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.
Finding good servants was once such a problem in the United States that in 1865 Catharine Beecher, a reformer and authority on domestic life, made a proposal in the pages of this magazine for houses “built on Christian principles”; that is, better designed and organized, so they could be run with only the occasional help of an “assistant.” (This was something of a revolutionary idea in an era of hand-cranked washing machines, fifteen years before gas stoves became affordable, and seventeen years before the iron was electrified — but it was necessary, Beecher asserted, to avoid an epidemic of female laziness and the ruination of children by “ignorant foreigners.”)
The United States never had anything like the English servant class: people did not emigrate to become servants; notwithstanding racial barriers, our class system was fairly fluid; and there were many employment opportunities and cheap land. For most of those in private service, such employment was not a hereditary or even stable vocation but a temporary gig. Nevertheless, the number of servants continued more or less to keep pace with the population until World War II, when able-bodied men were shipped overseas and women, for whom employment up to that point had mostly been in private service, went to work in factories. The postwar economic boom further diverted both jobs and workers from private service, and by 1950 only one in forty-two families had full-time servants, as compared with one in fifteen in 1900. New houses were much smaller and more efficient. The formal dining room and butler’s pantry disappeared; bedrooms shrank and living spaces flowed together. Rising wages, taxes, and energy costs meant that large, old-fashioned estates became too expensive to run.
The recent shift back to servants has happened largely out of sight. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the employment of butlers and house managers, but there has been undeniable growth in the professionalized private-service industry in recent years. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of U.S. billionaires doubled, to 405, and the number of individuals with fortunes of at least $50 million swelled to 45,650. Matthew Haack and Michael Wright founded the Domestic Estate Managers Association in 2006. The association now has more than 2,000 members and estimates that 450,000 houses in the United States have some kind of regular personal staff.
For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students. And perhaps I would like being a servant. I had read somewhere that Patrick Dennis, after blowing the fortune he’d made on his novel Auntie Mame, had ended his life happily as a butler. And a friend in Atlanta had told me that his mother had a wonderful life with her butler/houseman, taking him everywhere with her, on trips to Europe and to exclusive resorts. “Everyone in Atlanta has started using gays,” he assured me.
The school urged students to come prepared to accept a job at the end of the course (though at a cost of $16,795, including a $500 application fee and a nonrefundable $2,800 room-and-board deposit, the urging seemed unnecessary). Rich families who wanted a butler wouldn’t wait. “Are you willing to move?” the admissions office asked me. It was best to be free of attachments, ready to go.
I entered my new life of service on Easter Sunday. Mark Tollison, the institute’s director of admissions, greeted me at the door. A nice-looking man in his fifties, wearing a navy blazer and floral-print tie, he helped me with my luggage. I followed him through a very big kitchen and up a short flight of stairs. Framed photographs of previous Starkey classes lined the walls of the staircase and continued down a broad central hallway on the second floor. “You’re in here,” Tollison said, knocking on the first door to the right. After waiting a moment, he opened the door just as a man in his late thirties, shirtless and wearing plaid boxer shorts, came striding across the room. Short and muscular, with wiry black hair, thick eyebrows, and heavy black-framed glasses, he stuck out his hand and announced his name: David Palmer.1
1 In order to protect the privacy of clients and fellow students, and to abide by the Starkey Institute’s nondisclosure agreement, names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Staff members’ names have not been changed.
David wore a gold signet ring overlapping a wedding band on the little finger of his left hand, and if it’s possible to look dapper when you’re almost naked, he did. He mentioned that working at Christie’s after college had made him decide that he wanted to own some of the objects he was handling, which was why he’d come to Starkey International. I had the impression he’d said it many times before.
Our large room was painted a pale green and had wall-to-wall beige carpeting; most of the furniture looked as if it had come from an estate sale. I unpacked my things until it was time to get ready for orientation. “What do you think, blazer or suit?” I asked. “Definitely a suit,” David answered without hesitation.
