A Lady, First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Romeby Letitia Baldrige
Letitia Baldrige is the woman best known as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary during the White House years. But in this fascinating memoir Baldrige reveals a career sparkling with a host of other achievements: embassy work in an era when women rarely were given jobs overseas, becoming the first female executive at Tiffany & Co., and founding one of the first
Letitia Baldrige is the woman best known as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary during the White House years. But in this fascinating memoir Baldrige reveals a career sparkling with a host of other achievements: embassy work in an era when women rarely were given jobs overseas, becoming the first female executive at Tiffany & Co., and founding one of the first companies run by a female CEO. In her amazing life story Baldrige shares her perspective as a White House insider: the hilarity of young Jackie's antics on foreign diplomatic visits, the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, and the heartbreak of President Kennedy's funeral. Stylish, chic and always polite, Baldrige reveals the determination that has made her a success and brought her the admiration of women around the world.
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Most people look upon Miami Beach as a place where you go to get old and play golf, or as a place to go when you're young, to partake of "what's hot" at the South Beach nightspots. It was actually my birthplace, in 1926, in St. Francis Hospital. I was baptized in a properly posh spot-Star Island No. 2-replete with mansions, none of which belonged to the Baldriges. My father, Malcolm, a young lawyer from Omaha, Nebraska, at the time, had taken my mother and their two boys, four-year-old Mac and two-year-old Bob, to Miami Beach to make a quick killing in Florida real estate, which had begun to boom. My parents must have looked upon the experience as a sort of how-to-become-a-millionaire gamble, which unfortunately they lost. Shortly after I was born, the real estate along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach turned sour. At least I have one souvenir of this Florida experience: a birth certificate printed on pale pink parchment, with gold lettering, announcing "Your Treasure is Registered," a document that would cause me great embarrassment every time I entered a new school and had to present it.
In 1928 my parents packed us all up and took us back to Omaha, from whence they had come. My father returned to the practice of law in his strict father's office, smarting under the I-told-you-so attitude of his gruff parent. Mother, Regina ("Jean"), was the beautiful titian-haired daughter of one of the town's most respected horse-and-buggy doctors, James Connell. She and my father, a Yale football star, captain of the wrestling team, and a World War I hero, had married a couple of years after he had returned from France.
People who were born around the Great Depression of the 1930s, which began with the crash of the stock market in 1929, remember that period as a great leveler of society, a time that drove families together with iron ties and that made you appreciate your blessings more than ever before or ever after. I didn't understand or remember the economic theory and sociological results of that era. I just remember having young parents, two grandmothers whose lifetimes extended far beyond those of their husbands, and two brothers who were to make my life absolutely miserable, even though they were the best thing that ever could have happened to me.
Our grandfathers died before I was born, but we lived in Grandpa Baldrige's big old house in Omaha. Both grandmothers, as was the custom in those days, came to live with us, at separate periods, of course. World War II would have started early if they had shared the big house with us simultaneously. There was a real respect for grandparents in those days. They were considered special and wise, and were paid honor by the younger generations. They were instrumental in the installation of values in their grandchildren. Manners, too. At dinner they would make mental notes about everything from "Bobby was particularly noisy with his soup tonight" to "Malcolm and Letitia had an unacceptable fight over the last piece of cake, carried on under the table." There would be a private conversation with each child later about these transgressions, parents not included.
I remember every detail of that house at 124 South Thirty-ninth Street, it was so big and utterly fascinating. There was a large stained-glass window on the landing of the carved wood stairway, which culminated in a two-foot-tall bronze statue of a nude Winged Mercury. This statue was much scrutinized and disrespected. My brothers would adorn him with their neckties, sometimes a stocking cap or baseball cap over his curly head, and often a bandage taped with adhesive on his private parts.
