Letitia Baldrige, Arbiter of Workplace Etiquette, Dies at 86

Letitia K. Baldrige
Letitia K. Baldrige holds her first Washington news conference on Nov. 22, 1960 since being named White House social secretary by the incoming first lady. Baldrige told reporters that she and Jacqueline Kennedy are former schoolmates and long-time friends. Source: AP Photo

Letitia Baldrige, whose work as chief of staff for U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy helped establish her as an authority on etiquette, the “social arbiter” of “new American manners,” as a 1978 Time magazine cover put it, has died. She was 86.

She died on Oct. 29 in Bethesda, Maryland, the New York Times reported, citing Mary M. Mitchell, a longtime friend and collaborator. No cause was given. She was most recently a partner at protocol consultant Baldrige & Lewris in McLean, Virginia.

Building on the legacy of writers Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, Baldrige brought rules on manners to the workplace, tackling topics such as proper behavior on elevators (“the only really safe topic of conversation is the weather”) and prudent use of speakerphones.

Baldrige’s own career in public relations, starting at Tiffany & Co. in 1956, gave her firsthand knowledge of issues created when women began to enter the workforce in large numbers. Her 1993 “New Complete Guide to Executive Manners” included a chapter on “problems in today’s working world which never existed before,” including office romances and sexual harassment.

She said she viewed etiquette, a term often associated with white gloves and proper cutlery, as simple courtesy toward others.

‘Lack of Kindness’

“There are major CEOs who do not know how to hold a knife and fork properly, but I don’t worry about that as much as the lack of kindness,” she said in 1992, according to the New York Times. “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.”

Born into a Midwest Republican family, Baldrige was educated among the Eastern elite thanks to the connections of her Yale-educated father, who fought in both world wars and represented Nebraska as a congressman from 1931 to 1933. Through her parents’ social network in Washington she knew young Jacqueline Bouvier, who followed three years behind her at both Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Establishing Camelot

After Bouvier’s husband, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency in 1960, Baldrige became the first lady’s social secretary and chief of staff, overseeing the banquets, cultural showcases and world travels that helped establish the idea of the Kennedy presidency as modern-day Camelot -- a cosmopolitan exposition of fashion, art and youthful vigor.

Over the next decades she would be invited to the White House to advise incoming first ladies, including “Lady Bird” Johnson, who was thrust into the role by the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963, and Nancy Reagan.

Baldrige, known to friends as Tish, was born on Feb. 9, 1926, according to the Times, in Miami Beach. She was the youngest of three children of Regina and Howard Malcolm Baldrige. Her father, a lawyer, had moved the family from Nebraska to try his hand at Florida real estate. They returned to Omaha in 1928. One of Baldrige’s brothers, Malcolm, would serve as U.S. Commerce secretary under President Ronald Reagan.

Baldrige accompanied her father as he drove throughout western Nebraska in his election campaign and admired how he gave everybody “his undivided attention” while promising to help. Following his one term in the House of Representatives, he practiced law in New York City and Washington.

Dinner Table

Many of Baldrige’s early lessons on proper behavior came from her parents at the dinner table -- “the training lab where our manners were observed and corrected,” she wrote, each meal becoming “an active class in grammar and civility.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Vassar in 1946. Fluent in French, she spent much of the next decade in Europe, beginning with 14 months of graduate studies at the University of Geneva. Frustrated in her efforts to break into male-dominated business in the U.S., she joined the Foreign Service and worked at the U.S. embassies in Paris and Rome.

In Paris, as social secretary to Ambassador David Bruce and his wife, Baldrige arranged party invitations and restaurant reservations when Rose Kennedy, wife of the former U.S. ambassador to the U.K., would visit Paris with daughters Eunice, Patricia and Jean. She also spent time with “Jackie” Bouvier, her friend from back home, when the future first lady studied for a year at the Sorbonne.

Clare Boothe Luce

After returning to the U.S. to work at the Central Intelligence Agency and to study Italian, she moved to Rome to work for Clare Boothe Luce, one of the first female U.S. ambassadors and the wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines. Baldrige chronicled her experience in her first book, “Roman Candle.”

Through Luce, Baldrige landed her next job, as the first director of public relations for New York City-based jeweler Tiffany & Co. in 1956. She left there for the White House at the request of the first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

In addition to public schedules and guest lists, Baldrige and her staff handled the flood of mail addressed to the glamorous, young first lady. Mimi Alford, whose 2012 book described what she said was an 18-month affair with President Kennedy while she was a White House intern, said one of those letters came from her.

JFK Introduction

As a student at Miss Porter’s, the high school alma mater of Baldrige and the first lady, Alford had written to request an interview with Mrs. Kennedy, and Baldrige offered herself as an alternative. Alford said Baldrige personally introduced her to the president during her March 1961 visit. She also said she assumed, but never confirmed, that Baldrige had been behind the internship offer she received the following year.

Baldrige didn’t comment publicly about Alford’s book.

In her own memoir, “A Lady, First” (2001), Baldrige revealed that she wanted to quit 18 months into her job, after clashing with the first lady on a trip to Greece, only to be persuaded to stay by the president.

Soon, though, “I sensed the first lady’s resentment of my constant nudging,” Baldrige wrote. “She wanted to do less, and only those things that she wanted to do. I wanted her to do more, knowing that her power to help her husband and the country was unlimited.”

Into Business

Baldrige left the White House in June 1963 and began work in Chicago as an executive at the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart. She married Robert Hollensteiner, a real-estate executive, with whom she had a son, Malcolm, and a daughter, Clare.

Tiffany and the Merchandise Mart were among her first clients when she opened her own PR and marketing firm, Letitia Baldrige Enterprises Inc., in 1964. From 1969 to 1972 she was director of consumer affairs for Burlington Industries.

When Vanderbilt, the author of a widely read etiquette guide first published in 1952, died in 1974, her estate and her publisher, Doubleday & Co., selected Baldrige to take over the franchise.

“The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, a Guide to Contemporary Living, Revised & Expanded by Letitia Baldrige” was published in 1978. It landed Baldrige on Time’s cover along with a drawing depicting “The Business Lunch 1978”: a man and woman in business attire at a table, the woman handing a credit card to the tuxedoed waiter.

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