Washington will miss the outspoken Letitia “Tish” Baldrige, the octogenarian etiquette maven, who passed on this week. Tish learned the manners of political Washington at an early age when her father served as a U.S. representative from Nebraska. Later, she served as social secretary to America’s ambassador to France in Paris, assistant to Clare Booth Luce at the American Embassy in Rome, and chief of staff to first lady Jackie Kennedy.
A grandmother (and the first woman executive of Tiffany & Co.), she lived for many years on Washington’s Embassy Row with her longtime spouse, Robert Hollensteiner, and their two Jack Russell terriers, Doodle and Binky (who didn’t care about table manners). Baldrige wrote16 books on manners and entertaining, and a weekly etiquette column for Copley News Service.
I interviewed her over lunch at her home about a dozen years ago and want to share some of the highlights which are still relevant today.
Feld: You planned so many White House parties. What makes a great party? Is there a successful formula?
BALDRIGE: A mixture of people who are doing things and making our lives so exciting today-scientists, athletes, movie stars, poets, military-a famous general with all the decorations makes an impression on the party. A mixture like a wonderful patchwork quilt works beautifully.
Feld: Who are Washington’s best hosts today, and why? Who has the best manners in this town today?
Baldridge: : The best manners are in the old houses, the old school: Susan Mary Alsop, Kay Graham, Lucy Moorhead [Rep. Bill Moorhead’s widow], and Charles and Martha Bartlett. They have beautiful manners and entertain beautifully-quiet stuff, no jazzy glitter. What is really terrible about Washington is that those who aren’t all that important think they are, and they come in terribly late to dinner parties. They say, “I just left a very important meeting at the Pentagon, and I apologize.” They haven’t at all. They’ve been in the sauna!
Feld: To what do you attribute this?
Baldridge: I started seeing the change about 20 years ago. Now we’ve had two generations raised without manners with their parents too busy to teach them. And the family doesn’t eat together. That’s where manners used to be taught.
Feld: Do you think the Internet and e-mail have changed the standards of etiquette?
Baldridge: A lot of people think they can say “thank you” for a State dinner by sending an e-mail to the president. He’ll never see it. A handwritten letter always goes to the first lady, then she passes it on to the chef. E-mail is clip, clop, abbreviated and meaningless. If you want to be really noticed, write a beautiful thank-you note for whatever it was at the White House.
Feld: What do you feel is the biggest social faux pas in Washington?
Baldridge: People not RSVP-ing and disregarding the hour. When cocktails are from 6 to 8, they appear at 8, and expect to be served and greeted with smiles. At receptions, people act like vultures descending on the buffet table and don’t let anyone else in.
Feld: What should a hostess do?
Baldridge: Cut off the bar. Never go beyond 30 minutes’ extra grace from the invitation. That’s the way to clear the hall.
Feld: Do you feel chivalry is alive and well today?
Baldridge: Chivalry is dead for those under the age of 50.
Feld: Should it be brought back?
Baldridge: Some of it shouldn’t be. Men and women should be equally kind. It’s not gender-related. For example, running around and opening the car door . . . that has to go. Women and men can come to a party by themselves, and they can take their own transportation home. When women say, “I need a man to take me to this party,” I want to say, “For God’s sake, what century are you living in?
Feld: You worked closely with Jackie Kennedy. What do you think of all the Jackie books coming out?
Baldridge: They’re so full of untruths. I watch all the interviews with the authors, and that’s enough. You get so worn out from them. They say, “and then Jackie felt so despondent. . . .” Here’s somebody who’s never seen her, never met her, and it’s just unbelievable.
Feld: You’ve worked in the West Wing. How realistic do you think the TV drama “The West Wing” is?
Baldridge: I love it. It’s unrealistic but marvelous. It’s filled with attractive, smart people who run from place to place. Nobody walks; nobody ever goes to the bathroom. It shows a great sense of patriotism and integrity. That’s what I like about it.
Feld: Some quick questions about Washington-where do you take guests for dinner if you want to be seen?
Baldridge: The Palm, Capital Grille, The Caucus Room, I Ricchi or the Hay Adams.
Feld: And if you don’t want to be seen?
Baldridge: A hotel or dining room off the main street.
Feld: Where do you take guests you want to impress?
Baldridge: I don’t think you impress people at lunch.
Feld: How do you feel about doggie bags?
Baldridge: Doggie bags are an unattractive fad. If you’re in a steak place and they’ve given you huge portions, it’s fine, even if you don’t have a dog. But creamed spinach?
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