Twenty years ago, about 1992, I was sitting at the Chevy Chase Club at the invitation of my client with 10 of her Washingtonian friends. I was new in my travels on the Washington stage so my knees were not so steady and shook a bit as I spoke softly, introducing myself to the very important looking woman on my right. I was I interrupted by the woman across from us, as she exclaimed “Letitia darling!” I froze as I suddenly realized that I had intentionally been seated next to Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy’s former social secretary at the White House, Letitia Baldridge! After taking a minute to compose myself, I restated my name when they had finished. She smiled graciously and said, “Yes, I heard that you had started a school for domestics!” Embarrassed yet appreciative that my presence had been shared without my knowing, I immediately expressed how appreciative I was of her newest publication on “Business Etiquette” which I had just purchased for my school. Delighted, her face softened and she sat a little straighter. I guess no matter how famous one becomes, recognition of one’s accomplishments does feel wonderful!
I greatly enjoyed listening to her conversations with others at the table. I learned quickly that they spoke a language unique to living and being in the know in Washington, DC. It’s a world unto itself with innuendos galore and references to people, policies, and being part of the in crowd that takes more than a moment to enter. However, my moment finally arrived and I asked Ms. Baldridge if she could share a fun “a la table” story she had experienced at the White House. She smiled and leaned towards me to quietly share her reply. She reminded herself and me that most of what happens at the White House is, of course, private. However, from the educational perspective, there is one wonderful story. “The Soviet Union’s Premier from 1958 to 1964, Nikita Khrushchev, came to a lovely dinner hosted by President Kennedy”, she began. Mrs. Kennedy was truly radiant that night. The finger bowls came forth after we had delicately used our fingers to consume Chef Renee Verdon’s Oysters Rockefeller. It was divine. Chef used the essence of rose in the warm silky water that night with just one or two aromatic rose petals in each bowl. The bowls were exquisite Baccarat and a recent gift. Everyone was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy to begin, when Mr. Khrushchev, followed quickly by his wife, picked up his finger bowl, and drank fully from it, while smiling broadly! Without a glance, Mrs Kennedy also picked up her finger bowl and lightly sipped while smiling back. Everyone else, some smiling, some not, tasted as well. And so it went. True or not, I thought it was the best story I had ever heard. Mrs. Baldridge lightly patted her lips with just the edge of her napkin so as to not leave one speck of lipstick, and returned her attention to the rest of the table. I had been touched forever by the dance and intrigue of the formal table!
My next experience was some ten years later, in 2000 at the then Butler Academy in the Netherlands. I helped get the Academy on its way in its early days by sharing our Service Management System, and to my surprise my lead instructor Jenny Hookey, who I had sent over to provide Starkey training at the Academy, married Academy owner Robert Wenneke’s brother, and with her went other Starkey jewels we had developed educationally. It was a grand time indeed. They too had an etiquette instructor who was often a guest at the table of their Queen, Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgard. He began his Formal Table education, relaying what he knew to be true. I was wide-eyed and speechless as he began his story of when Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to dinner at Queen Beatrix’s table. Yes, Mr. Khrushchev smiled broadly as he picked up Her Majesty’s finger bowl. He drank! Her Majesty drank! So, of course, everyone drank!
Shortly thereafter, in 2002, I was invited to tour throughout France, visiting the principal luxury product artists including the Moët et Chandon Mansion where I attended a formal dinner. Mr. Robert Widden, a lovely British gentleman, and twelve other guests from all over the world joined us. The table was quite large, twice as large as the traditional table for twelve. The Chef had been saving his chicken oysters to make dégonfler des huîtres dans le vin for a few months and now had them deliciously nestled in a rich cream sauce. Yum! The table was beautifully set with Christoffle’s best as only the French can do. Mr. Robert Widdrow, my host, pointed out that the silver was all placed turned over, tines down! He too had been warned of my post in the US, and had been informed that I was on a mission “in Search of Service”! I was ready this time, however, and ten years into my journey in Private Service Education. I quickly quizzed my British host about the amount of silver in his sterling? He gave a wonderful laugh, and said “Very Good, Mrs. Starkey!” To my delight, he then began to share his story of, (you guessed it!), what happened the evening that Premier Khrushchev came to dinner with the Royal Lady herself: Her Majesty The Queen of England. Mr. Khrushchev smiled broadly and drank. Her Majesty sniffed delicately and also drank. So, of course, everyone drank!
As a key part of our curriculum, Starkey International conducts 10-12 formal dinners per year inviting our clients who are hoping to hire just the right Graduate, charities and non-profits hoping to raise funds, or to thank their patrons, our loyal luxury product presenters, and of course our dear friends, to dinner. My very dear friend, Dr. Lloyd Lewan, former Director of Semester at Sea, always sits at the other end of my table. I tell my finger bowl story from time to time. At each of the dinners I make a point of asking Dr. Lewan and my guests, “Do you think all etiquette teachers have passed along the story of what I now call ‘The Finger Bowl Intrigue’ to teach the etiquette of the finger bowl, or did Mr. Khrushchev travel the world with great humor, drinking attar of roses?”