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  JERRY HALL
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Letitia Baldrige, 2005
 

WITH DAVID SAVAGE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LEETA HARDING

Starting with The Complete Book of Etiquette in 1978, Letitia Baldrige has published over twenty books on manners. Her latest book New Manners for New Times tackles modern dilemas such as e-mail etiquette. David Savage visited with her at her home in Washington, DC's historic Dupont Circle neighborhood.]

DAVID: Can you give me some advice on a question of workplace manners? What should you do when you feel really angry with someone at work?
LETITIA: Good manners stem from self-discipline. I tell people who get really lost in a fit of rage to go outdoors and pound a wall. Take lots of deep breaths. Stay outside for at least fifteen minutes. Then come back in and apologize. Go into the person's office! Don't use your bloody computer to send e-mail.
DAVID: Confront the source head-on?
LETITIA: Face to face. Being the first one to apologize never fails. DAVID: But these days, we lionize unapologetic arrogance — Donald Trump, for example. Look how quickly "You're fired!" caught on.
LETITIA: There are several examples of pretty appalling celebrity behavior. I can't stand the way celebrities treat their weddings — inviting other celebrities just to garner media coverage!
DAVID: Did you grow up in a family where manners were considered important?
LETITIA: Well, we didn't think of it as manners — it was just the way we were expected to act. Our parents had high standards, and we were punished if we didn't meet them. There was a leather razor strap for my brothers, which my father would only brandish at me.
DAVID: That kind of punishment would land you in court these days.
LETITIA: There's no question about it! I also had a Sacred Heart Convent education — the strictest of the strict.
DAVID: Sister Mary of the Impaled Heart?
LETITIA: Precisely. [laughs] But I'm so glad they were tough with me, because I would have been a mess if it hadn't been for them. I was far too ebullient as a teenager. But I didn't break the major rules — just the ones I knew I could get away with.
DAVID: You lived in Washington, DC, in the early 1930s.
LETITIA: Yes, my father became a congressman in 1931. My first visit to the White House was when Herbert Hoover was President.
DAVID: Have you always been a Democrat?
LETITIA: No. I was born and raised a Republican, but I quickly became an ardent Democrat when I worked as Social Secretary for the Kennedy White House. But that job is not a political one. It was my responsibility to make both the President and the White House look good. I just can't stand the scandals that have surrounded recent presidents, like President Clinton.
DAVID: That was really an unprecedented attack, wasn't it?
LETITIA: Well, respect for the presidency diminished after Nixon — even with the White House staff. But during the Kennedy era, the press were still very respectful. They loved both of the Kennedys — and did everything they could to keep the lid on anything detrimental.
DAVID: The media is now so salacious — I can't imagine such self-restraint nowadays. During the Kennedy administration, you held two jobs simultaneously, White House Social Secretary and Chief of Staff to Jacqueline Kennedy. Was Jackie a demanding boss?
LETITIA: She was demanding of herself, and she also expected her staff to perform. As her Chief of Staff, my major contribution was to gather as much information as possible on visiting ambassadors and heads of state. I had to learn the protocol that was expected in their countries. It was a well-run administration. The Kennedys wanted everything to be beautiful and just right. And Jackie had such style.
DAVID: She was an accomplished hostess even before she moved to the White House.
LETITIA: As a Bouvier, she was raised in that tradition. She always planned the menu, but deferred to me for the entertainment.
DAVID: As Social Secretary, one of your other responsibilities at the White House was to help coordinate state dinners. Which was the most memorable?
LETITIA: We gave a lavish state dinner at Mount Vernon. It was the first time that George Washington's home had ever been opened for such an event. We had to ship all of the refrigerators and stoves down from Washington. It was in honor of the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. Pakistan had recently become our first open ally in the Middle East. The Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, told us we had to really "do a number" on him, and give him a fantastic state dinner.
DAVID: What constitutes an "international incident" involving protocol, and what does the White House Social Secretary do in such a situation?
LETITIA: An international incident occurs when either the host or the honored guest is humiliated, and it's reported in their local press. Sometimes you just have to let those situations play themselves out. Sometimes incredible apologies are required. John Kennedy was very aware of what the press would do to him if his wife's frivolities got into the newspapers.
DAVID: Such as?
