Marguerite Gordon: lady of the manners

Her name is synonymous with elegance and etiquette, and now Marguerite Gordon has published a book on the topic

She would become the region’s Emily Post – the arbiter of all things proper. So when in 1961 Marguerite Gordon (then Le Wars) was asked to screen for a saucy scene in Dr No, the first film in the James Bond series, to be filmed in her native Jamaica, her outrage was entirely in character.

“They wanted me to try out for the part of a woman in a towel on a bed kissing a man,” she remembers. “I asked, ‘Who is this man?’ It was Sean Connery. I replied, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of him.’ And I stupidly said no.”

The role of a scheming photographer didn’t affront her, though. It would become, as she calls it, the prototype for the Bond brand’s long chain of villainous vixens. And when the young Miss Le Wars kept flubbing her lines during filming, Connery unwittingly influenced her life’s work.

“Every time I heard, ‘Lights, camera, action,’ my brain just despaired. Sean turned to me, put his hand on my knee and said, in his very Scottish accent, ‘Marguerite, what’s happened to you?’

“I replied, ‘Take your hand off my knee, please.’
“He said, ‘If you look the part for what you are supposed to do and if you are efficient, all that remains is for you to project your personality.’ I never forgot his words. I’ve been using it as my formula for lecturing since 1970.”

In her new guide to Caribbean life and style, Manners and Entertaining (Ian Randle Publishers, 2008), Gordon distils the lessons of almost four decades of personal-development tuition across the region and a 24-year-old column on manners and etiquette for the Trinidad Express into a user-friendly map for those who wish to travel the road of refinement. A combination of snappy prose and bullet points, Gordon’s guide takes readers everywhere from the dinner table to the job interview, from meeting the parents to getting married. It straddles the pedestrian (how to pour a bottle of wine or write a thank-you note) and the political (whether a party invitation entitles you to bring along a same-sex partner).

Her combination of wit, opinion and a Caribbean compass makes Manners and Entertaining a one-of-a-kind read. For instance you’d be hard pressed to find a Post pronouncement that’s quite like this: “When dancing a lady does not wine with or cling to her partner. Her movements in public are discreet, and even at carnival she does not become the centre of a ‘sandwich’ of gyrating dancers.”

If that makes Gordon come off like a British schoolmarm, consider her advocacy of bright colours, mix-and-match table settings and decorating with objects like conch shells and pitch-oil lamps. Regrettably, the images in her book are not nearly as playful and tropical as much of her advice.

She manages a balancing act between old-school rules and a modern point of view. On one hand she believes one should insist that one’s housekeeper wear a uniform “that is not only practical but attractive”. On the other hand she recommends for her readers “a stylish pant or skirt suit à la the Sex and the City movie”, and she herself dresses in boldly coloured, eye-catching outfits.

Her reprimands are rich. “Don’t stick out your little finger while drinking tea or any other drink for that matter,” she rebukes. “Temper your enjoyment about getting all that butter from the cob,” she scolds.

The advice is as colourful and engaging as its author. Neither her reign as Miss Jamaica nor her foray into the movies is discussed in the book. Her ascent in the region’s young airline industry during the 1960s, and the fact that the controversial fourth Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, was once her brother-in-law, are skimmed over. But the lessons learned from all those experiences – not just those garnered from European courses on table settings and wine – permeate it.
Gordon surveys her life from the home she shares in Trinidad with her second husband, Kenneth Gordon, a former government minister, chairman of Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) and president of the West Indies Cricket Board. Her personal space bears out her loyalties to both European form and Caribbean flair. Pavarotti floats through the air, past tropical flowers and through open windows with views of the Gulf of Paria and the Carenage hills. The walls of her kitchen are the colour of the sun; its cupboards are salmon. Throughout the house, spaces are occupied by clusters of framed relatives and Caribbean art. And for every anecdote (remembered in minute detail and recounted with animation), there is a photograph to which she points. Gordon is the sentimental sort.

“A child of the 1940s”, she was raised by her town-clerk father and a mother who was preoccupied with all things proper. She taught her three girls elocution and sent the trio to ballet classes but forbade them to ride bikes or horses. Gordon, “the rebel”, rode anyway. Her defiant streak manifested itself when her secondary schooling was over and her parents suggested university. Gordon refused.

“I read many books, and wanted to travel. The least expensive way to fly was to join the airlines. They didn’t want me to become a flight attendant, so I became a ground attendant,” she recounts. “After the first 24 hours I knew I was going to make it my career, and started to plan how I was going to climb the ladder.” As an employee of BWIA West Indian Airways, Caribbean Airlines’ predecessor, she relished “the excitement of meeting people and getting it right”. She would go on to rise to the rank of customer service manager with BWIA and head the in-flight service department of Air Jamaica.

Gordon also had a front-row view of the ascent of Michael Manley from trade union leader to Prime Minister and his marriage to her sister Barbara, until her untimely death in 1967. Describing Manley as charismatic and his chemistry with her sister as magical, Gordon revealed it was Barbara’s idea for Manley to enter the political fray. He did so after Barbara’s passing, offending members of the upper classes in the process.

“He was not a communist, ever, but he certainly believed in equality. He went too quickly with some of the policies, like implementing free education when we couldn’t afford it.

“Jamaica has always had a class problem. You know, I sat besides people who said, ‘Oh my God, your brother-in-law wants our workers’ children to sit beside our children.’ He agitated a large amount of the upper-middle class and the plantocracy class of Jamaica, and they ran away. People walked out of their homes when he was elected a second time.”

Her own upbringing was on the political middle ground. The Le Wars hosted characters on both sides of the divide at their home. And though her childhood was privileged, nothing was handed over on the proverbial silver platter. When she asked for a car, for example, her father told her to save. At 21 she entered the Miss Jamaica pageant purely for the first prize, a Ford Anglia. And she prepared by using a method she recommends to her students even today.

“I am a very strong believer in using autosuggestion by the mirror technique. It is very strong and should only be used for good. You talk to yourself like a madwoman, you see what you want visually, you put it up on the wall. I thought, ‘This is the car I am going to drive. I can feel myself in that car. I can see myself in that car.’”

Having won said car, Gordon represented her country at the Miss Universe pageant in Miami, where she was bemused by the competitiveness and didn’t bother with her autosuggestion techniques. She skipped the Miss World pageant that year, saying, “I’m not a professional beauty-contest entrant.”

She was instinctively drawn to hospitality and customer service, disciplines she thought were lacking in the region and ones upon which she would hinge her own company, MK Careers (she was Marguerite Kirkpatrick by then) at 30. Through MK she pioneered the concepts of personal and professional development and external staff training. Over the next decade the enterprise would spread from Jamaica to the Eastern Caribbean, and from the airline industry to everything from hotels to restaurants to banks.

Gordon’s tuition accommodates both knowledge and experience. She was once an ambitious employee herself, sending job applications to managers at a time when advertisements actually contained the words “only men need apply”.

She recounts an exercise in self-examination that ultimately lifted her career off the ground.

“My human relations were not that good,” she admits. “I was so locked into being efficient that I gave off a lot of negative body language, saying things like, ‘I don’t make the rules, sir. I just work here.’ I was very impertinent. I did some serious introspection and found ways that I could sincerely improve my attitude.

“I know there are things that are more important than manners,” she allows. “But it’s like a foundation. The world has got so rude, so absolutely rude.”

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