In the hall, two well-dressed, crew-cut men who looked like government agents were coming out of the opposite room. Both, in fact, were military aides — enlisted men who act as valets, chefs, and butlers to high-ranking officers. Gary Smith was running the household of a three-star Army general in Washington and had come to Denver for a one-week management course in anticipation of leaving the Army and entering private service. Anthony D’Amico had just returned from South Korea, where he had cooked for a two-star Navy admiral. He was hoping to become a house manager.
Downstairs, we gathered in the living room, all the students — six women and six men — in dark suits. Tollison led the orientation session with Debra Bullock, the director of education, a tall woman with short, heavily moussed hair who looked more than a little like David Bowie.
Tollison started by giving his credentials: an M.B.A., a J.D., and a previous position as an estate manager and consultant overseeing multiple properties, including a 30,000-square-foot house. After that job ended (his employers left the country, and he remained because of family obligations), he enrolled at Starkey as a student and stayed on as a member of the staff.
Bullock, speaking later that day in a downstairs classroom, claimed no advanced degrees. She had come to Starkey from the Brown Palace, Denver’s oldest luxury hotel, built in 1892, where she’d been the head of housekeeping. Together, she and Tollison went through the rules and regulations. We were to address peers and Starkey staff as Mr. or Ms. We would stand whenever a staff member or guest entered a room. And, of course, we would never use the front door. During the business day, we would use the back stairs. We would keep our rooms ready for inspection. We would not smoke cigarettes or drink alcoholic beverages in the house. Dinner was at five thirty, curfew at eleven.
“Placement is a big deal,” Bullock (or rather, Ms. Bullock) said. “Everybody wants to find a great job . . . There are a lot of placement agencies out there, but they don’t have the service-management system that we do. Mrs. Starkey goes into homes to do a site visit and will write a fifty-page report.
“Mrs. Starkey is very passionate about what she does,” she continued. “She makes people cry.”
Most Americans are familiar with servants from British novels and television shows — P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, the BBC series Upstairs Downstairs, and, more recently, Downton Abbey. But the Starkey mansion and its staff are part of a tradition, both feudalistic and paternalistic, reaching back to the Middle Ages, when aristocrats and wealthy gentry were, if you will, the original “job creators.” According to Jeremy Musson, who traces the evolution of the English servant class through the twentieth century in Up and Down Stairs, by the eighteenth century the typical aristocratic household had between thirty and fifty servants; larger country houses employed as many as a hundred. On average, a duke had twenty-six male servants; a baron, fifteen.
English housemaids in the nineteenth century followed strict schedules to stay out of sight, cleaning the public rooms in the morning before the family rose, moving to the bedrooms when family and guests went down to breakfast. Maids were expected to scurry away at their approach. The British academic Rosie Cox writes in The Servant Problem that Lord Crewe of Crewe Hall in Cheshire “gave strict orders that any housemaid seen by his visitors would be instantly dismissed.” Cox suggests that maids were kept out of sight to bolster the sense that aristocrats were “inherently clean, free from any kind of pollution or contamination.”2
2 The back or service stairs were an innovation dating to the seventeenth century, when hiding servants became part of the architectural plan of both country estates and town houses. The back stairs meant, as an English wit wrote, that “the gentry going up the stairs, no longer met their last night’s faeces coming down them.”
Other servants, however, were hired precisely for show. Liveried footmen who served at table and rode on carriages were kitted out with fancy gold braid, fine buckled shoes, and silk stockings. A footman should be tall — the broader his shoulders and the shapelier his calves, the more impressive was the wealth of the employer who could exempt such a specimen from manual labor.