LETITIA: After the dinner at Mount Vernon, Jackie was given a fantastic Arabian stallion as a gift from Ayub Khan. However, the president and his immediate family are not allowed to accept gifts of such great value, so we had to tell the Pakistani ambassador that we couldn't possibly accept it. But horses meant more to Jackie than people. She got word to President Khan that she would love to receive the horse, so the Air Force flew it into the country in a cargo plane. After it arrived, the Army kept calling, asking what they should do with it. So I went to the President.
DAVID: How did he react?
LETITIA: He blew up. He said, "This is absolutely terrible. We cannot do this. Find out how much that horse is worth — I'm going to pay the full import duty to bring it into the United States." So I got on the phone and asked the White House operator to connect me to the Ambassador of Pakistan. She misunderstood and gave me the Ambassador of Afghanistan, a country which was, at the time, the great enemy of Pakistan.
DAVID: Oh no!
LETITIA: I knew him because we played tennis together, but I didn't recognize his voice. When we first got on the phone, he didn't reveal whom he was. He was enjoying it! I kept saying, "Oh, it's so embarrassing, Mr. Ambassador, we have to find out how much that beautiful horse cost! It's so humiliating!" He said, "Miss Baldrige, that horse is a nag and is worth nothing. Zero!" And then he started to laugh.
DAVID: He was enjoying himself!
LETITIA: Then the Ambassador said, "Letitia, don't worry about it. I won't tell anybody if you won't." After much bickering and bargaining, the Pakistani Ambassador and I decided to post the duty at ten thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. But, in the end, the horse entered the country illegally, and the story was never told.
DAVID: Is etiquette still emphasized at the White House today?
LETITIA: Behavior at the White House has become appalling. If you're invited to a White House dinner, be there on time. Not five minutes early, and certainly not fifteen minutes late. Nowadays, guests show up whenever they wish. Some people don't even RSVP.
DAVID: To state dinners? That's unbelievable.
LETITIA: Many guests don't even bother to dress appropriately. The men look as though they haven't changed their shirts for the occasion. And many women come dressed informally and immodestly. You can't wear a cocktail dress to a state dinner! Jane Fonda did that.
DAVID: Do you have any other advice to those attending?
LETITIA: Yes. Never swap the place cards, even if you think that no one will notice. Also, don't ever complain about where you are seated, or you'll never be invited back. One night we hosted a party so big that it overflowed into the Blue Room. Jackie told me that she would play host in the Blue Room so that all of the guests would feel included. Two guests arrived very late and demanded to be seated as close to Jackie as possible, assuming she was in the main dining room. So I went ahead and put them in the main dining room — at the table furthest from Jackie.
DAVID: Today's political atmosphere is highly polarized. Do fierce opponents of the current administration accept invitations to White House dinners?
LETITIA: Absolutely. The Republicans and the Democrats shout at each other on the House and Senate floors, but when they run into each other outside of work, most of them still shake hands, smile, and exchange jokes.
DAVID: Years ago Patrick Daniel Moynihan represented the ideal in the Senate.
LETITIA: He was wonderful! He was a Democrat, but he was so beloved by the Republicans, because he was such a gentleman. He had the most beautiful manners. And he made a lot of jokes. You know, a sense of humor is basic to all of this. Humor softens any harshness in what you try to do.
DAVID: What do you say to people who believe that manners and etiquette are forms of elitism?
LETITIA: I ask them if saying hello with a friendly face is elitist. I ask them if thanking the waiter, instead of ignoring him, is elitist.
DAVID: I think people associate etiquette and manners with high society. But charity events today are merely opportunities for socialites to network and buy new couture.
LETITIA: Today's socialites hire people to do their job for them. They don't know what they're doing. They are lacking in knowledge and real sophistication.
DAVID: Laura Bush was in New York for Fashion Week in February...
LETITIA: That never would have happened thirty years ago. Back then, people looked down on the fashion industry. Designers were thought of as journeymen, whereas today, the top designers at the famous fashion houses are the number-one guests on many dinner lists. Today's A-list says a lot about our society. We celebrate those with the most money, flash, and dash.
DAVID: Your latest book, New Manners For New Times is filled with personal reminisces. You not only talk about the inspiration you derived from the great leaders of World War II, but also about growing up in wartime America, and your sincere admiration for your father.
LETITIA: My father was a hero in World War I and World War II. The men who left their civilian jobs to become military leaders were the real heroes.