Last week, Letitia Baldrige–social secretary/chief of staff to Jackie Kennedy, writer, etiquette guru–died at 86. When someone’s known for writing about etiquette, you form certain preconceived notions. I know I did before I met Mrs. Baldrige in 2000.
I was working for a trade magazine specializing in the meetings industry, and my boss liked the idea of an article on planning events at the White House. I had several former social secretaries on my list, but Mrs. Baldrige was the big name. The feather in the cap. Unfortunately, when I called her and asked if I could speak to her in person on a planned trip to Washington, D.C., she–very politely–said she didn’t have the time. So that afternoon, in what was perhaps the pinnacle of my journalistic career, I ordered some tulips online with a note including my name, magazine, and the line “I hope the tulips will sway you.”
She called the next day, or, rather, I think her secretary did, and announced, “Mrs. Baldrige is on the line for you.” I sat in my cubby, stared at my computer screen and my David Duchovny figurine, and waited. Then there was her perfectly pitched, warm voice–a little amused–on the other end of the line.
“The tulips were lovely,” she said, sounding a little resigned. “Could you make it to my house at 10 a.m.?”
I did, of course. Make it to her house. I had read her memoir by this time–well-written and much funnier than I expected from someone so concerned with manners–and I was nervous about how I looked and how I acted. My grandmother had insisted that I wear pants because she thought I did a poor job of keeping my knees properly together in a skirt. I figured she was probably right. I was determined not to seem rude or uncouth.
I knocked on the door, and she–not a maid or secretary–answered the door. She was tall and smiling and, as expected, perfectly coiffed. I walked into her very tasteful townhouse, cold from a DC fall, and she asked if I would like tea. And then I think I made my first etiquette mistake. I asked if she had coffee.
She did not. But she could make some, she said. And I backtracked and said, no, please don’t. Tea would be fine. And she had to make that, too. So I followed her in the kitchen, unsure how to take back my beverage request, but she put on a kettle and we waited for it to boil while I said inane things about DC and her townhouse. Then the tea was ready and I asked for sugar, and she looked perplexed.
“We never put sugar in our tea,” she said. “I think it’s up there.”
She pointed to a top cabinet, way too high for either of us to reach. And I was equally perplexed. I had a couple of options, and they did not include asking a woman in her seventies to find a ladder and climb up there. And it seemed silly to say I hadn’t really wanted sugar.
“Well,” I said. “I could get it. If you don’t mind me climbing on your counter.”
“I don’t mind,” she said after a moment.
So I stood there in the kitchen of the woman who planned parties for the Kennedys, took off my shoes, and clambered up on her counter in my pants suit and trouser socks. I grabbed the sugar and started to get down when I heard her laughing.
“I feel like I should apologize for making you do that,” she said.
I looked way down at her, about to jump as gracefully as possible. “I was thinking I should apologize for doing it.”
And then we were both laughing and the rest of the morning was delightful. I told her about my grandmother wanting me to wear pants–once I started talking and she started talking, I was so charmed by Mrs. Baldrige that things just kept falling out of my mouth–and she told me she TOO was not good at keeping her knees together. She was very happy when pants came into style.
She asked if I was dating anyone seriously, and I gave a hesitant “no”, expecting to hear what I heard from family, something about how I should be getting married sometime soon.
“Good!” she said very enthusiastically. “No one should marry in their twenties. Your twenties should be for having fun! Plenty of time to get married in your thirties. Or even forties. Too many women get married young.”
I adored her. I wanted to move into her house and pull things from her kitchen cabinets all day long.
She’d gone on a date with Cary Grant while she was in the White House, a fact that she’d mentioned in her book, and I was astonished at the thought. (I’m a huge old movie fan.) I asked her what it was like, expecting an ode to his charm and wit.
“All he talked about was psychotherapy and his mother,” she said. “It was a horribly dull date. He went on and on. Never date anyone that handsome. When they’re that handsome, they don’t need to be interesting.”
And I suppose I’ll end on that: Cary Grant was an idiot. He had a chance at Letitia Baldrige, and he blew it. Anyone lucky enough to have had the chance to spend a little time with her should have sat there and listened for as long as she would talk.