By Hand and Foot
Once Almost Extinct, Butlers are Making a Comeback in the Homes of Wealthy Americans
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.
The Class of '95 is composed of seven Englishmen, one Swede, one Canadian, one Malaysian and three Americans. (The latter category includes--egad!--a female. Yes, the role of butler is so updated that even women are joining the ranks, albeit at a trickle. Hudson must be spinning in his grave!) And they come from all walks. Among the aspirants: Anthony Seddon-Holland, portly and courtly former security guard with thick black hair and handlebar mustache; Donald Aitken, tall, lean former banker and golf club manager who cuts the figure of a senior corporate executive; Nicholas Clayton, dapper, quick-witted former dental technician; Murdoch MacKillop, droll, pensive type--former chief steward on a globe-drifting yacht who hopes to put down roots as a butler; Johan Bergman, immaculate, square-jawed, fiercely intent young man who wears a watch fob and wire-rimmed glasses, will seek a position with a family back home in Gothenburg, Sweden, where his wife is a social worker.
Bergman seems the embodiment of the contemporary butler--innovative, savvy and hell-bent on doing things right. "I've wanted to be a butler ever since I was 13," he says. "I like working in the house. Growing up, I was always in the kitchen making sandwiches with my mother while my father and brother were working on the car. I'm not at all mechanically minded. I enjoy striving for perfection, creating an orderly home. That's what butlers do. I will always strive to be the best butler, not second best. I love competition."
Each student paid a tuition of $5,000, a pittance considering their glowing futures. Unlike the butler of old, who received paltry wages and limped into retirement a virtual pauper, today's model can expect to receive between $40,000 and $60,000 in annual income, plus benefits, room, board, a car and private medical care. To ensure job security, Spencer only places his butlers with the severely wealthy.
He tells his students, "You'll never have the kind of employer who looks at the stock market and says to his wife, 'Oh, the shares have gone down; darling, sack the butler.' "
Classes are held in a hotel conference room in suburban London. On this particular morning, the day after the Dunhill expedition, an ardent, feisty little gent named Donald Weedon--Spencer's longtime able assistant--is grilling the students on all that they have absorbed to date. A key to the school's success is reinforcement. Lessons are repeated so often that they become permanently entrenched in mind, body and spirit. Like a prizefighter, Weedon is pacing back and forth, punching out quick, terse questions and waiting for the correct response with a steely glare.
"Anthony, give me three on napkins."
"Always wear gloves when folding them, fold extra ones for silver trays and if someone drops a napkin, pick it up and give him a fresh one."
"Excellent. Tom, show me how to crumb down." Using a candy box as a makeshift crumber, Tom demonstrates the proper stroke for removing crumbs from a table.
"Lovely. Raymond, what are three things a butler never does?"
"A butler never buys drugs or procures women for his employer, and he never becomes sexually involved with anyone in the household."
"Good. Ben, what must a butler carry in his pocket at all times?"
"A cigar cutter, breath freshener, phone cards, credit cards, cash and loose change, keys to the house, a comb, two hankies, a notebook and five pens--one to use, one to lose, one to lend, one for the appointment book and one to spare."
"Right. David, what must never be served at a shoot?"
"Alcoholic beverages of any kind."
"Indeed. And what if you notice a flask in someone's pocket?"
"Tell the gamekeeper."
Weedon now instructs the class to repair to the adjoining room and practice posture, walking and forms of address, fervently reminding them, "You're all actors! You're all acting a part! Of course you are, the whole time! Once you've learnt your lines it will be very easy, automatic!"
Soon the air is filled with a chorus of pomp and civility: "It's a pleasure, sir."
"No problem, sir."
"Mr. Leigh is expecting you, sir."
"I'll fetch it immediately, sir."
Later, students pair up for role-playing. Hypothetical potential disasters involving unsavory characters are dealt with. Among the classic offenders: the Drunken Guest, the Pilfering Guest, the Prying Guest. "A butler must never be caught off guard or overwhelmed by a surprise event," counsels Weedon. "He must always be prepared."