The servant class was as stratified as the aristocracy. At its top sat the steward — the equivalent of today’s estate manager — who looked after the principal residence, administered the tenant farms, and collected rents. He was equal in standing only to the chamberlain, responsible for his master’s most intimate necessities. (Some estates would employ, in addition to a house steward, a land steward and a bailiff, who ran the home farm.) Reporting to the steward was the upper echelon of servants: the butler, the housekeeper, and the clerk of the kitchen, who provisioned the house. The butler looked after the silver and fine glass, managed the wine cellar, and was in charge of the footmen, the valets, and the lady’s maids. (Valets, lady’s maids, and butlers didn’t wear uniforms and had direct and extensive contact with their masters and mistresses, bathing and dressing them and overseeing their wardrobes and personal effects.)
The housekeeper, invariably a woman, saw to it that floors were polished, grates and hearths scrubbed, beds made, windows washed. If there wasn’t a chef, the housekeeper also managed cooks and ran the kitchen. She supervised the china closet, the dairy, and the laundry. (Great houses had enormous amounts of laundry: clothing for the family, uniforms for staff, and fine linens that had to be processed and inventoried.) The groom of chambers, meanwhile, acted as an in-house decorator-conservator, pushing the heirlooms around to best effect. Finally, “odd men” did the heavier work in the house, and a “rubber” was responsible for dry-rubbing the floors.3
3 For purposes of comparison, the Starkey mansion, immediately after its construction as a private residence, in 1901, would likely have been staffed by two maids, a butler, a cook, and a gardener; the butler or gardener would perhaps have done double duty as chauffeur; and a laundress may have come in one or two days a week.
As the British mercantile class became richer in the nineteenth century, they emulated the aristocracy. (And today it is of course largely the mercantile class who employ servants.) By the age of the great industrialists, country houses had come to function with an almost factorylike precision, and the English servant had evolved to a state approaching perfection.
As I waited my turn to stand up and introduce myself to the group, I began to get nervous. I had rewritten my résumé in order to apply for admission, deleting much of my work history in publishing and inventing a past as a property manager. As the story went, I had run a wealthy friend’s portfolio of rental houses in Austin, which gave me experience supervising vendors (electricians, plumbers, carpenters), negotiating contracts, dealing with tenants, paying bills, contesting tax appraisals, and so on. By the time I finished the application process, I almost felt like a different person. Starkey might have accepted me as a former journalist, but a billionaire obsessed with privacy would never have hired me. My fellow students were more impressive than I had expected, most having some sort of university education, and a few possessing so much experience I couldn’t make sense of why they were here.
Mr. Tollison took us on a tour of the mansion. The main floor had a grand hallway, a powder room, a library with fireplace, a formal living room and dining room, a sunporch (used as an office by Mrs. Starkey), a butler’s pantry, and a big utility kitchen with an office for the chef. Its most distinctive feature — the service stairway that connected the three floors of the house — was hidden. The servants in the original household slept on the third floor, but, apart from cleaning the family bedrooms and baths on the second floor and the living areas on the first floor, did much of their work in the kitchen or the basement, where there was a laundry room, workshop, and furnace room.
When the tour was over I went back up to my quarters and found Mr. Palmer already sitting at the desk, in front of his laptop. He had grown up in Boca Raton, Florida, but had spent school vacations in England with his mother and his late stepfather, a retired British Army colonel. “He was,” Mr. Palmer would frequently say, squinting as if either his words or the range of my experience failed him, “an English gentleman.” His mother still “went for the season” and kept a house in Suffolk.
He glanced over his shoulder. “You’ve seen the stuff about Starkey online?”
I had. The local alternative paper, Westword, had published a long story about the Denver police’s 2004 arrest of Mrs. Starkey for grabbing a student by the neck and pulling her in front of a mirror, shouting that she would not have her photo taken for the Starkey website until she did something with her hair. The paper printed Mrs. Starkey’s mug shot, though charges were subsequently dismissed and her record expunged; Mrs. Starkey would later say that, as the Martha Stewart of Denver, she had found herself exposed to the same sort of witch hunt Stewart was facing at the time. Neither of us knew what to make of the stories.
