Omaha native was 'nation's social arbiter' -
Published Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:22 am
Omaha native was 'nation's social arbiter'

Etiquette adviser, author and business executive Letitia Baldrige, who grew up in Omaha, died Monday at 86. She became a household name as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's White House chief of staff and even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Baldrige, known as “Tish,” died at Sunrise at Fox Hill assisted living center in Bethesda, Md., Mary M. Mitchell of Seattle, a longtime friend and collaborator, told The World-Herald. Baldrige had been bedridden from osteoarthritis for several years.

A funeral Mass for Baldrige will begin at noon Nov. 9 at Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Mitchell said.

Baldrige was 35 when friend and fellow Vassar College alumna Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy asked for her help. Baldrige left her job as public relations director for Tiffany & Co. to become de facto social secretary of the Kennedy White House.

She left the White House in June 1963. She went on to found her own public relations and marketing business.

In the 1970s she established herself as an authority on contemporary etiquette, writing a syndicated newspaper column on the subject that appeared in The World-Herald. Baldrige also updated “Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette.”

Time magazine called Baldrige the nation's social arbiter.

She published “Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Manners” in 1985. It dealt with behavior in the workplace and outside it.

“She was an advocate for changing the rules of business life” and supported a gender-neutral workplace, Mitchell told The World-Herald.

By age 13, Baldrige was 6-foot-1, which was unusual for women at the time. She spoke of it in a 2002 interview with The World-Herald.

“Then it (her height) was considered abnormal. My parents worked very hard to make me feel that it was wonderful,” she said.

Eventually, it became wonderful.

“I can stride into any board room, and being taller than the CEO adds a certain respect.

“All my life, I wanted to run things. I guess part of it was my brothers being so tough on me and my being so tall and not glamorous-looking and deciding to make up for it,” she said in the interview.

Baldrige long contended that the heart of all etiquette was consideration for other people, rather than a rigid set of rules.

“I know what she considered her biggest achievement: getting people to focus more on kindness and respect than knives and forks,” Mitchell said.

Seven years ago, Mitchell married Jim Weber in the conference room of a Seattle high-rise. Baldrige gave away the bride — by speakerphone, no less.

“She was very formal about it,” Mitchell said.

Baldrige once recommended to a European group that it seek out Mitchell as a speaker, then warned her friend to demand decent payment. It's a wealthy group that can afford to pay for your services, Baldrige told her.

When the group offered Mitchell the job, it noted that it would pay her travel expenses but did not pay for services. Mitchell replied that this was not what she had understood. The group's reply was that Henry Kissinger had accepted the job without pay.

Mitchell called her friend for advice. “Henry Kissinger wouldn't walk across the street without being paid,” Baldrige said.

Mitchell said Baldrige always credited her Omaha upbringing for her manners. Baldrige told her friend that Omaha “still seemed like home” and that it “anchored her.”

Her first book was “Roman Candle” in 1956, a memoir about her European adventures. Her last was “Taste: Acquiring What Money Can't Buy” in 2007. She also wrote at least three books on her White House career.

Letitia Baldrige was born Feb. 9, 1926, in Miami, but was reared in Omaha.

Growing up with two older brothers helped make her tough, she said. Speaking to The World-Herald in 1997, she recalled the time her brother Robert had swung his new baseball bat, a holiday gift, too close to her.

“I was knocked unconscious for three hours,” she said. “My brothers called it the best Christmas so far.”

(Her brother Malcolm Baldrige was secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration.)

Most of Letitia Baldrige's career was spent as an entrepreneur, heading her own businesses in Chicago, New York and Washington.

She married Robert Hollensteiner, a real estate developer in 1963. Besides her husband, who lives in Washington, D.C., other survivors include daughter Clare Smyth of Bronxville, N.Y.; son Malcolm Baldrige Hollensteiner of Bethesda; and seven grandchildren.

She said the family is where the patterns for manners, humanity and true civilization are set, and that the American family was failing to do its job.

“We are not passing values on to our children,” she told the Toronto Star in 1999. “We are not sitting down at the dinner table talking about the tiny things that add up to caring human beings.”

This report includes material from The New York Times.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1165,

Contact the writer: Sue Story Truax    |   402-444-1165

Sue writes obituaries and covers community news and schools for's Living section, primarily Community Connection.

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