My father, an only child, marveled at the wonderful calm and serenity that surrounded my mother, who had grown up in a family of boys and therefore knew what all the noise was about. My memories of my mother are clear, luminous, spiritual. She ran a perfect household, was always at the front door when my father came home, and spent every hospital stay of her three accident-prone kids by sleeping on a cot by our beds until we could go home again. She was a beautiful woman with shiny auburn hair and perfect skin. She welcomed all of her children's friends, fed them, soda-ed them, dispensed advice on their love life, and made them clean up any mess they made in the kitchen. Growing up, I heard so many times the reaction of our friends, "Gee, your Mom's great!"
There is no argument there.
My relationships with my brothers were always paramount in my life. We were combative in our younger years, but mutually supportive in our later ones. My earliest memory is also the first in a long line of encounters between my brothers and me. One day when I was two years old, they undid the safety gate at the top of the long stairway and pushed me down it as I sat on my kiddie cart. It was a head-over-heels action-perhaps Mac and Bob had wanted to see how well their little sister could bounce. My mother was certain that I had been killed, although she was together enough to call the pediatrician instead of the funeral home. Dr. Brown heard my screams over the telephone and asked, "Is that hollering coming from your daughter?" When told it was, he instructed my mother to bring me down to his office at once, but not to worry. I was "obviously fine and was possessed of an extremely strong pair of lungs." So it was that my first memory was also my first experience in practicing survival among my brothers, who explained their actions as an attempt to toughen up their sissy, overprotected sister.
The main drawback to our house in Omaha was that I had to share a bathroom with Mac and Bob. They were always leaving dirty things like sneakers and sweat socks on the floor of this room without locks. When girls came over to play with me, my brothers would burst in on us without so much as a knock on the door. A younger sister has no delusions about the opposite sex. She learns how to handle herself and to give as good as she gets. It's the kind of expertise that is very helpful later in life in the working world.
As contentious as my relationship was with my brothers, my relationship with my father was loving. I could always count on a kind word and a straight answer from him. None of my friends were as close to their fathers. From a very young age I was aware that one of the tools used by "Big Mac," as my father was called, to make people happy was his ease of speaking, in public or in private conversation, and on any subject. I was his biggest littlest fan. I loved how he interacted with people-with everyone. I noticed how he had become intimate friends with the policemen in the neighborhood, the haughty art museum curator who lived around the corner, the butcher, and the mayor of the city of Omaha. As Mother explained it, "Your father knows how to talk to people." This attribute became especially valuable when he later became a congressman. He never said no to anyone, whether he was asked to submit legislation to raise the subsidy for museums, or support raising the retirement fund for police and firemen, or help a young boy who wasn't making good grades get into Andover, or labor to keep the Chicago stockyards from swallowing the Omaha stockyards.
It wasn't only that he knew how to talk to people, but that he made the time to do it. He was an artful storyteller, and whether he encountered an old man, a little child, or a young couple, he gave them his undivided attention and promised to help. He never talked about it or bragged about it. He just did it. His children did not have to be told to admire their father. We just did.
When my father ran for Congress, I was the only one in the family who wanted to accompany him on his campaign swings to western Nebraska in the old maroon Pontiac, hoping to pick up some votes. The candidate made a policy of giving a political speech only if there were more than four people sitting outside the grocery store on a town's main street. They were mostly men, smoking, leaning back on their wooden chairs, passing the time of day together. But they were voters, and my father was determined to reach them-ten-minute speeches, many handshakes. I did not understand the message my father was relaying over and over, but it was fun to see this part of the state that was so different from our big, sophisticated city of Omaha.
We would often be invited to lunch in a farmer's kitchen, served at a big round table that was usually covered with a printed oilcloth with a special scent. The women always looked tired, but also proud of their food, which took them all morning to prepare. There would be fried chicken, steaming mashed potatoes dotted with blobs of melting butter, platters of wholesome breads, and separate serving bowls of whatever vegetables happened to be available. Pies, too, hot delicious fruit pies. My father explained to me afterward that our host family would do without to serve us such a special meal. Many of them lived a humble life, some without indoor plumbing. I was amazed to see they used outhouses instead of bathrooms. Eventually other farmers would join the table to ask my father questions about what those overbred, elitist, patent-leather-pumped politicians in Washington were going to do about the drought-stricken bread basket of America. Because of the presence of the congressman's little daughter, they edited out the cuss words. I didn't understand what they were saying, but I certainly understood the emotions involved.
