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New Vogue Seen by Former First Lady of Glitter : Washington Social Expert Letitia Baldrige Notes Trend Toward Informality

December 25, 1987|SARAH BOOTH CONROY | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — "Our nation's capital probably sees more entertaining per capita than any other city in the world, but it is not known for its imaginative ideas," writes Letitia Baldrige in her new book, before going on to suggest a singles party where a uniformed guard handcuffs couples together for the evening.

This from Jacqueline Kennedy's enthusiastic White House entertaining czar? Who was consulted during the early White House years of Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan? Who was social secretary in Paris to Evangeline Bruce and in Rome to Clare Boothe Luce?

What is the world coming to?

Baldrige says, over Earl Grey tea in Georgetown, that the world is coming to a comfortable, informal, relaxed way of entertaining. (You call being handcuffed to a stranger whose name you have drawn out of a hat relaxed?)

Glittering Reputation

Though she has held jobs reputed to be filled with formality and tradition, Baldrige's reputation for glittering and glamorous entertaining has always been on the side of what she calls "creative manners."

She is credited--or blamed--with helping shove the last quarter-century away from formality.

An old story goes that Baldrige was allegedly fired as taste arbiter of Tiffany's for suggesting velvet napkins for a Tiffany table setting. She admits to being more permissive about rules in her books (she's written 10), including the new one published by Rawson Associates: "Letitia Baldrige's Complete G ide to a Great Social Life."

But even at that, she says, President John F. Kennedy called her "Miss Push and Pull" because "of my continuous attempts to make him conform to protocol when top-ranking officials from other countries were present."

Like all well-brought-up social secretaries, she credits her employer for loosening the blue ribbons of pomposity. Among Jacqueline Kennedy's accomplishments, Baldrige cites "cutting the number of dinner courses from seven to three, and changing the tablecloths from white damask to pastels in the White House--but we did have many white-tie events."

She has come to Washington as Evangeline Bruce's house guest. "It's so wonderful to see Evangeline at home," she said, "in her fantastic pants and sweater with a pretty scarf. She always looks as though she came out of a bandbox. Today, many women go to the grocery with curlers in their hair. I saw one woman in shorts and another with a bare midriff in church in New York!"

On other visits to Washington, Baldrige often stayed with the late Clare Boothe Luce, to whom she dedicated this latest book: "My mentor and role model for more than three decades, and who has probably accomplished more, lived at a faster pace and had a greater social life than any other woman in history!" Baldrige says Luce saw the dedication two weeks before she died.

A Noted Family

Baldrige has often lived and visited in Washington with her parents--her late father was attorney Malcolm Baldrige, a Nebraska Republican congressman--and her brother Malcolm, the respected Reagan commerce secretary who died this year.

Baldrige, now a New Yorker, says that "Washington hors d'oeuvres aren't very interesting." In her book, she does favorably mention Bruce for her use of antique silver and floral centerpieces, and Countess Ulla Wachtmeister at the Swedish Embassy for a centerpiece for a dinner honoring a Swedish tennis star. The countess grew grass in tennis-court-shaped trays and then added tiny tennis nets and painted in the white stripes.

At tea, Baldrige, every blond hair ("Clairol ash blond," she explained) in place, has on a red suit. She wears a 3rd-Century bronze panther on a chain around her neck--following the advice given in her new book--to be prepared to break a "conversational bind" by wearing a talk-starter or having "something you can pull out of your pocket or handbag." She also suggests carrying a puzzle whose instruction is: "Find three people in this photo of apes."

Baldrige has given up her public relations firm in favor of writing and teaching the corporate corps how to behave. She says business people need her help, just as politicians used to.

"A New York corporation gave a seated dinner in a major museum. Of the 150 who accepted, 60 were 'no shows' and didn't even call to say they couldn't come. It reminded me of a White House dinner where Sen. Everett Dirksen, then the Senate minority leader, showed up unexpectedly after he'd regretted the invitation. I had to reseat 130 guests at the last moment to keep the protocol straight."

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