began taking form. Then the following month, I flew to Rio de Janeiro, rented an apartment located a stone’s throw from the beach in Ipanema, and began the process of thinking about my approaches to the various chapters—with the aid of caipirinhas, the city’s dramatic beauty, and the rhythms of the samba as catalysts, of course. It was in Brazil, after fully reviewing the scope of the various chapters and writing the rationale for the book, that its specific format assumed form: A three-volume work, Volume I, Manly Manners: Lifestyle & Modern Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century being devoted to everything from how to correctly use a bidet to how to inhale brandy’s bouquet; Volume II, Manly Manners: The Cultivation of the Inner, Spiritual Gentleman, the premise of which is that at the foundation of etiquette is ethics; and Volume III, Manly Manners: The Masculine Luxuries, a book that exposes young men to the elegant, sophisticated elements of life, addressing topics are varied and arcane as the Italian tabarro and Persian seer torshi haft saleh.
After two scintillating months in Rio, I dashed off to Italy and settled into a beautiful apartment at a friend’s Palladian villa, situated commandingly atop a Tuscan hill. There, I remained for one glorious year, writing, writing, writing. The end of each day of writing would be punctuated, ellipses-like, by a long walk amidst the estate’s grapevines and olive trees, inhaling the salubrious Italian countryside and reaping its inspiration.
The result of that most peaceful of years and the four years that would immediately follow it is a three-volume work founded on the concept that several things must converge for the making of a gentleman, three of the foremost being good manners, an ethical approach to living, and exposure to the elegant, sophisticated aspects of life. There is little point in teaching etiquette without also teaching ethics, for a man who possesses all the trappings of correct behavior but lacks correct sentiments at the foundation of his behavior is but a façade of a gentleman. Likewise, a kind, gentle, generous man who lacks sophistication would qualify as a gentle man, but not as a gentleman. The Manly Manners trilogy, unlike the traditional books on men’s manners, endeavors to groom whole men, not shadows of men.
The Manly Manners trilogy does not contain an introduction, for, unfortunately, many young men read them, if at all, perfunctorily. Instead, each volume of the treatise begins with a Chapter One that provides the map of the global and intellectual journey upon which the reader will be taken as he reads and digests the contents of each volume. Each book’s Chapter One also unabashedly addresses a very real issue for modern-day young men: Why a book on etiquette in this day and age where social “requirements” are oftentimes relaxed away into nonexistence? Chapter One also presents a cogent case to any young man who wants to advance himself spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
And Manly Manners provides a refreshing departure from the traditional, decidedly snobbish approach to books on etiquette by purposefully avoiding, whenever possible, exclusionary terms and phrases such as “good breeding,” “station in life,” “aristocratic sensibilities,” “of high birth,” “privileged class” and “good families,” for example. To the contrary, the aim of the series is to demonstrate that any man is capable of transforming himself into a true gentleman, and that there is nothing “fuddy-duddy” or “staid” about being a gentleman. To the contrary, the Manly Manners trilogy proves that etiquette is quite exciting (and sometimes downright sexy)!
Finally, the traditional approach to tackling a book on etiquette is for the reader to first consult its Table of Contents, then select the area of interest, reading only that section. Then, with time, as additional information is sought, the entire book is perhaps read, albeit in a haphazard manner. It is my hope, however, that readers of the Manly Manners trilogy will read each volume from cover to cover since the volumes are numbered and the chapters therein are strategically presented such that they take the reader on a voyage from the practical to the philosophical and sublime to the elegant and beautiful, and from the privacy of his bedroom to the boardroom of multinational corporation in faraway lands. And in doing so, the trilogy, because of its international applicability, effortlessly and matter-of-factly demonstrates that the people of the world are much more alike than they are different.
So “Bon Voyage,” young men! And like I and my forefathers did, be sure to pack a good book on manners for men—hopefully the Manly Manners trilogy.