Asking Claire (II)

I wrote awhile ago about my great-aunt Claire, who was a radio host, newspaperwoman and etiquette expert (Asking Claire, April 16.) Her advice on manners, which she published in two popular volumes, has a time-capsule feel to it, for she was chronicling in the 1960s the social codes of an era that had almost vanished, when formality was the ideal rather than an exception. 

Still, Claire Wallace had a principled openness to change. "New Canadians," she wrote warmly, had enlivened concert halls with the European habit of calling out Bravo! and this had become part of national custom.

Meanwhile, in the modern settings of "discotheques, ragtime, pop, folk [and] jazz concerts and happenings" -- happenings! -- "applauding in the middle of a number, whistling, stamping" were perfectly acceptable.

The Canadian traveller, she emphasized, should learn the manners of other countries in order to avoid giving offence.

A hint of biography can be read into Claire's books. Divorced in her late 20s, raising a young son alone, she could draw on her acquired resourcefulness while navigating how newly-single women might alter their married names, or negotiate a traditionally male role such as picking up the bill at dinner with friends.

Claire's brother, Cliff, a newspaper editor (all three Wallace siblings worked for the Star) went blind in his late middle years. Claire wrote about walking with, dining with, and entertaining a blind guest, about tact and courtesy: "There is a great tendency to put him into a certain chair and leave him there for the rest of the evening. This is boring and uncomfortable" -- and I imagine that this was strongly felt.

(Small details come back to me: Cliff approached his dinner plate like a timepiece: potatoes at six o'clock, for instance.

(Small potatoes, one might say; he started a small-town newspaper after he lost his sight.)

I remember an elderly relative noting tartly: "Claire could be grand; she wore a boa" (a feather stole, not a constrictor, I would think) on evenings out -- but in her writing and when interviewed she recommended classic, durable clothing, which had suited her high profile during the pinched years of the Second World War.

She favoured small hats and noted in the last edition of her books (1967, not long before her death) that they were no longer necessities. It must have been the first moment in the history of clothing that most people did not usually cover their heads. Claire herself wore, metaphorically, two.

Much of her reporting was of the experiential and daredevil sort (deep-sea diving, extreme travel, undercover reporting. Toronto police stopped her, because of her gender, from driving a taxi for a story; she wrote about a stint as a chauffeur instead.) One of her tamer stories involved spending the night alone in Toronto's Casa Loma, then derelict and rumoured to be haunted, and her championing of the fanciful old stone pile led to its rescue and some restoration.

But her CBC radio program was called They Tell Me. And so, wearing her journalistic hat, she did ask lots of questions. Removing it, so to speak, and donning one of her own (perhaps a few seasons old, freshened up with a new ribbon, in her Canadian version of Make Do and Mend), she had firm advice about minding manners:

"Never," she instructed, ask anyone a question "of a personal nature."