Folio — From the January 2014 issue

You Rang?

Mastering the art of serving the rich

Download Pdf
MicroFiche

Stranded between parking lots in downtown Denver two blocks from the state capitol, the Starkey International Institute is both a relic of the past and a portal into the alternate reality of our new Gilded Age. Redbrick with white trim, the mansion that houses the institute was built by a wealthy family in the Georgian style prevalent during the turn of the twentieth century. Mary Louise Starkey — who styles herself the “First Lady of Service” — opened the institute’s doors in 1981, just before the heady free-market reforms of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Now, after a generation’s worth of tax cuts, deregulation, and union-busting that have spawned a new class of the super-rich, the Starkey Institute (inevitably described as the “Harvard of private-service schools”) claims to turn away many applicants from what the media has taken to calling its “butler boot camp.”

The Starkey Institute functions as a laboratory simulation of a great house. In addition to training students in household-management strategies, proper cleaning techniques, and the care of antiques, designer clothing, and luxury automobiles, the Starkey staff make site visits to the homes of potential clients to place Starkey graduates, train existing staff, and carry out consultations. Mrs. Starkey claims to offer a privileged view of “the behind-the-scenes lifestyles of the wealthiest in the world.” And so, along with eleven fellow students, I enrolled there in April 2012 in hopes of emerging eight weeks later a certified estate manager, qualified for intimate employment by the One Percent’s One Percent.

This article is only available to magazine subscribers. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $39.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share
is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His novel, The Obedient Assassin, is out this month from Delphinium Books.

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Garrett McDaniel

    Mr. Davidson: I read and very much enjoyed this piece. As a longtime fan of the English dramatic series that so carefully exhibit the goings-on beloew stairs, this was very enlightening and I thank you. One small nit to pick, however: one of your classmates was from western Pennsylvania and went straight into the Navy after high school, retiring as a master sergeant. Problem is that “master sergeant” is an Army rank and is an E-8. The comparable rank in the Navy is Senior Chief Petty Officer, also an E-8. The next rank up in the Navy is Master Chief Petty Officer, which is an E-9. Perhaps at some point you might check on this and clarify.

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      Correct you are. We changed certain identifying details of Davidson’s fellow students to protect their privacy. In this case, a small glitch occurred in the process! We’ll leave it to you to guess whether the rank or the branch of service is what got tweaked.

  • Jared Simpson

    This is beautifully written. I sort of suspect that the writer’s experience as a trainee was somewhat fictionalized to provide some dramatic tension, but either way, it works for me. I honestly don’t know how someone could subject him/herself to that demeaning régime for the privilege of becoming a lackey. Even if there had been placements, the likelihood of ending up angry and humiliated by an extremely spoiled and nasty couple seems very high.

    • Enlightened

      No, the stories are very true based on my own personal experience at that school in Denver. The story he recounts, is very similar to the ones played out during my attendance as well. Scary that the “school” is still in business, scarier still is that she “Mary Louise Starkey” has no clue.

  • StarkeySurvivor

    Well-written, but I have one minor correction. On page five, Starkey’s arrest for physically assaulting the student took place in 2007, not 2004 as written. I know because I was in that ill-fated class. Link to Westword article: http://www.westword.com/2007-11-22/news/she-got-served/full/. The fact that Starkey avoided prosecution was due to a back room deal…some of my class witnessed the physical assault and the further intimidation against the victim by Starkey and some of her staff in person.

    My classmates and I worked very hard to get our story out in the media, file official complaints with the Colorado education authority that oversees private for-profit schools, etc., so that diligent prospective future students could at least find this information if they completed thorough due diligence before paying for the “schooling.” In my class, only four students were placed in jobs; of those two only lasted a few weeks.

    A sad lesson we learned is that in Colorado, the education authority has NO ABILITY to investigate allegations by students against a school. Student(s) submit complaints, the state authority submits the complaints to the school, and the school responds. If the school lies and denies the allegations, the complaint is then closed. Done. Only if the school admits to the wrongdoing, would the state do something. This is lamentable. I suppose if we got a much higher number of student survivors to submit complaints, the state would be forced to do something, but Starkey’s history of threatening to sue defenseless domestic servants with lawsuits, or to hurt their careers, caused most of the graduates in my class or others to refuse to complain using their real names. Starkey knows this and it’s why the school still endures even after such serious complaints including assault, lying about placement %, verbal abuse, substandard housing and meals, useless training, hours spend just walking around the Denver mall to kill time instead of providing classes, forcing students to perform personal chores for Starkey that weren’t in the contract (picking her friends up from the airport, bringing food to her home or those of staff members,) spending only a fraction of the student food money on food for the students, etc. Too many problems to name in this post, and no state authority that can do anything about it.

    There are household management jobs out there, but they are few and far between and landing one is more about luck and timing than about specific training, and you have as much of a chance of landing one on Craigslist as you do by subjecting yourself to the cost (financial, emotional and otherwise) of this school. Due to my involvement in the famous class in 2007, I’ve become friends with many Starkey grads from other classes. Among them, only a scant few have found their ways into endurable jobs. No matter how “professional” anybody tries to make this line of work sound, you’re still likely to be treated like “domestic help” by the “principals” and you’re likely to fall into this category if you actually land a job – most do it for a number of months, or even a couple of years, and then leave it to pursue a different career.

    Most of my classmates were attracted to the school after reading about it in a 2006 Atlantic article and in the book, Richistan. At that time, there was very little due diligence one could do on the school because the only web content related to it was provided my Starkey herself. I feel sympathy for anybody who falls victim to a scam, but I implore any prospective students not to take my word for it – scour the web for all of the information available on this school before you commit to it. People who are hopeful, desperate and trusting may buy the hype and promises, but you owe it to yourself to investigate thoroughly.

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      Thank you for informing us. The Starkey Institute avers that Mrs. Starkey’s arrest took place in 2004, and because her record was subsequently expunged the Denver police cannot provide further information. We appreciate your sharing your first-hand account.

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content