To the Manners Born

While he was the man of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, John Kennedy used to call Letitia Baldrige "Miss Push-and-Pull" because of the way she handled his schedule. And as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary, Baldrige was responsible for White House social events, most which involved more planning than the Bay of Pigs. Baldrige looks back fondly on those galas -- even incorporating full menus -- in her Camelot memoir, In the Kennedy Style.

Why did she wait so long to release the book? "Jackie did not want her staff writing about her. She had this thing about privacy," says Baldrige by phone. "There was a magic in the White House with [the Kennedys], and it drew people from all over the world. It was a very unique time."

Still, Baldrige's first reception resulted in a dressing-down by a furious JFK. She'd set up an open bar with hard liquor, and the presence of spirits did not sit well with conservative Southern politicians. "A huge delegation called on [JFK] and said that it was a horrible way to start off the administration -- and [that it was] degenerate!" she says. The president later apologized to her, and she continued to serve liquor at functions, though only from waiters' trays.

Today, Baldrige is an expert on manners and etiquette, and she bemoans what she views as a general decline in morality (though she has hopes that Gen X will turn back that clock). She frankly dismisses much of what has been written about the Kennedys' private lives, but is willing to speculate about why JFK hung out with Frank, Sammy and the Rat Pack.

"I guess it was because he saw so many stuffy people; they were more fun. The president really enjoyed them." So did Baldrige ever plan a little South Lawn get-together for the boys? "Oh, no, they didn't operate in the White House at all!" Think what she saved on liquor alone.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Letitia Baldrige speaks at the Society for the Performing Arts Spring Luncheon. 11:30 a.m. Monday, May 18. The Houston Country Club, 1 Potomac Drive. Info: 227-3389. A book signing follows at 3:45 p.m. at Leonard, 1716 Post Oak Boulevard, 629-6244.