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Kennedy era's Letitia Baldrige dies

WASHINGTON -- Letitia Baldrige, who was social secretary to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and became known as a "doyenne of decorum" and chief arbiter of good manners in modern America, died Oct. 29 at the Sunrise at Fox Hill nursing facility in Bethesda, Md. She was 86.

She had severe osteoarthritis with cardiac complications, said Mary M. Mitchell, a collaborator of hers.

In a 1978 profile, Time magazine described Baldrige as a "superbly energetic amalgam of feminist and Tasteful Lady." Decades before women talked about "having it all," and at a time when many of her female colleagues were afforded few professional opportunities, she embarked on a career that went from diplomacy to the White House to the top levels of business.

Discourtesy and arrogance were not requirements for a career of similar accomplishment, she would later advise executives in her role as a maven of etiquette.

"For every rude executive who makes it to the top," she wrote in her "Complete Guide to Executive Manners" (1985), one of her numerous guides to politesse, "there are nine successful executives with good manners." The daughter of a Republican congressman from Nebraska, Baldrige began her career in the 1950s with the State Department.

But before she was given access to the world of high-level diplomacy, she was required to take a course that qualified her for secretarial work. This apparently had not been part of the curriculum at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1946.

She was sent to Europe, where, under the formal title of social secretary, she was an adviser to David K.E. Bruce, the U.S. ambassador to France, and Clare Boothe Luce, the U.S. ambassador to Italy.

Before joining the Kennedy White House, Baldrige was the public relations director -- and reportedly the first female executive -- at Tiffany & Co., the world-renowned New York jewelers. She later founded and ran Letitia Baldrige Enterprises, a public relations and marketing firm, in Chicago, New York and Washington.

She wrote more than a dozen volumes of memoirs and books on etiquette but was perhaps best known for her years in the Kennedy White House, where she helped create and polish the enduring Camelot image of romance, elegance and sophistication.

The first lady, whose staff Baldrige joined in 1960, shortly after John F. Kennedy's electoral victory, was a friend from their days at the private Miss Porter's School in Connecticut. As Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary, Baldrige oversaw the glamorous social gatherings and state dinners for which the administration was known.

Baldrige was credited with helping arrange for a portable stage in the White House East Room where the Kennedys hosted jazz concerts, Shakespeare performances, ballets, musicals and opera. Baldrige issued many of the invitations to those events.

Sometimes her role called for apologies. The first official White House party, she wrote in her memoir, "Of Diamonds & Diplomats" (1968), got her "into the hottest of water with our President." Without alerting him, she broke precedent by arranging for hard liquor to be served at the Sunday evening event.

For her, such mistakes became learning experiences and teachable moments. The president called her "Miss Push and Pull," she once told The Washington Post, because "of my continuous attempts to make him conform to protocol when top-ranking officials from other countries were present." Baldrige left the White House in 1963.

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