By far the most important piece of furniture in the house in Omaha was the heavy oval mahogany dinner table. It must have weighed a ton. The ersatz Queen Anne chairs were constantly occupied at mealtime with family, adult friends, and child friends. Millie never knew how many would be coming for dinner. If Mac, Bob, or I were late for meals, woe be unto us, because certain small punishments would head in our direction. We had to come to the table with hands washed, hair combed, and clean clothes. The boys had to wear sweaters or jackets, with their shirttails tucked in. If there was no guest for dinner, I could get away with not having to change from my drab brown convent uniform. Millie, the cook-housekeeper who was with us for many years, cooked mountains of food and washed vast piles of laundry without a word of complaint, and kept us from stealing our favorite food from her kitchen. She worked six days a week, twelve hours a day, for a salary of about $15 weekly. She loved her job, was cheerful, and lorded it over her friends because she worked for the well-known Baldrige family. It was the Great Depression; she and her daughter Clarice were part of our family, and we were part of hers.
The dinner table was the training lab where our manners were observed and corrected. ("Malcolm, put down your knife! You do not use it to clean the corn out of your teeth!" "Tish, stop slurping your soup. I don't want to hear one sound out of you from now until the last spoonful of soup is gone!") Each meal was an active class in grammar and civility. "Thank you, Millie, for the fried chicken," "Please pass the peas, darling little sister Tish" (always said with a sneer). If the behavior instructions were not followed, there would be no more dinner for that recalcitrant child. From the child's point of view, it was much easier and more pleasant all around to obey. We had to eat everything served to us on our plates, which was common in those days. I hated beets, but a violent dislike of something was no reason for not eating it. I ate my beets.
When the Baldrige kids lapsed into heated arguments at the table, raucous teasing, and occasional biffing of one another, a deep voice would suddenly ring out with the solemnity of a Moses presenting the Commandments. My father would command, "Table silence!" All noise would immediately stop. The head of the house would lay his wristwatch down on the table for exactly ten minutes, during which time only he and Mother could speak. We were not allowed to say one word. It was torture. We suddenly had so many things we wanted to say.
The dinner table was where each child reported on what he or she had done that day. If we stumbled over our words, our parents immediately picked up on it and asked how things were going in that department. All our problems and hang-ups were vocalized in the middle of the meat loaf and peas and dealt with, right then and there. No sibling was allowed to make fun of anyone else. We were taught to give support when it was needed. When I reported, for example, that a girl at school that day had made fun of me for being so tall, a brother would suddenly rise to my defense and say, "She's not on the basketball team like you, is she? She's probably really jealous. Next time she pulls something like that, tell her to go stretch herself a foot or two, and then maybe she'll make an athletic team." We'd all laugh, and I would be over it. The dinner table was definitely the problem-solving area for the family. When Bob complained that his softball team didn't have enough money to get equipment needed for the opening spring game in Elmwood Park, Mother would ask just why the boys weren't out earning the money themselves on weekends-mowing lawns in summer, raking leaves in the fall, shoveling snow and bringing in wood in the winter for the neighbors. Maybe my brothers would not jump to embrace our parents' suggestions, but it got their own brains going as to how they were going to solve the problem. Crafty parents.
Sunday lunch, although it meant an agonizingly long time spent at table, also meant great food, particularly in summer, when the fresh peach ice cream always resulted in fistfights over "who gets to lick the ice cream paddle" in the hand-turned freezer. The most regular guest at our Sunday lunch table was my father's Baptist minister. We would go to Mass Sunday morning, while my father would go later to the service at his church, returning in time for lunch with the minister, who was handsomely dressed in a dark gray formal suit, with striped trousers, like an usher in a wedding. Small and slight, he looked minute next to the big bear who was our father. He greatly enjoyed Millie's food, and even more his weekly treat from my father: a pint of bourbon with branch water, finished within a two-hour time frame. My father would then "escort" him home in his car and see him safely to his bedroom, where the pastor surely slipped away swiftly into the loveliest of Sabbath slumbers.
