March 22, 2010 in Features

Miss Manners, daughter have edgy side to etiquette

Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune
McClatchy Tribune photo

Judith “Miss Manners” Martin, left, and her daughter Jacobina Martin, an improv teacher at Second City, pose for portrait at Piper’s Alley in Chicago in January. McClatchy Tribune
(Full-size photo)

CHICAGO – Even from a distance, through a glass door, she’s instantly recognizable: the imperious gaze, the elegantly arched brows, the signature Victorian up-do that has graced best-sellers for more than a quarter-century.

She’s Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, the reigning queen of American etiquette.

So, perhaps, we can be excused for failing, at first, to fully process her answer to the perennial softball question: “Parents today have trouble instilling manners in their children. How do you go about doing it?”

“Beating,” a familiar voice declares emphatically.

Martin, it turns out, is not the source of this acid-etched one-liner.

Instead, she turns to the woman who has dared to put words in her mouth: her daughter, Jacobina “Bina” Martin, an improv instructor at Chicago’s Second City. Laughing uproariously, both women implore us to present the line in its proper context:

“It’s a joke!”

The jokes flowed freely when this mother-daughter odd couple got together for what proved to be a surprisingly raucous interview in a plywood-paneled classroom at the Second City Training Center.

The occasion is the publication of the first book they’ve written together, “Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding” (Norton), and the younger Martin’s effective coming out as a member of the Manners clan.

At first glance, the Martins are a study in contrasts. Judith, 71, wears her hair pinned up; Bina’s flows past her shoulders. Bina, clad in black and a tad reserved, seems grateful to yield the spotlight to her charismatic mom, who shows up in rose lipstick and a peacock-blue coat.

Then there’s the little matter of careers. Miss Manners is a crusader for “excruciatingly correct behavior” who frowns on the common practice of (gasp!) addressing a new acquaintance by his or her first name.

Bina Martin, a founding member of the groundbreaking all-female Chicago improv group, Jane, is a champion of a brash, irreverent school of sketch comedy whose proud heritage includes nun jokes, wheelchair jokes, unprintable lyrics and a skit in which a baby is tossed off the roof of a burning building.

And what would Miss Manners make of such shenanigans?

“It’s entertainment!” Judith Martin says. “We don’t think entertainers should be models of good behavior. There would be no drama! Even I would not like to sit and watch a lot of people be perfectly polite to each other.”

Bina Martin, the Washington, D.C.-raised, Harvard-educated daughter of Judith Martin and husband Robert, a scientist, made her professional acting debut at 12 in “Troilus and Cressida.” She has lived in Chicago on and off since 1992. Her brother, Nick, is director of operations at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Martin’s career path began to converge with her mother’s in 2007, when the improv instructor’s boyfriend of nine months, Ron Kroll, accompanied her family on a December trip to Venice, Italy.

A proposal was a definite possibility, but Kroll told Martin that Venice wouldn’t be the place.

“I wish,” he said. “But I don’t have the ring yet.”

As a result, she was completely unsuspecting when he lured her to the Santa Maria della Salute church and told her, “I love you so much.”

In fact, there was such a long pause after the “I love you” that Martin began to get nervous. Was Kroll going to break up with her on her family vacation?

“But?” she said.

“No,” he said. No buts. “I would love you to be my wife.”

With her big day on the way, Martin began to look at wedding magazines and was aghast at the blatant requests for presents and the willful oppression of bridesmaids.

She told her mother, “You know what personalizing the wedding really means? It means depersonalizing everyone else.”

“I thought that was tremendous,” Judith Martin says. “We had various conversations like that and I said, ‘OK. You’re going to do this (book) with me.’ And she did.”

The more time you spend with the Martins, the more you see the similarities. They’re both, in their own ways, preternaturally polite and highly theatrical.

Is it true, Judith Martin is asked, that she was banned from Tricia Nixon’s wedding?

There’s a pregnant pause: “Yes.”

“I was banned from Tricia’s wedding,” Judith Martin says, recalling her days as a Washington Post reporter. “But I have to go back to Julie (Nixon)’s wedding.”

“You crashed Julie’s wedding,” Bina says.

“I crashed Julie’s, but I didn’t (really) because I had (press) credentials,” Judith Martin says.

“Tell the story though,” Bina says. “You hid out in the bathroom, right?”

“Another reporter and I were in the bathroom. We started talking with some of the bridesmaids, and we just walked back in with them.”

Bina Martin grins: “Isn’t that awesome? She was also on the Nixon Enemies List!”

“No, I was on the ‘deep freeze’ list!”

“Which was worse, right?”

“Which was worse! I’m very proud of that. Beverly Sills had a wardrobe malfunction at a White House concert. I wrote about it with a great deal of admiration” because Sills handled the situation with grace and dignity. But, alas, it later came out that Nixon was furious. I got the ‘deep freeze’ list for that!” Judith Martin says.

“Of all the things you’ve done!” Bina says.

“Of all the things I’ve done, it was surely the least blameworthy!”

Bina Martin turns: “You see why I’m very proud to be compared to her.”

Her mother smiles: “And you see why she’s in improv!”

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