- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Letitia Baldrige has led an unquestionably charmed and fascinating life, but she would be the first to admit it has been 100 percent hard work all the way.
After 18 books and a long career as one of the country's best-known etiquette experts and public relations executives, the ever-polite Washington grande dame is proud to recall that she owes it all to taking a post-collegiate secretarial school course. Humbling though it was, learning those sorts of skills was what well-bred young ladies even Vassar girls had to do if they wanted to work for the Foreign Service in Europe during America's heady international glory days after World War II.
Quite the ingenue at first, she had the time of her life in Paris, where she learned about diplomacy at the highest levels as an assistant to Ambassador David K.E. Bruce and his wife, Evangeline, while meeting everyone who mattered in the world of politics, society and the arts. With skills finely honed, she went next to Rome to experience the best that la dolce vita had to offer at the side of the fabulous-but-terrifying Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce. The top-notch PR job at Tiffany's in New York City soon followed, and then it was off to the White House for the most memorable and difficult job of them all: as social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Now, her recently published memoir, "A Lady First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies in Paris and Rome," tells the tales well, most of them, anyway that you have always been dying to hear.
Q: You had terrible luck with your September publication date.
A: I was booked on all these national TV shows during the week after the [Twin] Towers [of the New York Trade Center] fell. I got bumped off all of them three and four times. Then all my books and press releases got lost in the anthrax mail.
Q: Still, you've gotten a lot of good press.
A: It is selling well only because of my own personal work. There has been no advertising.
Q: Some of the supermarket tabloids picked up on all the Jacqueline Kennedy bits.
A: Not that there are many book buyers who read them. [Laughs]
Q: There are a lot of Jackie freaks out there.
A: That's the problem. My book is not a Jackie book. It's about my life and my jobs and growing up with values and a great family. I saw so much and have known so many exceptional people who were doing great and important things for our country.
Q: Did the public expect something different?
A: They thought I was going to tell about my love affairs and Jack Kennedy's love affairs. But I wanted it to be an inspiration to women, especially those who are starting up their careers.
Q: Your first two bosses, Mrs. Bruce and Mrs. Luce, were older, very accomplished mentors.
A: I learned from two of them and gave to the third. From Evangeline, I learned the art of the consummate hostess. Clare Luce taught me how to shine, to work hard and take it all the way. She made me work seven days a week.
Q: But she sensed you weren't as hard-core as she was.
A: She told me, "If you aim too high, you'll get shot with arrows by those who don't want you there. Live in a world of good friends. Stay where they are, not where the enemies are." In other words, don't be pushy, don't hang on to the great celebs.
Q: You have a great story about her sending back a fabulously expensive leather-bound and gold-embossed set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to publisher William Benton because Boothe was spelled without the "e."
A: She said, "It's your name, and that's all you've got."
Q: Now for the question you most hate.
A: You mean, "What was Jackie really like?" [Laughs] Well, she was wonderful. She got tired just like everybody does, and then she wasn't so wonderful. It was an inspiration: the way she walked into the White House at the age of 31.
Q: She liked the White House restoration and the high-level entertaining, but not having to talk to ladies groups.
A: She made that quite clear.
Q: The fact that you were her old [Vassar] schoolmate made it harder, not easier.
A: Oh, yes. If I hadn't known her previously, it would have been a professional relationship. Before I worked at the White House, we would go out to lunch and sit and giggle and gossip. But there was no more of that. It all changed, but it was to be expected.
Q: It must have been hard being constantly caught in the cross hairs for example, when she wanted to go off on some mogul's yacht during her foreign travels instead of attending to official duties.
A: At one point, it was getting dangerous, and I asked [President John F. Kennedy] for help. But those little stories mean nothing contrasted to her fantastic success and brilliance of conduct as first lady. She went through a lot with her husband that we didn't even know anything about.
Q: You were unaware of his reputation.
A: I would hear things but didn't believe them. I adored him so, and Jackie handled it so brilliantly. She was a heroine. I admired her for so many things, and that was one of them the way she handled the infidelities.
Q: She was a master of the put-down, too. You wrote about how she downgraded the visit of Princess Grace of Monaco from state-dinner status to mere luncheon.
A: It was brilliant because Princess Grace was a great personage who rivaled Jackie in glamour. And after all, she had gone out with JFK and more than once.
Q: Mrs. Kennedy knew how to downplay certain scenarios like the time the beautiful Farah Diba, then the empress of Iran, came to the White House wearing a solid-gold dress and about a billion dollars in jewels.
A: Jackie spent weeks worrying about what she would wear and decided that the way to do it was "la jeune fille" instead of even trying to compete. Her appearance was very simple: a strawberry pink and white [gown], simple little diamond earrings and just one diamond brooch borrowed from Van Cleef & Arpels.
Q: You became quite adept at handling diplomatic relations yourself. You perfected the art of the "in-out" within 15 minutes at embassy receptions.
A: I would enter through the front door, go through the receiving line, then give the ambassador a "message from JFK" that I had made up in the car on the way over. I'd say, "The President told me to be sure to tell you such and such," and some aide would quickly write it all down. The next day, it got telegraphed to the home government and would appear in all the newspapers. Then I would exit through the kitchen door. Every cook and caterer knew me. I was the lady who streaked out.
Q: You quit but came back to help out in the White House when you heard President Kennedy had been killed.
A: I knew I would be needed, and I was.
Q: The atmosphere must have been surreal.
A: The attitude was, "They couldn't have done that to him and our nation." There were so many people weeping in the streets even ardent Republicans.
Q: Similar to what happened in Britain when Princess Diana died.
A: Except that Kennedy was assassinated and was a martyred president. Diana died in the back seat of a car with her lover.
Q: You didn't tell all in your memoir, but as they say you told plenty.
A: I told a lot without having nasty things. If you have a good personal relationship with someone who was famous and important at a particular time in history, you do everything you can not to sully their reputation in future years. I can't stand seeing staff who are turncoats, like those who left the Clinton administration and then wrote books.



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