When I was less than four years old, my life was suddenly changed by the death of "Nana" Connell, my mother's mother, who was living with us at the time. It was my first contact with death, and I remember praying on my knees by the side of the bed, next to my mother, for an endlessly long time until "she breathed her last," as the nurse in attendance described it. Mother drew the picture in my mind of two angels bearing her aloft to heaven. It was clear, uncontested, very pleasant. Nana lay in an open casket for viewing for two days downstairs, as was customary in the Catholic Church at the time. (I have not gazed into a casket since.) The children in the neighborhood were fascinated, I remember. They came in and out giggling and being shushed by the grown-ups who arrived to offer condolences to my mother and her Connell relations. No light ever seemed to penetrate the room, with its dark blue velvet walls where Nana lay in state, except when someone sat reading in the Morris chair, with a nearby bronze lamp casting a small amount of light through a jewel-encrusted metal shade.
Nana wore a pale gray silk dress, ghostlike, with a fresh rose at the V-shaped neckline. I was sure that it would stay fresh all the way to heaven, and of course she was wearing her pearl necklace. I never saw her without that. Maybe they wouldn't let her into heaven without it.
The Blue Room loomed large in my mind because it was also the reposi- tory of my parents' rare collection of large brown leather volumes on World War I, hidden away in bookshelves, behind metal mesh doors. The Baldrige children were forbidden access to these books, so of course we looked at every page, some bearing photographs of horribly burned, gassed soldiers in France. The books were there because they had been given to my mother by the U.S. Army medical corps. My mother's cousin, Dr. Karl Albert Connell (named for Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, which lent him a special cachet), had invented the gas mask, a remarkable innovation that saved many lives in World War I, but not in time to prevent the loss of thousands of earlier gas attack victims.
Our other grandmother, "Bawa," who actually owned our big old house, came to live with us shortly after Nana's death. I had been named for her, and she had been named for Letizia Bonaparte, Napoleon's mother. (Bawa explained to me how the first Letitia in her family line was named for Napoleon's mother, as were thousands of other baby girls born in western Europe in the early nineteenth century. The mothers must have been hoping to raise their own Napoleons.) She was really Letitia Blanche Coffey Baldrige, but since Bawa was the only sound my oldest brother could make of the combination of the "Grandmother" and "Baldrige" names, "Bawa" was it. She was the closest thing Omaha had to a dowager duchess, I suppose-even if she did scandalize Omaha society by leaving her husband and young son for a two-year fling in an apartment in Paris on the avenue Foch in the early 1900s. Years later, when I was in my early twenties and living in Paris, I often used to drive down the avenue Foch to the Arc de Triomphe, looking at the magnificent apartment buildings lining both sides of the wide boulevard, trying to guess which building housed my grandmother's apartment, and also wondering about what went on there. The rumor was that she had a French lover, and my cousin Keating Coffey heard from his parents that Omaha people talked a lot about it, just as they did about the cigarettes she came home puffing. Ladies did not smoke in those days in the Midwest, only non-ladies did. My grandfather Howard Malcolm Baldrige was, from all reports, exceedingly dull, and I remember that one of Bawa's friends made a remark to me at an age when I couldn't quite comprehend it. She said, "If I had been married to a man like your grandfather, I would have sought a lover, too."
Bawa came back from that Parisian experience with trunkfuls of fabulous dresses, hats, boas, and boxes of exotic-looking cigarette holders, which she put away in the attic of our house. By the time I was four, my friends and I were hounding her to be able to dress up in her Parisian creations. I would steal a cigarette from her cache and stick it into one of those ebony, rhinestone-studded works of art. With a feeling of misguided sophistication, I would stand in front of a mirror with my teeth clenched on the holder, sucking on it and pretending to smoke. When I wrapped around my forehead one of Bawa's silvery embroidered headbands, which she wore with her evening dresses, and waved the cigarette holder at my reflection, I felt that nothing more glamorous had ever been seen in the world at large. Unfortunately, the inhalation of stale nicotine fumes from the holder made me slightly nauseous every time. (Bawa was to pay for that smoking habit later in life with terrible emphysema, which eventually killed her.)
