A hearty `aye' for the social graces. We're starved for traditional values, says arbiter of America's manners

Listen up, America. The woman who once made the cover of Time as ``arbiter of America's manners'' is telling us we're starved for a return to traditional values.

That means having formal dinner and tea parties like the good-ol'-days, calling a girl five or six days in advance for a date (so she can schedule her hair appointment and revel in ``anticipation''), knowing how to converse with aplomb (and with strangers). And remember that archaic word grooming? It's not only important, ``it's everything.''

Letitia Baldrige, former chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy (and adviser to four other White House administrations), veteran of American embassies in Paris and Rome, and longtime consultant and lecturer on protocol and ethics, is not just imposing her years of diplomatic-set formalities on the rest of us. The yuppie generation is beating on her door for answers, she says. Senior citizens are protesting that romance is no longer dumb, pass'e, irrelevant.

Somewhere between the let-it-all-hang-out '60s and the flood of women to the workplace, we forgot how to do a lot of these things.

Now we want to remember. ``I spend so much time talking to young executives about their business presence and their social lives that we've come to the mutual conclusion: Their social lives are very bad off,'' Ms. Baldrige says.

She says the young, so busy working on dual careers, have seen their social lives frozen at the level they last achieved in college - sitting on the floor passing cheese, crackers, and dip. The old, some divorced or widowed, are too often terrified of getting involved with new partners, or joining organizations to meet new people, she adds.

``This book isn't really just about manners,'' says Baldrige. ``Its a cheer up and get out there and into the mainstream exhortation to do the opposite of what society is telling us - which is to drop out, go home, and watch TV.''

She lectures 100 times a year on manners, and holds seminars for MBA grads and the like on how to comport themselves at business and other gatherings.

She said she was asked the same questions so often that she decided to write her just-published ``Complete Guide to a Great Social Life.'' It comes on the heels of her ``Complete Guide to Executive Manners.''

``I thought the book was necessary because nobody had written head on about the subject of getting out there and making your own social life,'' says Baldrige, who made the cover of Time magazine when she revised Amy Vanderbilt's ``Complete Book of Etiquette'' in 1978.

``We've become a nation of screen-watchers. We watch terminals all day at the office and then video screens all night at home. People have become petrified of having conversation and entertaining in the home, because it has trailed off so drastically.''

Returning to traditional values, says Baldrige, is essentially leaving the ``me'' decade behind and beginning to really care about others. ``We've been in such a hedonistic society where all we've talked about is me, me, or what I am going to get out of something. The whole philosophy of this book is to turn outward - and then you'll get back much more than you ever thought.''

Here, then, is advice on everything from meeting people to entertaining and making friends at work. Since the title of her tome includes the word complete, there is much detailed information on subjects such as sending invitations, designing tables and centerpieces, and throwing a party for 18 for $3,000 or $300.

There is simple, straightforward advice that just makes interesting reading because it comes from someone with so much experience in the field:

On conversation: ``Don't go up to a person just to taunt him or her: `I bet you can't remember my name!' I always want to reply..., `You know, I never forget a face or a name, but in your case I'll make an exception.'''

On coping with disasters: ``The best way to handle entertaining disasters ... is to laugh at them.... If you suffer a slight setback such as dropping the turkey from the platter ... take a crack at yourself: `Football anyone?'''

On creative manners: ``Good manners decree that you mail a get-well card to your colleague in the hospital. Creative manners mean that you send her a cassette player and tapes, including a special tape recorded by all her friends in the office, with their news, gossip, jokes, and personal good wishes....''

Baldrige says that much of the book is ``pre-jazz age'' philosophy that sounds unabashedly ``Sweet Sue'' or ``Pollyanna-ish,'' in the '80s. ``But I think people are ready for that again, just as they are ready for more structure in their lives.

``They care more about a return to formality and some of the old values,'' Baldrige affirms.

``She is so deeply rooted in the traditions of the past as well as the new energies and interests of the present that she can invest lives with both stability and creativity,'' says Angier Biddle Duke, former chief of protocol at the White House, now chancellor of Long Island University. ``For those from the White House to the settlement house she is competent in adapting decent values into whatever level of social relationship.''

One of the things that works against Baldrige's sounding high and mighty as she ostensibly holds forth on how to behave is that she has made so many mistakes in her career - and passes them on so all can learn.

As special assistant to Clare Boothe Luce at the American Embassy in Rome, she had to eat humble pie after designing a dinner with alcohol in every course when it turned out her Mormon guests of honor were teetotalers.

She was at a state dinner for the King of Morocco when the fuses blew during a performance of ``Brigadoon.'' And a featured pianist at the White House refused to perform because the piano was unacceptable. ``When I tell people about all the terrible gaffes and faux pas I've made over the years, it gives them the courage to go out and try something they might not otherwise,'' says Baldrige. ``The only thing some of them need is the ABCs of how to get started.''

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