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
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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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