Most people in my generation have probably never heard of etiquette connoisseur and public relations executive Letitia Baldrige. I hadn’t until my grandmother gave me a copy of her autobiography, A Lady, First, as a graduation gift. Now that I’ve finished Baldrige’s book, I have found my newest hero and someone I would love to emulate during my career.
Baldridge, who is most famous for being Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary at the White House, immediately warns her readers that her story lacks the scandalous makings of a best-seller. Fortunately, her story doesn’t need scandal to be entertaining and inspiring, especially for women in the public relations field.
During her career, Tish Baldrige broke through barriers that society placed on female professionals. After college graduation, when most of her girlfriends were starting families, Baldrige moved by herself to Paris to work as a social secretary for U.S. Ambassador David Bruce and his wife, Evangeline. From that position, she went on to serve as an assistant to Clare Luce, the U.S. Ambassador at the American Embassy in Rome. It was rare for young, single women to forgo a personal life to advance their careers, but Baldrige was determined to work abroad.
The chapters about her time in Europe provide insight into international affairs, political discourse, and public relations. Baldrige wrote that succeeding at this point in her life meant “wandering far beyond her job description” – advice every new employee should take.
When Baldrige returned to the U.S., she became one of the first female executives at Tiffany & Co., where she was the Director of Public Relations. This part of her life interested me even more than when she worked in the Kennedy White House. She focused on her role as a PR practitioner when the field was still in its infant stage, which enlightened me about the history of my profession. It didn’t hurt that Baldrige wrote about meeting my idol, Audrey Hepburn, when the actress was filming Breakfast at Tiffany’s on location at the famous Fifth Avenue location.
On Baldrige’s first day as an executive at Tiffany’s, she asked the CEO exactly what her job duties were. He looked at her and said, “I’m paying you to know what to do,” without giving further direction. For the next five years, Baldrige relied on gut instincts, past experiences, innovation, and creativity to cultivate a new direction for the communications department of one of the most prestigious companies in American business. I highlighted several anecdotes about her successes and missteps during this period, as she provided great PR campaign case studies.
Baldrige opened her own PR agency, helped U.S. First Ladies transition to the White House, and published over 20 books on a variety of topics. She also managed to live in Paris, Rome, D.C., New York, and Chicago, and maintain a work-life balance that allowed her to maintain an active social life while raising two children. Reading about Letitia Baldrige’s professional and personal lives was refreshing and inspiring.
While A Lady, First has great advice for all communications professionals, it caters to an audience that is interested in history, international affairs, and politics. It might not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for an entertaining, insightful read with a powerful message about using ambition to achieve your goals, I encourage you to read this book.