Saunders: Manners maven was too often unheeded

November 11, 2012 

Y’all dont reckon the old girl just got tired of the direction in which the country was headed and decided to give up the ghost, do you?

That’s what I immediately thought upon learning that Letitia Baldrige had died last Monday at age 86. Baldrige, known as “the doyenne of decorum,” is the woman who spent much of her life trying to teach Americans good manners, how to be respectful of each other and how — EGADS! — to dress for the occasion.

The next time you go to church, to the symphony or any other social occasion that requires some thought regarding attire, you’ll see that that lesson didn’t take too well.

She first gained renown as Jackie Kennedy’s chief of staff in the White House, where she coordinated all of those sophisticated parties. Baldrige was for decades the unofficial manners maven of the country and the woman who tried to tell us the proper way to eat, dress and treat one another.

Was witnessing one more person licking his or her fingers and then picking up the serving ladle in line for creamed spinach at Golden Corral too much for her to bear?

Was seeing that couple seated in front of me at the Diana Ross concert wearing not-recently-washed matching red North Face fleece jackets and dirty jeans too much for her correct heart to take?

Was it, finally, the disintegrating, uncivil tone of public discourse during the recently concluded political season that made her decide, “I’m outta here, yo”?

Even though reports say she suffered from osteoarthritis and cardiac complications, it wouldn’t be surprising if what really did her in was seeing yet another bumpkin attending a black-tie event in a gray, Houndstooth suit.

Etiquette and good manners are the lubricants that make the wheel of society turn smoothly, not just stuffy old rules foisted upon us by snobs. She was not a snob, despite her blue-blood pedigree: She attended both Miss Porter’s School, a private boarding school for girls, and Vassar with the future first lady.

In her book “New Manners for New Times: A Complete Guide to Etiquette,” Baldrige wrote this about “the difference between manners and etiquette. Etiquette is protocol, a set of behavior rules you can memorize like a road map, which will guide you safely through life. ... Manners teach you how to value another’s self-esteem and to protect that person’s feelings.”

To her, there were practical considerations for proper manners and etiquette. For instance, in a television interview, Baldrige was asked why eating with one’s elbows on the dining table — the unmistakable sign of a true philistine — was frowned upon. Arms and hands on the table, she explained, infringe upon the space of those seated next to you.

I would’ve said it makes you look like an uncouth luddite who just got released from the joint after finishing a 10-year bid. Indeed, the only time that eating with your elbows on the table should be permissible is in prison, when it may be necessary to ensure that Big Jake seated next to you doesn’t try to enact eminent domain on your mashed taters.

As stories about Baldrige’s death noted, she felt strongly that practicality, “kindness” and “consideration” should be the guiding principles of behavior, not rules etched in stone during the Paleolithic Age. In her 1985 book, “Letitia Baldrige’s Guide to Executive Manners,” she addressed the age-old question of who should open the door, the man or the woman.

Her answer: whoever gets to it first.

Saunders: bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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