October 31, 2012
If you read the headline on her obituary in The New York Times, referring to her as an "etiquette maven," or The Washington Post's description of her as the "doyenne of decorum," you might have an image of Letitia Baldridge as a stern, exacting schoolmarm who would rap you on the knuckles for using the wrong fork. From my one experience with her, she was nothing like that.
Years ago, I had the presumption to call her out of the blue about a topic on my mind, which was the decline of public standards of dress. First, I was impressed that she would take the time to talk. Second, I was struck by her good-humored charm, which struck me as vaguely Southern, though I later learned she grew up in Omaha. But mostly what I noticed is that she was not so concerned about etiquette rules as about considerate behavior.
She told me a story to illustrate how notions of acceptable dress had declined. On a transcontinental airline flight, she said, she was seated next to a young man who was not wearing a shirt. She expressed amusement, not scorn, and noted, "He was a surfer-looking sort, and he had a nice build." But she gave me to understand that in her chat with him, she had learned that he really didn't know any better and that she had gently given him the idea that the next time, he might do well to cover up a bit.
I was not surprised to read what she once told the Times: "There are major CEOs who do not know how to hold a knife and fork properly, but I don't worry about that so much as the lack of kindness."
Baldridge saw good manners, fundamentally, as being considerate of others. And she didn't just teach it. She lived it.
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