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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 11/01/2012

Letitia Baldrige, the first famous social secretary, was a ‘godmother’ to White House successors


Letitia Baldrige, White House Social Secretary, at a White House Christmas party in December 1962. (Norman Driscoll - The Washington Post)
Despite her career as an etiquette expert, Letitia Baldrige wasn’t too terribly stuffy when it came to protocol. But one thing drove her crazy: clinking wine glasses.

Capricia Marshall, a White House social secretary for the Clintons, learned that lesson early on at a party with her predecessors. “When we raised our glasses to toast, she held up a hand and said, ‘Ladies, ladies. We do not clink our glasses to toast. We approach.’ ”

As a young assistant working at U.S. embassies in Paris and Rome, Baldrige was taught that one should simply extend one’s wine or champagne glass toward those of one’s tablemates but never actually make contact. She loathed the way that Americans insist on tapping their glasses together. “No noise from the glass,” recalled Ann Stock, another Clinton social secretary. “It was chalk on a blackboard to her.”

Baldrige, who died Monday, shot to fame as White House social secretary to Jackie Kennedy, a classmate from boarding school and Vassar. She was the first person in the job to become famous for it, driven in part by the Kennedy glamour and the advent of TV cameras in the White House, but also by her own masterful touch at putting together presidential events. Even though she always made sure the first lady got the credit.

Known widely as “Tish,” Baldrige then parlayed her two years in the White House into a five-decade career as an author and expert on manners and entertaining — and became an unofficial godmother to every one of her successors.


Baldrige in 1987 (AP)
“Letitia Baldrige set the gold standard for this job,” said Jeremy Bernard, who currently holds the title. “I think all of us asked for her advice, and she was always more than willing to help.”

In fact, she made of point of being the first to call each newly appointed social secretary, passing on her tips for surviving the high-pressure job. “You are the visible face of the White House, president and first lady,” Stock recalls Baldrige saying. “You have to be kind to people.”

She taught her “sorority,” as she called her successors, that it was okay to make mistakes. She told Lea Berman , who served during the second Bush White House, about the time a furious President Kennedy called her into the Oval Office for creating a media firestorm with her hiring of a French chef. Gaffes happen, she said, but the true test is how they are managed and overcome.

“She was a natural aristocrat in the best sense of the word — confident, witty, charming and principled,” Berman told us Wednesday. And a star: Whenever Baldrige would visit the White House in later years, it was an event on par with a former first lady’s homecoming.

“The Residence staff would appear from every corner to say hello and wish her well — even if they’d never worked with her or met her,” said Berman.

Baldrige believed there was no detail too small to demand her attention. During a White House redecoration, JFK complained about a horrible smell. Baldrige herself tracked it down: A painter was bringing limburger cheese sandwiches to work every day. She arranged for his lunch to go into a White House refrigerator. Problem solved.


A gathering of former social secretaries in 1998: Marshall, Stock, Baldrige, Nancy Ruwe, Lucy Winchester, Breathitt, Downs and Bess Abell. (Annie Groer - The Washington Post)
Though a stickler for old-school etiquette concerns (which fork to use?), she kept up with modern quandaries, such as cellphone volume. And she remained “hell-bent about the respect people should show the White House,” said Maria Downs, a social secretary under Gerald Ford. “Up until the end, I think she was in awe of it.”

Baldrige kept writing books and dispensing advice until she died after a long illness at age 86. “Start with the silverware: outside in, top down,” she taught Stock’s son years ago. “When in doubt, look at what everyone else is doing.”

Except, god forbid, if they’re clinking glasses.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 11/01/2012

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