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.