The Dish on Tish

February 10, 2016 Notes: Letitia "Tish" Baldrige (February 9, 1926 – October 29, 2012) was an American etiquette expert and public relations executive who was most famous for serving as Jacqueline Kennedy's Social Secretary.

Known as the "Doyenne of Decorum", she wrote a newspaper column, ran her own PR firm, and, along with updating Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette, she published 20 books.

Baldrige was born February 9, 1926 in Miami, Florida, and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the youngest child of Republican Congressman Howard Malcolm Baldrige and his wife, Regina (née Connell). Her brother was Howard Malcolm Baldrige, Jr., the initial Secretary of Commerce during the Ronald Reagan administration . She attended Miss Porter's School in Farmington, CT, where she met Jacqueline Bouvier, the future First Lady. The two also attended Vassar College together, from which Baldrige graduated in 1946 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

After first being denied a position and told to improve her secretarial skills, she reapplied and was hired by the State Department as social secretary to David K.E. Bruce, U.S. ambassador to France. After three years she would be appointed secretary in Rome to the American ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, followed by a position as director of public relations for Tiffany & Co.

Although then a registered Republican, in 1960 she was invited to work for the Kennedy campaign in Massachusetts once he secured the Democratic presidential nomination, going on to work officially for the First Lady after his victory.

Baldrige acknowledged that she and her team of aides made mistakes. One letter responding to a celibate priest congratulated him on the birth of his son. On the Kennedys' 1962 visit to India, Baldrige nearly sent as a gift leather-framed photos, not recognizing that cows are sacred in India. And then there was the first large party she organized, two days into the administration, where she provided ashtrays for the guests and served liquor. Both were unheard of, at least in the presence of reporters, and press called the party "debauched."

"The president wasn't happy," she recalled in a memoir, A Lady, First. But liquor continued to be served, and Kennedy later acknowledged he was wrong to give Baldrige a hard time. "People have a good time in this house today," she recalled the president saying later.

President Kennedy also gave Baldrige the nickname "Miss Push and Pull" because she told him where to go during events. Once, when he forgot a toast, she wrote him a note on the back of her place card, "You're supposed to toast." Kennedy then got up and said, "The social secretary has informed me that I am supposed to make a toast," she remembered in a 1964 interview archived at the Kennedy presidential library in Boston. She and Jackie often butted heads too, with Baldrige pushing Jackie to make public appearances she did not wish to make. Jackie is reported to have said that Tish came down with "whitehouseitis."

Saying she "had had it" with the long days in Washington and serving the administration on overseas trips, she resigned early in 1963, to return briefly to aid the First Lady after her husband's assassination in November of that year.

She served on the board of directors of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. She also did significant charity work with Jane Goodall to help fund raise for the preservation of habitats for wild chimpanzees.

In 1964, the year after marrying her husband Robert Hollensteiner, whom she met while working for a Kennedy family firm, she founded her own PR business, Letitia Baldrige Enterprises, Chicago. Earning the nickname the "Doyenne of Decorum" with a newspaper column and a string of successful books, in 1978 she appeared on the November 28th cover of Time Magazine.

Baldrige died of cardiac complications at a nursing facility in Bethesda, Maryland on October 29, 2012. At an imposing 6 ft 1in in height, Baldrige said her focus was always on simple good manners, not a set of strict rules. She had a self-deprecating reputation, fond of telling embarrassing anecdotes about her own socially awkward behavior, such as looking up in a 1947 garden party at Buckingham Palace to see the man she had just tripped was none other than Winston Churchill. She had continued working into late life, publishing books in every decade from the 1950s, through the internet and cell phone revolution until her last in 2007, Taste: Acquiring What Money Can't Buy.

Image copyright Jake Gariepy (Dapper and Dreamy)

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