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In Memory of Marjabelle Young Stewart

 

Marajbelle Stewart Young etiquette 

Marjabelle Y. Stewart, 82, White-Gloved Author, Dies

By Margalit Fox

 

Marjabelle Young Stewart, who was widely known as the Queen of Couth for her vast, genteel empire of books and classes about etiquette, died March 3 in Kewanee, Ill.  She was 82 and had lived in Kewanee for many years.

 

The apparent cause was pneumonia, her husband, William E. Stewart, said.

 

A familiar presence on the lecture circuit and on television, Mrs. Stewart was a member of the small white-gloved pantheon that has lately included Letitia Baldridge, Elizabeth Post and Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners.  Over decades. Mrs. Stewart initiated millions of people, from college students and business executives to the children of presidents, into the mysteries of wielding a fish fork (gently and with a light touch) and the proper way to eat a hot dog (wrap it with a napkin).

 

She also presided over a national network of etiquette classes for young people that at its height had franchises in several hundred cities in the United States.  Called White Gloves (for girls) and Blue Blazers (for boys), the classes were often held in cooperation with department stores.   The programs still exist, though on a reduced scale, Mr. Stewart said.

 

Mrs. Stewart's many books include Marjabelle Stewart's Book of Modern Table Manners  (St. Martin's, 1981);  Can My Bridesmaids Wear Black? And 325 Other Most Asked Questions (St. Martins, 1989); and Executive Etiquette in the New Workplace (St. Martin's 1996; with Marian Faux).

 

She was also known for her list of America's best-mannered cities, which she has issued annually for many years.  Charleston, SC, routinely led the list, which at various times also included Savannah, GA; Madison, WIS.; and, astonishingly, New York.

 

The popular obsession with etiquette goes back to at least 1861, when Mrs. Beeton's famous manual, Household Management, was published in England.  To its champions, etiquette is the foundation of a civil society.  To its detractors, it is little more than a set of arbitrary shibboleths, designed to separate the socialite from the socialist.

 

But to Mrs. Stewart, the choice was clear:  the universe was a social minefield, and it was her mission to guide people safely through it.  The dinner table was especially fraught with peril.  Spareribs lay in wait. (Nibble, nibble, nibble.  Handle delicately.  Don't gnaw.)  Artichokes could happen at any time.  (Pull the leaves gently though your teeth, and the way you do it can speak volumes.)  French fries could be a dinner's Waterloo.  (Most of the time, use a fork to cut each fry into bite sized pieces, and eat it with a fork.)

 

At home, Mrs. Stewart kept silver salver for calling cards in the foyer.  She owned a flotilla of punch bowls.  She traveled to classes armed with a complete place setting, which besides china included 10 pieces of silverware; five crystal glasses, all different; and a silver salt cellar with accompanying shell-shaped spoon.  She taught her young daughter Jacqueline, to curtsey to her teacher.  This did not find favor with Jacqueline's classmates.

 

Mrs. Stewart spoke in rapturous cadences, addressing interviewers as Darling, Honey Angel and Oh, You Sweetheart.  Soup, in particular, made her wax poetic.  Now, send your soup spoon out to sea like a little ship, she told one group of students.  Lean forward, bring the soup spoon to your lips and inhale like angels.

 

Marjabelle Ruby Bryant was born on May 16, 1924, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the daughter of Marie and Clarence Cullen Bryant.  (Her father was collateral descendent of the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant.)  Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her mother, unable to care for Marjabelle and her three sisters, placed them in a local orphanage.  There, Marjabelle's youngest sister died, at 2, of a mastoid infection.

 

Sunday was visiting day, and every Sunday, Marjabelle and her remaining sisters, dressed in their best, sat and waited for their mother.  She seldom came.  After their mother remarried, the girls went to live with her again.

 

In later years, Mrs. Stewart described her childhood as an old tin can that I had to get rid of.  But she also credited the orphanage with instilling in her the decorum that would become the bedrock of her professional life.

 

At 17, she married Jack Davidson Young, a scientist some years her senior.  They moved to Washington, where they joined a daunting whirl of balls and dinners.  Years later, Mrs. Stewart still recalled the sting of the city's cutthroat courtliness:

 

My dear, never wear a strapless dress to a dinner party, the prominent hostess Perle Mesta once reprimanded her.  Above the centerpiece, you're naked!

 

Marjabelle Young resolved to learn, and she did.  A beauty who was said to resemble Rita Hayworth, she became a model, later opening a modeling agency with two colleagues.  From there, it was a short step to running a charm school, where she taught the children of the powerful how to bow, curtsey and tenderly ladle punch.  Her pupils included Lyndon B. Johnson's daughters, Lynda and Luci, and Richard M Nixon's daughters, Tricia and Julie.

 

She apparently charmed the men of Washington as well; in interviews, Mrs. Stewart hinted discreetly, at a romantic involvement with John F. Kennedy.  Her marriage to Mr. Young ended in divorce.  In 1965, she married Mr. Stewart, a lawyer, moving with him to Illinois the next year.

 

Besides her husband, Mrs. Stewart is survived by a sister, Elenore Osterkamp of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; a daughter from her first marriage, Jacqueline Ramont of Danville, Ill; a son from her marriage to Mr. Stewart, William Cullen Bryant Stewart, a Navy pilot currently at the Naval War College in Newport, RI; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

 

Despite Mrs. Stewart's love of all things gracious, her advice could be cheerfully populist.  Asked by a young pupil what to do if one found the food at a dinner party distasteful, she suggested this:

 

Never, never say, Yuck.  Move it around, play with it a little bit.  Just don't make any comments about it.  Then, eat at McDonalds later.

 

Taken from The New York Times, Sunday March 11, 2007


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