Letitia Baldrige, a lady, first and foremost

Jackie Kennedy's White House PR

By Dorothy V. Malcolm


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Article first appeared in the Cohasset Mariner and picked-up in the Hingham Journal, November 1, 2001, Mariner-CNC-Boston Herald.

Letitia Baldrige has said, “If you need money for investment, I can’t help you.
I’ve never had any. But if you need stories about the good and great times—the
glittering, glamorous, historic times — then do come to me.”


For “baby boomers” and older folks, the name Tish Baldrige is synonymous in this country with the Kennedy White House, sensible good manners, Tiffany diamonds—and names like JFK, Jackie, John-John and Caroline, Pierre Salinger, Nancy Dickerson, Oleg Cassini, Nikita Krushchev, Fidel Castro, and a host of other luminaries during the 1960s, that stir bittersweet memories in most of us old enough to remember.

Letitia Baldrige’s latest book, “A Lady, First” chronicles her life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and in Rome (with people like Clare Booth Luce and David Bruce), as well as Manhattan’s Tiffany & Co. Baldrige appeared last week at Buttonwood Books and wowed more than 100 devotees with anecdotes of her life and times, laced with tea in china cups, salmon and egg and cucumber sandwiches. With fans riveted to their chairs and her voice, the diaphanous memories of more-genteel times blended with drama and history, were resurrected at Ms. Baldrige’s book signing and talk.

At 75, Tish Baldrige is as much the dynamo that graced the halls of the Kennedy White House and the embassies in two of the most romantic cities of the world. A woman of great wit, intellect, charm and common sense, she has had the good grace to be true to herself, astutely discreet yet straightforward as a pistol. And if discretion is the better part of valor, then her triumphs and ordeals are the stuff of gallantry.

Born in Miami Beach in the 1920s, she was raised and spent an idyllic childhood in Nebraska, in a large house with her parents and two feisty brothers. Her father, Malcolm Baldrige was an attorney and supported his own family as well as both of Letitia’s grandmothers in his Omaha home. When the great depression hit with the stock market crash of ’29, and all things being relative, the Baldriges suffered through it with the rest of the country.

Baldrige writes, “Despite the Depression, I had a childhood rich in things other than money. The Baldrige house and yard were the meeting places of neighborhood kids all weekend long…there were broken roller skates, battered footballs, baseballs, hats and mitts in the mud room for the use of any kids who wanted them for play…my father and other young lawyers in his firm would referee the games on a rotating basis…poor sportsmanship was absolutely unknown. My brothers and I were fully aware that we had the best parents in the world…there were always sodas in the icebox, and on special occasions, plates of glazed doughnuts and bowls of popcorns.”

Despite her tomboy rapport with two older brothers, she managed to play with girlfriends as well. “Mother, who had never had an athletic moment in her life, had no sympathy for the girls when they were pushed around by the boys in the yard…she would ask, ‘Why don’t you come in and read a book, play with your dolls, or something?’” And so she did; but the only “girlie” anecdote in the first chapter of the book describes delightful times up in the attic of the Baldrige home: “The girls fought for position in front of the tall standing mirror between the attic closets, where old clothes had been saved in steamer trunks. “We were given permission to play dress-up with the most marvelous array of what today would be called costumes, but back then were simply …lavish Paris evening dresses, slouchy velvet capes, ostrich feather fans and headbands encrusted with brilliants.”

As she grew up—to six feet, in fact—she laughingly remembers how she “towered over the boys at school dances. They all wore a lot of hair grease, which emitted a kind of repulsive fragrance but gave their hair a desirable patent-leather sheen…If a dance was particularly mortifying for me, I would telephone home, and my heroic father would be there in fifteen minutes to spirit me away.”

Attorney Malcolm Baldrige became a congressman and sent his only daughter to school at Farmington and on to Vassar. After World War II, Baldrige explained how hard she tried but in vain, to land a job oversees (having spent an idyllic 14 months in Geneva on a student exchange program) and applied for every Franco-American job available in those days.

“I quickly realized that the U.S. Foreign Service was probably the only way to do it…A job at our embassy in France was a nice, neat solution, but there was the usual problem: only men were being hired by the Foreign Service and sent over. I was told I was unqualified because I couldn’t type, take dictation, or even file.”

Completely undaunted and with a baccalaureate-plus degree to her credit, she enrolled in a secretarial school in Washington to learn typing and other secretarial skills because she knew it was her only chance to get overseas in a plum location with the Foreign Service. She mastered the keyboard and applied for the post and, as always in life with some fits and starts and some good connections—ultimately got the job as junior assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to France, David Bruce and his wife, Evangeline Bruce.

