obits: Letitia Baldridge, etiquette doyenne

Ms. Baldrige, who stood 6 feet 1 inch tall, long contended that the heart of all etiquette was consideration for other people, rather than a rigid set of rules. 

She reposed on October 29, 2012.  This is a reposting from my older blog on WordPress, like most of the obits from the past.

Letitia Baldrige, the imposing author, etiquette adviser and business executive who became a household name as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House chief of staff, died on Monday in Bethesda, Md. She was 86. Her death was confirmed by Mary M. Mitchell, a longtime friend and collaborator.

At 35 Ms. Baldrige, known as Tish, left her job as public relations director for Tiffany & Company to help out a friend and fellow Vassar alumna, the former Jacqueline Bouvier. By doing so, she became in essence, the social secretary of the Kennedy White House as it emerged as a center of culture, art, and sparkling state dinners.

She left the White House in June 1963, less than six months before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to work for the Merchandise Mart, the Kennedy family business enterprise in Chicago and later went on to found her own public relations and marketing business.

In the 1970s she established herself as an authority on contemporary etiquette, writing a syndicated newspaper column on the subject by updating the classic “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette” in 1978, less than four years after Ms. Vanderbilt’s death. Soon after thanks to her connection with the Luces, her portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and she was hailed her as the nation’s social arbiter.

After that, her own name was enough to attract readers, and in 1985 she published “Letitia Baldrige’s Complete Guide to Executive Manners,” which dealt with behavior in the workplace and outside it. In that book, she declared it acceptable to cut salad with a knife. She recommended that whoever reaches the door first — either man or woman — open it. And she suggested infrequent shampooing when staying on a yacht, so as to be considerate about conserving water.

“There are major C.E.O.’s who do not know how to hold a knife and fork properly, but I don’t worry about that as much as their lack of kindness,” she told The New York Times in 1992. “There are two generations of people who have not learned how important it is to take time to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and how people must relate to one another.”

On her first job she made a major faux pas by unknowingly seating a Frenchman next to his wife’s lover at a dinner party. As a result, she often said, she learned the value of heartfelt, repeated apologies.

In addition to her all-purpose etiquette guides, she narrowed her focus to be about weddings, social lives, job success and child-rearing. Even when she went far afield of her specialty, as with “Public Affairs, Private Relations” (1991), a novel about romance and class differences in Washington, she threw in comments about manners.

She wrote at least three books that capitalized on her brief, shining White House career: “In the Kennedy Style: Magical Evenings in the Kennedy White House” (1998, with René Verdon); “A Lady, First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Rome” (2001); and “The Kennedy Mystique” (2006, with four co-authors). Those books’ revelations tended toward menus, recipes and minor shockers, like Mrs. Kennedy’s habit of referring to Helen Thomas and another newswoman as “the harpies.”

In a 1964 oral history interview for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, she remembered the Kennedys as perfectionists and the president as an amazing manager.“He was like a wonderful department store manager who goes through the store and knows everybody’s name and knows how all the departments work and knows how to wrap packages better than the wrappers in the wrapping department,” she said.

Letitia Baldrige was born on Feb. 9, 1926, in Miami, Florida and grew up in Omaha, the youngest child of Howard Malcolm Baldrige, a Republican state legislator who became a United States congressman in 1930, and the former Regina Connell. (Her brother Malcolm was secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration.) Growing up with two older brothers helped make her tough, Ms. Baldrige said. Speaking to her hometown newspaper, The Omaha World-Herald, in 1997, she recalled the time her brother Robert had swung his new baseball bat, a holiday gift, too close to her.“I was knocked unconscious for three hours,” she said. “My brothers called it the best Christmas so far.”

Like her future employer Mrs. Kennedy, Letitia attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., and received a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College. She did graduate work at the University of Geneva in Switzerland ( my Uncle went to medical school there) but still found that she had to learn secretarial skills to find a good State Department job.

Beginning in the late 1940s, she worked in Paris as social secretary to David Bruce, the United States ambassador to France, and his wife, Evengeline; then in Rome as assistant to Clare Boothe Luce, at that time the ambassador to Italy, but a former Connecticut Republican congresswoman and wife to Henry Luce, editor in chief of Time Magazine.When she returned to the United States, she went to work for Walter Hoving, the chairman of Tiffany & Company and later the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her first book was “Roman Candle” (1956), a memoir about her European adventures, which one critic, Elizabeth Janeway, accused of managing “to invest Rome with as much color and atmosphere as if it were her native Omaha.” Her last book was “Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy” (2007). Most of Ms. Baldrige’s career was spent as an entrepreneur, as head of her own businesses in Chicago, New York and Washington, where she had a home at the time of her death. Yet she continued to be identified with her White House days. “That’s all right,” she told The Times in 1998. “It was a moment in history, and to be part of it is incredible.”

Ms. Baldrige married Robert Hollensteiner, a real estate developer, in 1963 when she left the White House. He survives her, along with their daughter, Clare Smyth (after Ms Booth Luce); their son, Malcolm Baldrige Hollensteiner; and seven grandchildren. Family, Ms. Baldrige believed, was where the patterns for manners, humanity and true civilization were set, and the American family was failing to do its job.

“We are not passing values on to our children,” she told The Toronto Star in 1999. “We are not sitting down at the dinner table talking about the tiny things that add up to caring human beings. Jackie learned from her mom, who had beautiful manners.”