As a way to defuse the tension, Mitchell answered in her dog's voice.
For the next 21/2 years, Zsa Zsa and her "Auntie Ness," the former vice president of corporate communications at WHYY, exchanged words of wisdom through e-mail. They advised each other on rules for hosts, finding humor in all situations, not texting at the table, and always looking your best.
The project, filled with humor and dog puns, also became a coping mechanism and outlet for Forman, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2011. So, Mitchell was determined to finish the book, which was the wish of her "sister of choice."
Woofs to the Wise: Learning to Lick at Life and Chew on Civility (TMO Press, $21.95) provides advice - cast as a quirky, interspecies dialogue - on dating, hair care products, careers, and communicating with others. After all, as "Auntie Ness" said: "We are only as successful as our relationships with others."
The book is being released Tuesday. Mitchell, who wrote the "Ms. Demeanor" column for The Inquirer for a decade, will sign copies Wednesday night in the Skyline Room of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Profits will go to the Philadelphia Foundation to benefit arts education for middle school students.
In a recent phone interview, Mitchell talked about the book, her dog, and her late friend.
Question: At what point did you guys decide to create a book out of your e-mail correspondence?
Answer: We had been corresponding for a while and then Nessa finally got out here. Then we just started giggling about the correspondence, and as she was leaving, she took out a laptop and said, "You know, Trips [Forman's nickname for Mitchell], we have a book here. It would be fun for people to read, and we both talk about things that are important not only to ourselves but also our experiences from mentoring other people and teaching. I've spent my whole career having everybody else's voice heard; this will be the first time that anybody's ever really heard my voice." And that's how it began.
Q: To what extent was Zsa Zsa Nessa's escape from cancer? Did you guys not talk about cancer if it wasn't through Zsa Zsa?
A: The book actually in no small way kept Nessa alive. Nessa was very dedicated to life, she really wanted to focus on life, not on answering questions about her treatment. This book became a creative outlet for her. Nessa said things to Zsa Zsa that were hard for her to say, even to me. She was a very self-contained, private, and dignified woman, so losing control was hell for her. We were friends for decades and I don't even remember her having a head cold, so when this came on, it was absolutely terrifying.
For years, we spoke twice a day at 9 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon Pacific time. When we talked at those times, of course there were really emotional moments, but for the most part, it was discussing the news of the day, books we were reading, Shakespeare, the symphony . . . we had a robust relationship. But she only talked about her emotional side of things with Zsa Zsa.
Q: Would you suggest this indirect method of confronting your friends?
A: Yes. I'm a consultant in communications; this is what I do for a living. And I found that using humor and a third party made it easier for the other person. Communication is all about the other person. If I say something to you and you're not clear on what I meant, all I've done is spoken out loud.
Q: How can good manners benefit us in everyday life?
A: Good manners are all about being kind and being respectful. Good manners have to come from the inside. They're translated through etiquette, which comes from the outside - they're the rules. Good manners create harmony, and etiquette helps control chaos.
Q: How are the rules of etiquette changing?
A: The biggest change in etiquette is absolutely the computer age. The rules of etiquette always change by virtue of the economy, they always change by virtue of industrialization, and they always change by virtue of what's going on in the workplace. For example, 30 years ago, you would never see a section in an etiquette book about sex. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette that came out has a chapter on sex that teaches you how to say things like, "Have you been tested?"
Q: Why isn't Internet etiquette covered in the book when the entire correspondence was communicated through e-mail?
A: Zsa Zsa was so concerned about her relationship with Nessa, and she did that through one medium, and one medium alone. Her mission, really, was to bring out the fact that good manners create good relationships, and she was happy to start with the world around her. Maybe her next book will be about Internet manners.
Contact Anna Pan at email@example.com.