Back home, the Baldrige family was happy for her. Letters of congratulations followed. From one of her brothers: “’It’s good to see that all the time I spent teaching you how to use a knife and fork properly has paid off.’ My father wrote that I should work twice as hard…’Don’t think of them as personal friends. You are their junior assistant. You will be twice as easy to fire because of incompetence than anyone else.’ Wow! A little reality check there.”

But she prospered professionally and enjoyed her time at the American Embassy in Paris. While in Paris, she met the Kennedy sisters and even spent time with an old-alumna/friend-from-Farmington, Jackie Bouvier. But several more years were to pass before she became connected with Jackie in an official sense—and several more wonderful adventures to live before the heady White House days.

“I have missed few things in my life that have absolutely devastated me, but missing the outdoor seaside wedding in Newport of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy ranks high on the list. I could not be there. One did not flit back and forth across the Atlantic for a weekend wedding in those days.”

By a stroke of luck, between prior hard work job-hunting in Rome, Baldrige returned to the states but was then contacted with the opportunity to take a job in Rome as assistant to Clare Boothe Luce, the first female ambassador to a major country. Because she knew some Italian, Baldrige jumped at the opportunity. It was then off to Italy where she not only had a career-to-die-for, she had as her mentor, the indomitable Clare Booth Luce as the most extraordinary role model of her life. She had a dramatic impact on Baldrige’s life, career, perspective and frame of mind.

“Clare Boothe Luce was a natural teacher. Her thoughts were beautifully expressed. She looked at everything in terms of what is good, better and best, and one should always reach for the best…I had learned the worst about her, but I found the best in her. She knew I was impressionable, that I wanted to reach the sky, and she made it one of her projects in life to bring me back to earth, to make me realize I wasn’t tough enough to reach the sky, but that down where I was, sitting on the treetops, was a very satisfactory place to be. She said over and over, ‘If you aim too high, you’ll get shot with arrows by those who don’t want you there with them. There isn’t enough room for you and them. Let me tell you, it really hurts to get shoved out. Live in a world of good friends. Stay where they are, not where the enemies are.’ She taught Baldrige how to say no graciously; so nicely, in fact, that people will think you’ve just said yes!

“She taught me how to work a crowd, political pro that she was…’Start on the outside of the room, put a warm smile on your face, even if your feet are killing you…Work toward the inside of the circle. It’s less difficult standing in the center—it’s like a safety zone, where it’s difficult for people to get at you and bother you…Even if you’re not the host of the event, make everyone think you are.’”

At the end of her assignment in Rome, Baldrige returned to the states and took a public relations position at the jeweler, Tiffany & Co. The title of that chapter of her book is “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner at Tiffany’s.” Working at Tiffany’s was her coup in the heady world of NY PR. Not only did Baldrige pull it off in her usual grand style, but got to enjoy the benefits as well.

“I have passionately loved and coveted jewelry all my life, but never owned any…One of the greatest perks at Tiffany’s was that I could borrow the store’s jewelry, to show off in all the right places, for publicity purposes.”

“It was only a question of time before Truman Capote’s best-selling novel, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ would be made into a film…Of course the film was a huge success…scores of people came to the store when they visited New York because of that movie…’On what floor are you serving breakfast?’ They were greatly disappointed to discover that they could be served diamonds and rubies, but no bacon and eggs.”



“Mine is the story of someone who never had a lot of money, yet lived around people with great amounts of it. Which is almost like having it oneself. In fact, it’s better. You don’t have to come up with the taxes, or worry about people loving you for anything other than yourself. If you wipe the stardust out of your eyes and are able to observe and learn from what is going on around you, you are twice blessed, and if you find yourself in close proximity to people who are making history, so close that you feel you’re holding one of the spoons that’s stirring the pot, then you are more than thrice blessed.”


From an illustrious career at Tiffany’s, Baldrige then set off to Washington, D.C., taking the position of social secretary in the Kennedy White House.

“Jackie was suddenly on fire with plans for making her mark as an exceptional first lady…She understood with clarity what her mission was going to be as first lady, because she had designed it herself…Prior to the inauguration, my job was to serve as Jackie’s liaison with the whole world, it seemed, while ensuring her privacy…Her ‘best friends’ were now crawling out of the woodwork…Everyone wanted at her, from Buckingham Palace…to the Daughters of the American Revolution.”

