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Of Diamonds and Diplomats

Live Bait Theater

Those of us who recall with affection and pride the stylishness, sensitivity, and cultural awareness that Jackie Kennedy projected as first lady--and who shudder to remember her later incarnation as marital mercenary and shallow shopaholic--should bear in mind the name of Letitia Baldrige. As White House social secretary from 1961 through mid-1963, "Tish" Baldrige was largely responsible for the blend of glamorous elegance, social consciousness, and youthful progressiveness that seemed to characterize the Kennedy administration. An unpretentious "career gal" from Omaha, Nebraska, who'd had the good fortune to go to Miss Porter's School and Vassar College--the same east-coast refineries that processed Jackie Bouvier--Baldrige was hired by her fellow alum on the strength of her knowledge "of diamonds and diplomats," as the title of her 1968 memoir implies.

With a track record that included serving as Clare Boothe Luce's personal aide and running the PR operation of Tiffany's, Baldrige was well suited to overseeing a new era under America's pretty, young president and his even younger and prettier wife. Baldrige was "the powerhouse behind the glittering evenings" that brought world-acclaimed artists to the White House, Kitty Kelley's biography Jackie Oh! quotes the chief usher as saying. She was also the one who groomed Jackie Kennedy for her public responsibilities--and apologized or filled in when the first lady ditched them to go foxhunting or spend time alone with her kids.

Now, a year after Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis's death, Live Bait Theater's managing director, Edward Thomas-Herrera, has adapted Baldrige's book for the stage as the linchpin of the company's "extrava-Jackie-ganza," which also includes the off-night performance anthology Dear Jackie. But the play's real subject isn't the former first lady, who is kept at a bit of a distance, as she is in the book. Rather it's a fluffy, discreetly selective account of Baldrige's activities as party planner and troubleshooter.

Baldrige's anecdotes remind us of what the goof-prone Clinton administration has proved: how vulnerable a president is to the mistakes and miscalculations of his staff. Like the book, the briskly enacted adaptation is a record of a few successes and a lot of gaffes committed by a well-meaning crew who weren't quite prepared for the ruthless spotlight of Washington. At Tish's first press conference, she fliply described her new boss as "a woman who has everything, including the next president," and at the Kennedys' first White House cocktail party, Tish dared to serve cocktails--on a Sunday yet--bringing down the partisan and ideological wrath of right-wing Republicans, who noted that the Eisenhowers never served hard liquor (in public anyway). There's the time Tish had a run-in with JFK over a staff gift commemorating the Cuban missile crisis: he wanted paperweights from Tiffany's, custom-made in Lucite. (Lucite? From Tiffany's? Never!) And there's the famous state dinner Jackie ordered Tish to arrange for the president of Pakistan--a spectacular candlelit affair on the grounds of Mount Vernon--whose extravagance stirred a tempest of outrage. (At least Tish didn't have Jesse Helms confusing which country the guest of honor represented.)

Mixing bemused admissions of error with ingenuous frustration at politically charged resistance to her attempts at innovation, Baldrige doesn't dig into the real dirt about the escalating friction that led to her early exit from the White House. Other writers have noted Jackie's resentment of Baldrige's high-handed efforts to dictate the first lady's duties. In her book Baldrige merely says that "it was Mrs. Kennedy herself who kindly wrote" the general manager of Chicago's Merchandise Mart to seek a new position for Baldrige; when she wrote the book she was still working for the Kennedy-owned retail center, so her reserve is hardly surprising. In fact Baldrige was astonishingly loyal to Jackie over the years, defending her marriage to Aristotle Onassis ("It's her life and it's hers to lead, and let's just everybody be glad she's happy," Kelley quotes her as saying) and arranging the introductions that led to Jackie's later career as a book editor. There's more to Tish Baldrige and her relationship with the queen of Camelot than Of Diamonds and Diplomats--the book or the play--lets on.

This fast-paced one-act, directed by Tina Lilly, is light, glossy entertainment--an evening of madcap but well-bred comedy that at its best recalls the old-fashioned appeal of Auntie Mame and similar fare. Laurie Larson's horsey, take-charge performance as Baldrige comes straight from the book's self-serving pages: she portrays a strong, sweet-tempered woman, large of physique and warm of heart, who handles one crisis after another with patient aplomb, good-humored determination, and only occasionally flustered self-possession. Larson is the usually calm center of a storm of activity produced by the generally engaging four-person supporting ensemble: they portray the frantic, farcically paced comings and goings of a variety of characters, occasionally resorting to mugging and caricature but more often playing the material straight--the best way to get laughs. Susan McLaughlin delivers Jackie's memorable mixture of spaciness and steeliness to near-perfection; the only thing wrong is her voice, deep and full where Jackie's was high and airy. She's like an audio-animatronic robot that's playing the wrong vocal tape. Brendan Sullivan's JFK seems inspired less by the real thing than by William Devane and Martin Sheen's TV-movie impersonations, but it's serviceable enough.

All in all, Of Diamonds and Diplomats is a nice, cute show--slightly giddy but always comfortable, very early 60s. And it's true to the book, underscoring Baldrige's rosy view of events with Gwen Grossman's gently reddish-pink lighting and a soundtrack recording of "La vie en rose" on a tinkling piano. It's also true to the nostalgic, skewed sensibility Baldrige reveals in her program note, where she gushes about the days when there "were no drugs" (not that she noticed, perhaps) and romance was "awash with great unfulfilled longings" (unless, of course, you were Jack Kennedy). Of Diamonds and Diplomats, on the page and on the stage, is political escapism at its most irrelevant--a pleasant way to remember a key moment in American history, but strangely out of touch. Looming over Baldrige's story, though barely acknowledged except as the loss of a well-liked employer, is the horror of Kennedy's assassination, which shook forever the nation's sense of stability and helped nurture an extremist fringe that once could be written off as an aberration. A generation later, that fringe has a legitimized voice in government, and extremist conflict has become a way of life. A cancer eats away at the body politic--but Of Diamonds and Diplomats leaves one suspecting that if Tish Baldrige were in the White House today, she'd be planning the most tasteful way to barricade Pennsylvania Avenue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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