The Art of the Faux Pas

Sheila Nevins shares one of her most embarrassing moments

I am the master of the faux pas,* more coarsely known as aphtae epizooticae.** These incidents are part of who I am, as I often speak without thinking. My bursts of verbal enthusiasm, though often innovative and spontaneous ways of looking at a situation, always come at inappropriate moments.

You see, I am often caught at a dinner party, drinking an important guest’s water (“drinks to my left, food to my right; drinks to my right, food to my left?”), or inappropriately stuffing a stranger’s bread roll down while waiting for the first course that never comes soon enough. However, the most prominent faux pas de moi, occurred over the freshly painted portrait of a dear friend — let’s call her Penelope Hightower. One evening, invited for a tony dinner at her penthouse, I entered her parentally-endowed Park Avenue lodgings with its original chandeliers and working fireplaces and noticed a grotesque portrait of my dear friend over the entrance mantelpiece. At the time, Penelope’s entrance hallway was the size of most of our shared apartments — after all, it was the 60’s, we were poor, and a studio apartment divided by four inmates made living in New York a possibility.

Loudmouth, I expressed with disdain, “This painting of you is atrocious. You look like Lady Godiva on acid. Your tits are not even matched. Jesus, Penny, take it down!” Henry Goldman was the first non-button-down-Wall-Street-tycoon Penny had ever dated. Since she claimed that this Henry was the love of her life, I came to dinner to meet her new Lothario.

From her cavernous living room came Henry’s sarcastic voice and with a New York lilt. “Ah, you must be Sheila. Glad you like the painting of Penelope. Can you imagine she sat for more than 16 hours — broken up by a little lovin’?” (Despicable, this Henry.) With a deep breath, I introduced myself to him. “Sorry, I have no taste.” (Truth gets you into trouble. I have superb taste.) He smiled arrogantly and insisted his painting was “historical-interpretive-with-past-and-present-Penelope-once-removed-intermixed.” (Indeed!) I told him I knew very little about art and had been an English major.

Was it a faux pas, a foot in my mouth, or was I a fortune teller? For though Henry married Penny, taking her last name as his hyphenated name, Henry Hightower-Goldman, this marriage would not last. Some 20 years later, I am happy to report Penny’s portrait and Henry are long gone. Penelope is remarried, and as far as I know Henry has much of Penelope’s family money, having never worked at anything, especially as an artist. Their joint child is delightful, a brilliant student with no artistic ambition. She’s studying to be a brain surgeon. Clearly, Henry’s art was a recessive gene; my outspoken gene a dominant one.

*aphtae epizooticae: hoof-and-mouth disease; an infectious and sometimes fatal viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals, including domestic and wild bovids. Now used colloquially as putting your foot in your mouth.

**faux pas: This expression originated during the time of Louis XIV. During his reign, dance was so important in the royal courts that to make a false step in any one of the many dances could get you thrown out. It is now a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners, or conduct; an embarrassing social blunder or indiscretion.



5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I have never understood the portraits of the “lord and lady of the manor”  apart from the need for affirmation of self-importance. But learned early on to simply ignore them. Although most are hard to ignore. Few actually resemble the person. The few times I have commented it usually has been along the lines of  “it is just so you.” And thought to myself, “in your dreams.” Although occasionally I have thought “in the artist’s nightmares.”

    The worst faux pas are always at the cocktail parties. When no one really knows everyone. And someone doesn’t know that the person they are “slicing and dicing” is someone else’s father or brother or mother or sister.  Or is the someone else. I was the someone else one night. And thoroughly enjoyed the “oh, by the way, I forgot to introduced myself…”

  2. avatar Connie Turner says:

    Dear Baby Snooks,
    I wish I was half as interesting as you.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      I’m really not that interesting. I’ve just had an interesting life. Made more interesting at times by a wicked sense of humor. I wish I’d had my Kodak with me.  You should have seen the look on that man’s face when I introduced myself. And on everyone else’s.

  3. avatar eleanore wells says:

    I love it, friend-in-my-head. I, too, have foot-in-mouth disease. A little less as I’ve gotten older…but not “less” enough for some people. At a dinner party, I asked “who is that a-hole” about a blowhard who had gotten on my last nerve…to his wife! She was not amused, although I don’t know why. She had to know he was an a-hole. Anyway,at times like this, apologies are so awkward because it’s clear you meant what was said. One can only offer a carefully worded apologize for, perhaps, not having that 10-second filter wise people use. (sigh)

    eleanore – The Spinsterlicious Life

  4. avatar Karen Ferguson says:

    That great Penelope story reminded me of my own faux pas with the mot juste. I’d started work on a film project with a Frenchman whose work involved experiences that were sometimes harrowing and always spell-binding. After he’d been traveling for a long time, we met in New York for lunch and he asked what I’d accomplished. Wanting to underscore that I’d been hard at work, serious about studying his accomplishments, I told him that I’d gathered files and files of materials –from old newspapers and my own interviews with his friends– about his adventures. He seemed disgruntled. “You know nothing of my adventures!” Hoping to put him in a better mood, I assured him that I did, that I knew everything there was to know about every adventure he’d had. We continued for ten minutes with his denials and my insistence about knowing all the details of his adventures. Suddenly I understood the problem and said: “I mean the word ‘adventure’ in English.” He showed a flash of relief, then embarrassment, and abruptly changed the subject. In French, an “aventure” is a casual sexual experience. When I related the story to a French friend, he asked what word the Americans use and burst out laughing when I told him “affair.” Given the news today, how appropriate that the word Americans use for a sexy relations is the word the French use for “business.”