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Book Review : Fun Sense of Protocol for Those to Manor Unborn

January 13, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Good Manners by Letitia Baldrige (Rawson: $22.95)

Since you've already done your Christmas shopping and the New Year has come and gone, don't worry, just prudently go out and buy half a dozen of these for wedding presents. Letitia Baldrige's book is as much fun as "The People's Almanac" or the "Guinness Book of World Records," or the little-known but long-remembered underground classic, "George, the Housewife," that devoted an entire chapter to how to get the smell of a skunk out of the family car.

What, in fact, all these books have in common is the assumption that the stuff of daily life is of immense fascination and merits our closest attention. How do you bail out a troublesome drunk at a party? What do you wear to a black-tie wedding? Or a summer party on the terrace? How do you fire an employee? How do you withstand getting fired? How do you address a letter to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington? How do you address him in conversation? What do you put on his place card?

Unwritten Matrix

Now, as ordinary citizens, we may never have occasion to write a note to "the spouse of a high-ranking woman," and in our work life we may not even be "executives," but the unwritten matrix that holds this book together is that every family is--at some level--a corporation, a small business, an enterprise, a team. And since the family is a small dot in the impressionist painting of the larger world, it must interact with that world in an effective, positive way.

Does that sound daunting, or worse, tiresome? If so, that's an injustice to this volume. Baldrige is not concerned with bad manners; there appears to be no onus here connected with doing things wrong. And there's almost nothing elitist in tone--she's no Emily Post, no supercilious Miss Manners. Doing something "wrong" is a lot like getting sacked in a football game: It hurts, and it's embarrassing, but what the heck, you jump up, dust off and start again toward your goal.

Another Dithery Book?

Cheeriness and energy characterize this book. Even in a one-bedroom condo in Torrance you can still put together a tea (and she'll tell you what to serve). Even if you run a key repair shop in Eagle Rock, there's an off -chance you might get to go to Egypt sometime, where Baldrige will have reminded you to tip generously and wait a long time for your business appointments. And some of us might have some Hindus in our social circle, in which case, we'll know better than to give them leather wallets for business gifts--feeling as strongly as they do about the sacredness of cows.

The perfect recipients for this book are young, ambitious, upwardly mobile young couples: thus its usefulness as a wedding gift. Business entertaining is presented here, not in a frightening way, but as a terrific project with lots of fun built in; choosing business stationery seems as much fun as going skiing; the section on writing thank-you notes to talk-show hosts presupposes that sometime you may have the opportunity to be a guest on a talk show. Life, as you read this book, appears full of surprises, small and large. "Wow, I'm reading and here it comes!" is the attitude throughout.

Does this volume then pander to the venal and the materialistic in all of us? Is it just another dithery book on how to succeed? Not at all. This has the calm sense of protocol completely mastered.

Baldrige was social secretary to American ambassadors in Paris and in Rome; she was Jacqueline Kennedy's chief of staff in the White House, and worked several years for the CIA. When she tells you which is the seat of honor in a Japanese restaurant, you can believe her. And yet, the author is the same Letitia Baldrige who, several years ago, answered--within 24 hours, as all phone calls should be answered--a timorous query from a student writer for an obscure Catholic newspaper on how decent religious girls could meet nice Catholic boys without going into bars. Baldrige had half a dozen suggestions, all of them brisk, imaginative, helpful and to the point. When she suggests that "manners" are a mixture of kindness and intelligence, again, we can believe her, and we are heartened.

This is the kind of book our mothers might write for us, if our mothers had worked for Jackie Kennedy, and were forever forgiving, always in a good mood, and on speaking terms with the secretary-general of the United Nations. That's why this "Complete Guide" is such a wonderful present for weddings, or if not this Christmas, the next.

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