Invite Letitia Baldrige to your dinner party and she'll happily talk about the time she spent at the White House as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary.
What? Too swamped to even think about having some interesting people over?
No surprise to Baldrige.
"Today, people have a lack of interest in receiving people into their homes," observed the manners expert, who will visit the Center Club in Costa Mesa on June 12 to discuss her new book, "The Kennedy Style: Magical Evenings in the Kennedy White House" (Doubleday).
"These days, they're either too busy or too status-conscious," she explained during a telephone interview from her Washington home. "They're thinking, 'There's no time' or 'Why bother? My home doesn't reflect my status; my car does.' "
Social success isn't based on a person's material possessions, said Baldrige, 72. "It comes with how warm and kind a person is. It comes from having people in, feeding them, joking with them, helping them with their problems."
With her book on the Kennedys--a 144-page collection of photographs, anecdotes and recipes (from former White House chef Rene Verdon)--Baldrige hopes to inspire people to throw open their doors and begin entertaining again.
"I did this as a tribute to the Kennedys as fabulous hosts, as having reigned over an era of grace and style," she said. "We could use more of that today."
Among the book's highlights: the account of a historic night in 1961 when 84-year-old Spanish cellist Pablo Casals broke his self-imposed exile in Puerto Rico to perform privately at a Kennedy dinner party.
An elegant repast--sole mousse, filet of beef, champagne sorbet--for 155 guests was staged in the State Dining Room and Blue Room. "Jackie had asked that the fireplaces be lit," Baldrige wrote. After dinner, Casals performed. A reception followed in the Red Room.
Leonard Bernstein said of the affair: "The food is marvelous, the wines are delicious . . . people are laughing out loud, telling stories, jokes, enjoying themselves, glad to be there. . . . It was a joy to watch it."
Would-be hosts shouldn't be intimidated by the Pennsylvania Avenue address, Baldrige said. "You don't need the White House to please people. You can be 24, earning $22,000 a year and have people over to your tiny apartment. It's all about sharing and thinking about what will make others happy."
And you don't need a celebrity to top your guest list. Mix good friends with a guest of honor from the community, Baldrige suggests. "Perhaps there's a professor you respect. Or a great basketball coach. They can spark a party."
So can a dish such as Bombe Caribienne, a French creation served by the Kennedys when they honored Nobel laureates. Chef Verdon topped the dessert with a sculpture of spun sugar. The recipe is included in the book.
Serving a special dish also can be a catalyst for conversation, Baldrige said. "If you make the bombe, for example, you can tell your guests they're 'eating a bit of history tonight.' "
Other tips from Baldrige, who helped Jackie Kennedy entertain everybody from heads of state to icons of the Silver Screen:
* "It's stylish to have people over," Baldrige said. "But unstylish to make them bring food. It's so tacky, making everybody appear at the door with a dish. Better to order in, use a caterer or bring prepared food into your kitchen. You don't want to work so hard that you can't enjoy your guests."
* Light the party with candles, the way Jackie liked to do. It creates an elegant, warm mood.
* Build your gathering around a special event--a birthday, anniversary, a child just out of college. It gives your party an edge.
* Don't drink champagne all night, she said. It dilutes the feeling of festivity. "Have it suddenly arrive at dessert, then have a marvelous toast."
* Invite friends to your gathering two or three weeks ahead. "Nobody is doing that now. But it really sets the tone, makes people feel special."
Today, as we head toward the new millennium, "people are hiding behind computer screens, becoming less human and more chip-dependent," Baldrige said. "We need to reach out--spend more time together."
For information on her appearance at a luncheon sponsored by the Center Stars of the Performing Arts Center, call: (714) 556-2121.
Hearing from a Kennedy:
"What a pleasure to be here with all of my fellow Democrats in Orange County," quipped Ted Kennedy Jr. during his opening remarks at a benefit for the Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach.
Speaking last week at the Balboa Bay Club, the 36-year-old told members of the center's Circle 1000 support group that having cancer has made him a better person. Kennedy lost his right leg to a rare bone cancer at age 12. "My life has improved because my appreciation for things has improved," he said.
Kennedy praised supporters of the center for believing they could make a difference in the lives of cancer patients. "My Uncle Bobby [Kennedy] believed that every person could make a difference," Kennedy said. "He liked to quote Tennyson: 'Each time we stand up to improve the life of somebody else, we send forth a tiny ripple of hope. And together, with all of the other ripples, we build up a current that can eliminate the mightiest wall of oppression.'
"I really believe that you, the supporters of the Hoag Cancer Center, are the ripples of hope in this community," he said. "You're making the difference for many people for many years to come."
Proceeds from the event were estimated at more than $338,000.