Our first day started at a leisurely nine o’clock in the larger of the two basement classrooms — the men in regulation navy blazers, neckties, and khaki trousers; the women in navy blazers and khaki skirts. Everyone snapped to attention as Ms. Bullock entered, smiling and holding up her palm as if to say we needn’t bother.
She gave us our daily rotation sheets: going forward, we would have a class meeting at seven thirty, then proceed to our job assignments, which we would perform till class began at nine. “Mrs. Starkey wants you to do the jobs [of the people] you will manage,” Ms. Bullock explained. We would stay in each assignment for three or four days, then move to the next position. My name came at the very bottom of the list, matched with KC, kitchen cleaning. Having dispatched the rotations, Bullock told us we would be meeting Mrs. Starkey and the rest of the staff at noon. Clasping her hands together, she demonstrated the proper way to introduce ourselves: “Mrs. Starkey, staff, fellow students, honored guests . . . ” We were then to say our names, where we were from, something about our education and work history, why we had come to Starkey, and what we hoped to accomplish. After Ms. Bullock finished, we took turns practicing, like children preparing for a recital.
The room had five rows of three desks each. In the front row was Tyler Averill, who, having run a catering service for twenty years, had been chosen to be the first student house manager. He was from the rural South; to convey that something happened in the distant past he would say, “That was back when God was just a boy,” and in describing a vacation with family members he might mention, “They fry bacon every morning of the world.” Next to Mr. Averill was the assistant house manager, Mary Anne Fowler. She had grown up on a farm in western Pennsylvania and escaped to the Navy the moment she graduated from high school, eventually retiring with the rank of master sergeant. She had left a position as an assistant estate manager to come to Starkey as a student, and hoped one day to run an estate of her own. I sat in the back row with Doris Brown, a graduate of Texas Christian University who had recently left a position working for a tech mogul in the Bay Area because she had found her work circumstances ethically compromising. Like Gary Smith, she was taking a one-week course at Starkey in hopes of getting placed. Tom and Cheryl Drecker, a couple from Illinois, sat just to our left, behind David Palmer and a young Mongolian woman named Bolormaa Sarangerel. The woman on the aisle, Catherine Miller, had given up her job as a corporate flight attendant for a charter service in Chicago to become a house manager so she could sleep in the same bed every night. To her right sat Dolly Kensington, a large, powerful-looking woman, with her husband, Carl, whose blond hair and crystal-blue eyes made him look like a life-size doll; they had worked together at a hotel. To avoid the cost of two full tuitions, he was coming for just the first week.
As Ms. Bullock started handing out course materials, Mr. Averill, a trim man in his forties with thick gray hair, approached her with a pair of scissors. “Do you mind if I remove that rope from your jacket?” he asked in his Georgia drawl. “It’s just driving me crazy.” The “rope” he was referring to was a piece of thread. A good house manager, I would learn, can walk into a large room and know immediately which chandelier is missing a lightbulb — in the world of service, the scale is vast but the smallest detail reigns supreme. (I had assumed many of the super-rich would be extremely detail-oriented, that this kind of focus contributed to their financial success, but then I heard stories about Starkey clients completely forgetting a house they owned.)
Ms. Bullock defined some of the basic terminology we would use. “Principals” are the owners of a property, the ultimate employers. An “estate manager” runs houses larger than 18,000 square feet or multiple properties; for smaller properties, the job description is “house manager.” The one term we would hear regularly that I never heard Ms. Bullock define was “family office,” a key institution in the world of private service, which refers not to a room in a house but to people. Family offices are private companies set up exclusively to serve the financial and personal needs of one family. The offices employ money managers, lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, and secretaries, who formulate investment strategies, pay taxes, negotiate prenuptials, hire and fire domestic staff, pay bills, and balance checkbooks.
The Greenwich, Connecticut, Family Office Association (FOA), a global organization that provides “peer networking, expert resources, and fresh perspectives on how to maintain vigorous multi-generational wealth,” traces the institution back to the Roman major domus (“head of household”) and the medieval major domo (“chief steward”). The FOA pegs the entry-level fortune necessary to support a family office at $50 million, but most people in private banking put the minimum at $100 million.
