First, the invitation. Tasteful, of course, as one would expect for a party centered around Letitia Baldrige and her latest book, “Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy.”
On heavy, handmade deckle-edged stock and listing an R.S.V.P. to a real person, not an e-mail address, the invitation from hostess troika Joan Tobin, Ann Nitze and Mary Haft conveyed the elegant simplicity that is, well, the hallmark of good taste. Mrs. Nitze, like several others present, attended the same boarding school as Ms. Baldrige (although in different years), the estimable Miss Porter’s in Farmington, Conn.
“Taste definitely can be acquired by most people,” Mrs. Nitze said in a quiet moment amid the hubbub of greetings from 150 guests arriving at Mrs. Tobin’s Kalorama home, nearly all professing to be longtime “Tish” Baldrige fans. “It’s a question of learning from someone who has it. Or of studying the subject.”
“She is my favorite person, and a neighbor for 21 years,” volunteered Mrs. Haft, speaking about the eminent etiquette maven, best-known as Jacqueline Kennedy’s chief of staff during the Kennedy family’s White House years.
Attired splendidly — ah, so tastefully — in black velvet and pearls, Ms. Baldrige dutifully sat throughout the evening writing out personal dedications to friends and loyal book buyers in the slender volume. In the introduction, she states explicitly and expansively that “the underlying key to a person’s taste is his or her character.” A large order. The common misperception is that taste relates mainly to and is reflected by what a person wears on his or her back. She does, however, devote a chapter to “Good Taste in Fashion,” ever mindful of readers hungering for insight.
It shouldn’t surprise people then to learn that her next book, tentatively titled “Grow Up!” is a guide for parents on how to instill proper values in their children.
“I’m starting with the proper christening ceremony,” Ms. Baldridge said in a private moment. “Such as bringing gifts and expecting them to be opened and praised. People shouldn’t feel an ostentatious display of wealth makes society, because it doesn’t. What counts is kindness and behaving nicely and doing thoughtful things for others.”
“Tish is everything you would want to be: intelligent, witty, graceful, articulate … ,” Mrs. Tobin said of the guest of honor as waiters passed trays of one-bite-only-sized hors d’oeuvres and white wine in perfect balloon glasses with tall stems.
“She has such great warmth,” jewelry designer Ann Hand cooed.
“She speaks perfect Italian,” added Luca Ferrari, a counselor at the Embassy of Italy who was impressed to learn Ms. Baldrige had served as a diplomat in Rome back in the “La Dolce Vita” heyday of U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce.
The French she perfected at Vassar and later as the assistant to Ambassador David and Evangeline Bruce in Paris manifested itself in a chat with the dashing Count Renaud de Viel Castel.
Knowledge of European customs and culture is one key to the development of taste, naturellement, especially when getting one’s hand kissed. “You’re one of the few who know how to do it,” Ms. Baldrige said, beaming after Austrian diplomat Count Christoph Meran bent to do the honor. (They say, “It’s all in the eyes.”)
“Lots of old guard and the best of the newer people as well,” one observer noted of the guest list as Michelle Fenty joined Susan Eisenhower, Mary Weinmann, Liz Stevens and James and Sylvia Symington in the living room, where interior designer John Peters Irelan marveled over the classic Marc Hampton decor. “It was done 30 years ago,” Mr. Irelan said, “and it’s just as beautiful as ever.”
Others waiting patiently for multiple author-inscribed copies — no line-jumping at this party — included Kay Evans, Cynthia Helms, Arthur Gardner, Nancy Bagley, Lucky Roosevelt, Alexandra de Borchgrave, Sally Bedell Smith, Lee Folger, Lucy Moorhead, Diana Walker, Britty Cudlip, Avis Bohlen, Gahl Burt, Kay Kendall, Hermen and Monica Greenberg, Martha Bartlett and Ms. Baldrige’s husband, Robert Hollensteiner, and son, Malcolm Hollensteiner.