“Jacqueline Kennedy was the exemplary manager of life with children in an impossible, official goldfish bowl. She laid down strict laws…it was remarkable the way that Jackie taught her children manners. There would be no bratty, noisy, objectionable children in the Kennedy household…When people gave them presents, they said thank you with grace and a minimum of prompting. Endless thank-you notes went out from the White House…The children must have concluded that this was the way you lived life. When people gave you things and did favors for you, you wrote them about how nice it was, how much it pleased you.”

Baldrige is still amused by the questions she receives, even to this day 40 years later, about the Kennedys. “I would be a wealthy woman if I had a quarter for every person who asks me, “What was Jackie really like?”

One of the most difficult decisions of her life was to leave the White House. Baldrige claims she “had no life” and was becoming increasingly unhappy with the pressure and monumental responsibilities she had to oftentimes shoulder alone. She didn’t quite know how to handle the delicate situation—she consulted her parents whose opinions were split (Malcolm Baldrige said “When the bloom is off the rose, you get out of the garden; while her mother said, “Stay on, Tish, be strong.”) It was her father who urged her to “go see the president.”

She did and President Kennedy seemed crestfallen at her announcement to leave the White House. In typical Kennedy wit, he sparkled up and offered her a challenge: “I thought your brothers had raised you to be tough, to take things on the chin.” Then Kennedy added, “But I need you there, in the East Wing, in that very spot. I want Jackie to feel protected and not persecuted by the demands of her job…He was being typically JFK, not believing that any of his loyal crew could desert his ship. And, of course, I couldn’t. I adored this man, not in an amorous way but as our president…[the entire staff] quite simply loved this man.”

Baldrige stuck it out for several more months and with eventual 20/20 clarity, she knew her entire existence, even her health, had been badly affected by what we might today call “burn out.” With the fondest farewells and going-away parties at the White House, Baldrige left Washington and started a new career in business at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Though she left on favorable terms with the Kennedys, it was a bittersweet departure. A few months later, while having lunch in a restaurant, her waiter exclaimed, “I can’t believe it. Someone has shot the president.” Within five hours, Baldrige was back at the White House assisting with the funeral arrangements.

“Jackie moved quietly in and out of the White House rooms for short periods, greeting people, telling them to be strong…She planned that funeral, every second of it and the result was the most solemn, majestic two days this country has ever seen.”

Traumatic as that moment in history was, time goes on and it was during her stretch in Chicago that Baldrige met the man she would marry. She was 37, and real estate developer Bob Hollensteiner was five years younger. “When you’re in your thirties, you don’t horse around!…And Bob was a breath of fresh air, a real person, with the gift I prize most: a perfect sense of humor…Bob and I decided the only way to pull it off [their wedding after a three-month courtship] was to do it quickly…My brothers moved in on my parents like a flying commando squad to calm them down…my parents had fantasized about my large ‘state’ wedding to an ambassador, senator or governor…[and] my magical mother did it again, pulling off the impossible, the perfect small wedding.”

Mr. And Mrs. Bob Hollensteiner honeymooned in Phoenix with Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, her mentor in Rome and the woman responsible for bracing the backbone of the young Tish Baldrige.

Baby Clare and baby Malcolm (named for her beloved father) followed and a life of authoring books, public appearances, social consultations to more first ladies, becoming an interior designer by osmosis, starting her own company as a public relations executive responsible for Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon; the Sears conglomerate; Burlington Industries; reestablishing grand old hotels; the principality of Liechtenstein; Missoni designer knitwear; Valentino haute couture—the list of accounts is as fascinating as it is long.

Letitia Baldrige will go down in history as an extraordinary, self-actualized woman who knew instinctively when she was in the middle of a great opportunity, event, or history-in-the-making moment. She has rubbed elbows with the glamorous, the powerful and the celebrated; and she has known the love of a man who, to some, didn’t fit the perfect profile of a fantasy lover/husband but their chemistry was striking. She has been blessed with two children, been on the cover of Time Magazine and hailed internationally as a sensitive yet no-nonsense arbiter of good taste and manners. She has coached the likes of an old Boston firm when she was told, “We need a little help on people skills around here.” She was asked “to give lessons on being a ‘class act instead of an uncouth jerk,’” as another client described it.

Yes, Tish Baldrige has had it all, though she’d be the first to admit not all at once. Throughout her 75 years of “having it all,” she has remained foremost, a lady first.

All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.