Bawa would show me countless times, simply because I asked her to, her photo album filled with postcards, menus from her sojourn in France, place cards, and invitations to the parties she attended. "Ah," she would say, turning to look out the window longingly, dreaming of her experiences in Paris, "comme je me suis bien amusée!" Her stories were all equally wonderful: she described everything from listening to the rhythm of the clip-clops of the horses and carriages taking their elegant passengers to lunch in the Bois de Boulogne, to dining on oysters while seated on a crimson velvet banquette at Maxim's (when she showed me drawings of the plates of oysters, I couldn't imagine eating "those things"). Listening to her was like being in a cinema, watching an ever-changing, fascinating film that portrayed only beautiful, chic people. I copied her little French phrases, using the words "Oh, ça c'est tellement chic!" without having any idea what they meant, but I loved the sound of the French words. Someday, I would learn them, too. She told me I would, but I knew it before she told me. "You must travel, Letitia," she said many times. "You must see everything, not just Omaha." She needed to tell me that only once.
Bawa returned to Paris in World War I to serve for a short time with the American Red Cross, again a gutsy action for a woman of her era. I adored her. She was a free spirit, a rebel, one strong woman. "Leadership is in your genes, don't forget it," she wrote me once. "Remember, you must work at it. Nothing permanent comes without work. Just go do it." When I would inevitably ask the same question, "What is it that's supposed to be in our genes?" she always gave the same puzzling answer, "Leadership. I expected it of your father, and I expect it of the three of you children. Don't ask what it means. Just do it. Take charge. You're strong enough."
If there was one place in the house that I adored and in which I felt completely safe, it was my bedroom, with its never-changed pale peach wallpaper festooned with gold stars, and its pale blue ceiling. (In the 1930s, once wallpaper was put up, it stayed up.) Nana's old maple bedroom furniture had been painted white for me. It was very ordinary, but to my eyes, with its fake bronze gilt drawer pulls, it looked like the furniture in the Palais de Versailles that Bawa had shown me on her postcards. The bedroom door didn't lock, but it slammed beautifully as a sign to my brothers that they could not enter. At nap time I would remove the contents of the bureau, drawer by drawer, laying all of the "merchandise" out on the bed. Then I would play a double role-that of salesperson and customer. I sold my ribbons, underwear, socks, and barrettes over and over to Mrs. Imaginary Customer. I even had a little toy cash register with nickels and pennies to handle the sales.
Sitting on the top shelf of my white bookcase was a lovely statuette of the Virgin Mary, dressed in pale blue and white. During the month of May ("Mary's Month," as the nuns called it) I made an altar and placed white votive candles in glass cups in front of her statue. I picked fresh lilacs and lily of the valley from our front yard. Empty jelly jars made fine vases. At night, before going to sleep, I would turn off all the lights after lighting the votive candles. I would kneel, say a few prayers, and watch the El Greco-elongated shadows of the Madonna on the wall. The flickering candlelight made lacy patterns on the ceiling through the flowers and leaves. It was very magical. It made me feel pious and spiritual-at least for a half hour every night during the month of May. The Blessed Virgin Mary became my good friend during those early years of my life, a friendship that would remain forever.
My brothers, aware of this devotion, kept telling their friends that their sister was going to enter a nunnery, ha, ha, but I denied it vehemently. Nuns were not allowed to hit their brothers back, so it was not to be a vocation for me.
- From A Lady, First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Rome by Letitia Baldrige, Copyright (c) October 2001, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc, used by permission.
Meet the Author
Letitia Baldridge is perhaps best known for her role as Chief of Staff for Mrs. Kennedy and Social Secretary to the White House during the Kennedy Administration. She has also served as an advisor to four other First Ladies. The head of her own PR and marketing firm, Letitia Baldrige Enterprises, she is a prolific author whose etiquette books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.
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