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By Hand and Foot

Once Almost Extinct, Butlers are Making a Comeback in the Homes of Wealthy Americans
Jolee Edmondson
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

It is a remarkably warm and sunny March afternoon in London. Twelve men and one woman are gathered in the cool hush of the temperature-controlled, rust-carpeted humidor room at Alfred Dunhill to hear the impeccable Philip Spencer-Watts, cigar specialist, lecture on every conceivable aspect of a good smoke. In a perfectly modulated voice, he explains, "The general rule of combustion is: The fatter the cigar, the slower the rate of burn, which means more flavor and more enjoyment."

His listeners are as captive as an audience at the Vatican. Judging from their intent expressions, you would think the world revolved around the pleasure of a fine Havana. Indeed, pleasure would soon be their business--serious business. They are training to be butlers, and it is acutely essential that they learn every last detail about the things that make the employers of butlers happy. The field trip to Dunhill is the first of many to those rarefied sanctums of quality that cater to the discerning tastes of the rich. There will also be instruction about truffles and caviar at Selfridges, Champagne at Moët & Chandon, Port at Fortnum & Mason, suits at Gieves & Hawkes, shoes at John Lobb, Bootmaker.

The Class of '95, Ivor Spencer School for Butlers, is at the midpoint of its six-week course. Already it has been coached exhaustively on the ironing of newspapers, the organizing of theater supper parties, the packing of suitcases, the passing of the humidor ("Never neglect the ladies"), the overseeing of household accounts, the serving of the morning tray and the polishing of crystal--not to mention the proper telephone manner, the correct bow, and the art of the purchase ("Always deal with two suppliers; that way you'll build a healthy competition and get the best").

The group has also been thoroughly counseled on the myriad nuances and sticky situations that will doubtless arise on the job. There is, for example, the delicate matter of, uh, cleavage. Butlers, strutting about the manor as they do, see their employers in their most intimate modes--without teeth and toupee, in the buff, even flagrante delicto. Suppose a butler, upon serving the morning tray, finds in bed with Sir not Madame (who is out of town) but an unidentified woman with bare bosom. Ah, yes, well, he should look her directly in the eye, but only if she speaks to him. Otherwise, he must steadfastly avert his gaze and concentrate solely on Sir. Should the lady require a tray, the butler must place it on her lap, making certain that he is facing the foot of the bed. The future butlers were further advised that the rules of direct eye contact apply if Madame, who left town a 34B, returns a 38D.

The overriding tenet: Never Cross the Invisible Line. Again and again this universal code of butlerhood is imparted. "We can be friendly but not familiar," commands Ivor Spencer in the tone of an upper-crust drill sergeant. Spencer is the founder and head of the world's only butler school. A sartorial 64-year-old man with graying temples and a faint hauteur, he exudes the dynamism of an entrepreneur who came up the rugged way, which is precisely the case. The son of a fruit wholesaler, he rose to heady heights from London's hardscrabble East End. Ambitious from the start, he taught himself the speech of the aristocracy, eventually becoming England's toastmaster nonpareil. The emcee at more than 1,000 royal events (many of which he organized), he often mingled with moguls and show biz elite.

Fifteen years ago, a visiting American television producer was so taken with Spencer's style that he asked him to fly to California and organize two days of lavish entertaining at his Beverly Hills manse. Following the party, the producer asked Spencer what he thought of his home. "It's beautiful," came the reply, "but I think it's lacking something--an English butler." Intrigued, the producer conferred with his wife, and all agreed that Spencer would return to the United Kingdom and find a suitable man for them. But the task proved far more difficult than anticipated.

"No one I interviewed was up to the job of running a home from top to bottom with a huge budget," recalls Spencer. "I was looking for somebody who possessed the best qualities of the traditional butler and was also highly skilled at administrative duties. Such a person didn't exist."

Ultimately, he took under his wing an impressive young waiter at one of London's posh hotels, tutored him rigorously and put him on a plane to California. And it worked! Thus was born the Ivor Spencer School for Butlers, an outrageously successful program whose graduates have found employment with the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of York, King Hussein of Jordan and the Crown Prince of Bahrain (among other royals), not to mention an awesome galaxy of rock stars, sports icons, film idols, Arab oil barons and billionaire businessmen. "The demand for butlers is huge," observes Spencer. "The wealth out there is phenomenal. I've never seen anything like it."

Clearly there had long been a need for the revamping of Jeeves. Quite frankly, he had become a fossil. The old-style butler (as so movingly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day) was a housebound servant with narrow responsibilities. In the end he couldn't keep pace with a rapidly changing world in which nouveau megariche were eclipsing quiet aristocracy. His lot was swiftly dying out. Before 1939, there were 30,000 butlers in England. By the time Spencer started his school, their numbers had dwindled to 70. Staggering taxes (in the way of "death duties") have been forcing bluebloods off their estates and into apartments, leaving them no option but to terminate their cherished butlers.

If the noble occupation of butler was to survive, a new market had to be targeted and the job description expanded. The blatantly obvious new market was America, where cash flowed like tap water, and in-your-face status symbols were experiencing a revival (as witnessed by the hit TV soaps Dallas and Dynasty). To satisfy the mammoth needs of Yankee magnates, many of whom had yachts, private jets and several homes (each with a full staff), Spencer knew he had to provide a butler for all reasons, an indispensable majordomo capable of supervising everything and everyone associated with his boss's domestic domain. Accordingly, he devised for his students a fine-tuned syllabus with 86 lessons. Spencer's butlers would do it all: bookkeeping, purchasing, drawing baths, driving the children to school, whipping up 20-minute meals when the cook is out sick, overseeing the payrolls of staffs near and far, flower-arranging, menu-planning...he would even accompany his employer on business trips. Spencer's butlers would assuredly have a niche in the 21st century.

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