Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Taste is the latest offering from America's longtime etiquette and protocol expert, Leticia Baldridge. It is subtitled, Acquiring What Money Can't Buy. Mrs. Baldridge is a Vassar-educated woman who served as chief of staff to the Jackie Kennedy. Mrs. Baldridge also advised four other First Ladies. She worked closely with the American ambasador to Italy and his wife in the 1940s, and she worked in publicity for Tiffany's. Mrs. Baldridge has written two dozen book and operates a consulitng business. Her credentials are not to be sneezed at by any means. So why did I find this book a disappointment?

When I first heard of this book, I took its subtitle at its word. Developing my aesthetic sense of taste by reading? Sign me up! But the advice and guidance on doing this were few and far between. Much of the book consists of reminiscences of the late Mrs. Onassis and of other people who were once big names in style and entertaining. Mrs. Baldridge and Mrs. Onassis knew one another since adolescence. This longtime friendship shows in every line written about the Kennedys and their household. The passages about them are virtual paeans to Jackie. Even the brief passage ostensibly written about Grace Kelly's sense of style turns out to be more Jackie worship along a put-down of Her Serene Highness' taste and behavior. The word "tacky" came to mind.

I found the book contradictory, too. Some paragraphs say that money is no guarantee of taste, and that having excellent taste is within the reach of anyone. Directly after that are (more) descriptions of opulent living and entertaining served up along with encouragement to live tastefully with Baccarat crystal, fine wine and spirits and other pricey material goods.

The directions on acquiring and improving one's taste consisted of telling readers to go to museums at every opportunity, to read magazines that show tasteful things and to observe beauty wherever one is. Then one ought to contemplate what makes beautiful things beautiful, and to look for patterns in beauty and taste. One ought also to peruse books on different cultures and what was considered beautiful in different times and places. None of this is new or even very helpful.

One last thing: this book suffers from a common ailment, and that is an acute lack of editing. A sharp editor would have shaped and brightened this book by untangling the memoir aspects from the advice aspects from the personal taste aspects. As it is, they all lie there in a heap, and not a very tasteful heap.

Taste is subjective, as Mrs. Baldridge acknowledges. This alone makes writing about it at all a challenge. Instructing people how to develop taste is trickier still. Still, I had hopes of reading something substantive. This book is not that. If you enjoy reading memories of grand times and places, and if you, too, cannot get enough of Mrs. Onassis, then you will enjoy Taste.
(submitted by Moon Rani)


teabird said...

It sounds rather circular, doesn't it? You develop taste by developing taste, which can't be defined... Good review!

Paula said...

Excellent review!