There'll be a grand graduation luncheon at the Savoy at the end of all this. Diplomas will be handed out and jovial impromptu speeches made. Spencer will negotiate all arrangements with prospective employers, endeavoring to secure the very best for his fledglings. And he'll always be on call to butlers urgently seeking his wisdom. But even after his students have become ensconced in formidable homes, he will continue to be the hard taskmaster. With a sly glint in his eye, he concedes, "We frighten them a bit so that they'll do it properly."
A number of his graduates have gone to the States and reported back on how amiable and generous Americans are. "They think it's going to be a piece of cake," Spencer notes with a smile, "but I say to them, 'They'll eat you up and spit you out for breakfast if you make one false move. Don't ever take advantage. Ever! On anything!' "
One Spencer alumnus, who fancies cigars, works for a London-based ambassador. His duties include looking after an immense and exquisite humidor--a gift to the embassy--containing 360 fine cigars. No one would know the difference if one was purloined now and then. But early on, Spencer thunderously admonished, "Never, ever, take one for yourself! If you ever do you'll be found out and you'll be crossed off my register. You'll never work again."
Of course, the butler heeded his teacher's grave warning. "The delightful thing," says Spencer, "is that every Christmas that young man receives from his boss an absolutely gorgeous box of the finest Cuban cigars. It's such a treat for him--he used to smoke those cheap little Dutch things."
Christmas is a bountiful time for Spencer's well-placed butlers. Gifts from employers have included Rolex watches, membership at exclusive fitness clubs and flying lessons. One of the more extravagant Yuletide gestures came from a Houston couple, so very fond of their Man that they presented him with a key to his own luxury flat in their penthouse building. Attached to the key was an American Express card--he was to furnish his new apartment at their expense.
Not that all butler-boss relationships are blissful. There is the random horror story. Another Spencer grad found himself in the stormy employ of an American soap diva. In the evenings, after a long day at the studio, she was given to seeking solace in the bottle, and throwing objects--usually aimed at him. When he quit, he tried collecting the $7,000 she owed him in groceries, to no avail.
Also, butlers must cope with the eccentricities unique to the impossibly rich. Not long ago, a woman in New York phoned her butler with the instructive, "We're going to Milan." "Yes, Madame. When?" he replied. "Now," she shot back. Several hours later, when they were having tea on her private jet, he gently inquired as to why she was taking this trip when the eight pairs of shoes she had ordered from Milan were due to arrive via Federal Express the following day. "I know," she answered blithely, "but I wanted them today." The same woman often confronts her butler about overlooked discounts at the supermarket.
"There are so many contradictions like that with these people," sighs Spencer, shaking his head. "They go to extremes. But we must always do what the employer wants."
Since 1986, Spencer, who plans to open a full-fledged butler school in America within three years, has conducted an immensely popular satellite initiation for novice employers-to-be. Many self-made millionaires haven't a clue as to how to interact with a butler and are anxious to get the form down pat.
The two-day initiation begins when Madame and Sir check into a hotel suite, don pajamas and get into bed. The butler they have hired arrives with the morning tray, and from thereon a series of domestic rituals are acted out, with Spencer coaching from the sidelines. It's all very clinical, and many questions are asked. During one session, the woman commented to her husband, "I think we tip him after every meal." To which he replied, "No, you don't do that, darling. You only tip him at night." Spencer promptly intervened and politely suggested that an annual bonus would do.
The Gielgudian butler of yore would have fired a withering glance at anyone who committed the smallest faux pas. He was every inch the snob. His successor, by stark contrast, is forbidden any outward display of arrogance. While formality is still de rigueur, hoity-toity is out.
"We don't abide pomposity," sniffs Spencer at the close of a daylong session with his students. "Any sign of that and you'll be shot down."
Jolee Edmondson is a freelance writer based in Savannah, Georgia.
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