Etiquette Expert Blended Common Sense, Courtesy

Oct 31, 2012
Originally published on October 31, 2012 5:53 pm



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She was a respected authority on etiquette and chief of staff for Jackie Kennedy at the White House. Letitia Baldrige died this week at age 86. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, who co-authored a book on etiquette, has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: You could tell by Letitia Baldridge's voice that she was no-nonsense and would always get the job done. When I interviewed her in 2008 about how potential first ladies' fashion choices could be an asset or distraction to their husbands' political aspirations, she was frank about the constrictions they faced traditionally.


LETITIA BALDRIDGE: They have to buy the right kind of fabric. They have to be careful with colors. They have to be careful with decolletage, oh, and how. They've really got to follow stringent rules to be sort of blah - chic, elegant but blah.

BATES: She'd been listening to a lot of people complain that Michelle Obama was trying to be a Jackie Kennedy wannabe by making sleeveless dresses a trademark. As someone who knew Jackie Kennedy very, very well, she wanted to set the record straight.


BALDRIDGE: And I know everybody says she's the new Jacqueline Kennedy. I think that's ridiculous. She has her own sense of style. And Jackie wore sleeveless dresses all of her life because she knew she had good arms. And I'm sure that Michelle has been wearing sleeveless dresses all of her life, again, because she has good arms.

BATES: Straightforward, practical, that was Letitia Baldridge. Her dozen or so etiquette guides tended to focus on arming readers with knowledge that would make them comfortable in front of others. This is from the etiquette section of something called "Instant Genius, The Cheat Sheets of Culture."


BALDRIDGE: If you're feeling unsure about what flatware to select, steal a glance at the utensils other people at the table have chosen to use for that particular course.

BATES: And Baldridge wasn't afraid to laugh at herself a little to illustrate a point. When she learned to eat snails as a student in Paris, she eventually got the hang of it, but she told listeners, there was a learning curve.


BALDRIDGE: Of course, I managed to get the garlicky hot butter sauce all over the front of my dress. I was so mesmerized by the ritual of eating the snail. The aroma of strong garlic was overpowering. But this snail-eating baptism was one of the most pleasant experiences of my life.

BATES: Letitia Baldridge's ability to marry common sense with courtesy was the key to her success. It was also the inspiration for many of today's etiquette authors. When my co-author and I wrote an etiquette book for African-Americans, we often checked in with her books, which we found refreshingly frank and modern. Emily Yoffe, who writes the popular "Dear Prudence" columns for Slate and The Washington Post, says Baldridge made etiquette user-friendly for people who were often intimidated by it.

EMILY YOFFE: It was not about the right fork to use and being a snob. I think a lot of people have the idea that etiquette is about showing off your superior education or refinement.

BATES: Instead, Yoffe says, Baldridge did something different.

YOFFE: She emphasized so much that kind of thing is really not important. What's important is making people feel good and comfortable and welcome and not embarrassed.

BATES: The ability to make people comfortable, secure and welcome, Baldridge believed, was a critical social lubricant, whether you're in the White House, or your house. Letitia Baldridge died in a nursing facility not far from her Washington home. She's survived by her husband, son and daughter and seven grandchildren. And you can bet they write lovely thank you notes. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.