News & Politics

Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy

This book by an etiquette expert and former Jackie Kennedy aide has a lot of experience behind it but not enough of a point.

Letitia Baldrige seems well qualified to write a book about good taste. She was an executive at Tiffany, served as a diplomatic assistant in Europe, and—drum roll, please—was chief of staff to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, perhaps the most tasteful woman of the 20th century. In addition, Baldrige has written 11 books with words such as “etiquette” and “manners” and “social life” in their titles. If bookstores had a section called “Doing Things Right,” Baldrige might dominate it.

So why not write about taste this time? The topic sounds completely up Baldrige’s alley. Unfortunately, expertise isn’t everything. A book also needs direction, organization, and a basic premise—not just a theme. And that’s why Taste doesn’t work.

The book is divided into five chapters covering characteristics of tasteful individuals; tasteful fashion, entertaining, and design; and learning good taste. Under each topic is a variety of personal anecdotes, short essays, and random musings. One moment Baldrige is recalling lessons learned as a young assistant to ambassador Clare Boothe Luce; right after that, she writes about selling her family-heirloom pearls to pay for a European vacation; next she’s analyzing “The Fashion Icon of the Century: Jeans.” These mini-sections rarely follow a logical order. It all makes you wonder: Is Baldrige trying to teach the social history of taste? Or to instruct us on taste? Or to discuss exemplars of taste in her life?

Seemingly, she could do all three. But her writing here lacks cohesion and purpose. What is the point exactly?

Sometimes Baldrige’s conclusions just seem out of touch. Take her explanation of certain dating practices: “An invitation to a home-cooked dinner is also an acknowledged romantic ruse employed by single people of either gender. An excellent wine, someone’s best attempt at cooking, and the candles and flowers on the table can turn the simplest dinner into an unforgettably romantic event.”

Do young couples today really view a home-cooked-dinner date that way? Romantic, sure—but a ruse? Hasn’t dating evolved past that sort of “wink, wink” understanding?

It’s not that Baldrige says nothing of interest. Her tales of working alongside Jackie Kennedy are fun to read (Jackie, she says, “begged” Vogue editor Diana Vreeland for help on her “First Lady fashion problems”), and her section “Notable Women of Taste”—covering C.Z. Guest, Babe Paley, Audrey Hepburn, Diana Vreeland, Nan Kempner, Grace Kelly, and others—is an interesting bit of cultural history. But all of those women are deceased. Perhaps Baldrige could have squeezed in Anna Wintour, Sofia Coppola, Carolina Herrera, or someone else living who has noteworthy taste, class, and panache. (I have to admit it was tough to think of women who might fit the bill.)

In her introduction, Baldrige says, “My own take on [taste] is that the underlying key to a person’s taste is his or her character. A man or woman can be known and respected for good taste, regardless of job or income level, if they make good choices in clothes, have good table manners, are kind and organize their home to look warm, welcoming, clean, and appropriate to their station in life.”

 That seems like a wonderful stance: open-minded, nonelitist, accepting. Unfortunately, Baldrige’s tastes don’t actually fall within those lines.

Letitia Baldrige

Truman Talley Books


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