Letitia Baldrige: Queen of etiquette

 

Letitia Baldrige had helped shape the Kennedys' Camelot White House before she became a much-consulted etiquette expert, firmly telling an enquirer that she detested the clinking of glasses in a toast: "We do not clink, we approach." (Although she thought it was quite acceptable to cut salad with a knife.)

From 1961 to 1963, she had been chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy, in effect the social secretary for the most glamorous White House ever, helping to arrange the state dinners and elegant concerts of the JFK years. She parlayed that considerable experience into a lifelong career as an arbiter of manners, making the cover of Time Magazine in 1978 as what it called "a superbly energetic amalgam of feminist and Tasteful Lady."

Before her arrival at the White House, she glided along the flight paths of the American elite. She had attended Miss Porter's exclusive boarding school for girls, and then went to the prestigious, then women-only, Vassar College. After being social secretary at the American embassies in Paris and Rome, under ambassadors David Bruce and Clare Boothe Luce, she returned to the US to take a job as public relations director for the jewellers Tiffany and Co.

Her life changed when, late in 1960, she was called by Jackie Kennedy, an old friend and fellow alumna at Miss Porter's and Vassar, who was about to become First Lady of the United States. She asked if Baldrige could come and help out at the White House. Baldrige accepted, and stayed until the summer of 1963, by which time, she wrote, "I had had it" with the extreme demands of the job. A few months later, she returned, again at Jackie Kennedy's request, this time to help plan the president's funeral, and make it a memorable occasion of grief, despair and dignity.

Baldrige, usually just called "Tish", became a prolific author and set up her own companies. She became an unofficial adviser to several later First Ladies, and would call newly appointed social secretaries to give them tips on how to survive the pressures, but for her, nothing matched her time with the Kennedys.

"The years with Jackie remain for ever front and centre," she said. "Mrs Kennedy did things in ways that no one had ever done them before. There had never been hard liquor served at state functions. She provided open bars. There had never been jazz, or opera or theatre. They brought it all in." The president called her "Miss Push and Pull," because of her constant efforts to make him conform over details of protocol. She still recalled him as the perfect boss, "like a wonderful store manager who goes through the store and knows everyone's name and how all the departments work."

The Camelot era provided her with the material for four books, from Of Diamonds and Diplomats in 1968, to the co-authored The Kennedy Mystique, 2006. By the 1970s, Baldrige had become the American queen of etiquette, and she established her own branded marketing firm, Letitia Baldrige Enterprises.

She advised through a flow of books devoted to manners and etiquette, at home, in the workplace, even in the nursery. Among them was Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Manners, in which she insisted, perhaps against the available evidence, that rudeness and arrogance were not the hallmarks of people at the top. For every rude executive, she wrote, "there are nine successful ones with good manners". The most important thing was not the way someone held a knife and fork, but kindness and consideration for other people, and the ability to say sorry.

Letitia Baldrige, White House official and author: born Miami 9 February 1926; Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary 1961-1963; married 1964 Robert Hollensteiner (one daughter, one son); died Bethesda, Maryland 29 October 2012.

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