“Your principals will be CEOs and billionaires,” Ms. Bullock said, “but they won’t realize they need HR rules in their own house. You will have to train your families, because they don’t know what they need. You have to put the rules in place without making the principals feel you’re changing everything, and that’s an art.”
To maintain boundaries, we had to speak, dress, and carry ourselves with fastidious professionalism, and we had to be on guard when our employers tried to treat us like family. If they urged us to make use of their possessions — a spin in the Bentley, a weekend at the Malibu house, even a swim in the pool — we should under no circumstances consider doing so.
“How do you address your principal?” Ms. Bullock asked rhetorically, before telling us about a site visit she’d once made in Dallas. “The house manager was the only person on the staff allowed to speak to the principal. He had recruited a housekeeper from another position, and on her first day, working in a hallway, she said good morning to the woman of the house as she passed by. At the end of the day, the housekeeper was gone.”
Ms. Bullock encouraged us to share our own experiences. Turning to Mary Anne Fowler, Ms. Bullock asked, “The family you work for, how large is their staff?”
“One hundred people,” Ms. Fowler answered.
“That’s for several houses.” Ms. Fowler wasn’t sure exactly how many, but a minimum of seven, including two in California — one in the desert and another at the beach. Each house had its own estate manager and staff, and a separate company employed workers for backup services — all for a family of four. “It’s complicated, because they’re new money and want to pretend their lives haven’t changed, so none of us can go into the house if the family’s there. The chef goes in to take the food, but it’s prepared at a separate house.”
“People don’t realize they need staff until they buy a twenty-thousand-square-foot house and can’t keep it clean,” said Ms. Bullock. “You have to figure out what your principals’ agenda is and learn to support it. Very often it’s the small things they notice.”
“One of my principals in Washington would get very upset if I bought the wrong size jar of Vaseline,” said Doris Brown. “It had to be the one-and-a-half-ounce size. If I bought another size, she wasn’t happy.”
Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.
At noon, we trooped upstairs to the living room and lined up before Mrs. Starkey. A somewhat stout woman of about sixty, she was sitting in one of the armchairs at the center of the room, wearing flats and a black velour pantsuit, a cup of coffee resting at her side on a cushion. Her hair and makeup were impressively styled, and her left upper lip was a little swollen. Nine staff members stood behind her.
When we completed our introductions — Mrs. Starkey, staff, fellow students — she began to speak, without rising from her chair. “I want you to know that I love you,” she said in a very loud voice. “I love each and every one of you. I love you because I need you. I can use each and every one of you. Every day I have people calling, looking for good staff. I can’t keep up with the demand. And the way this industry is growing! This industry has . . . ” She shifted slightly so that her coffee cup slipped and threatened to tip over, eliciting a collective gasp from her staff as several rushed toward her. Securing the cup with her left hand, Mrs. Starkey smiled and resumed. “Sixty percent of the training here is psychological. Our clients are some of the richest people in the country, celebrities, famous people.” She extended her left hand above her head. “My clients are way up here, and this is where you are.” She raised her right hand to just below shoulder level. “The training I’m going to give you, the professional vocabulary, will put you on a more equal footing.” She raised her right hand so that it was higher but still well below the level of her client. “I’m going to bring you up to here.”
She told us that we would be professionals. We would not use the term “domestic” (which, I assumed, would bring to mind slavery). We would not refer to anyone as “help.” We would not talk about “maids.” Maids were now “housekeepers.”
Mrs. Starkey considers herself a pioneer and a reformer, but she has tapped into a strain of nostalgia with a long and virulent history in the United States: a yearning for the golden age of service. As Donald E. Sutherland points out in his book Americans and Their Servants, this “glorious era” is and always has been imaginary. And there has been no agreement on when it actually existed:
No matter where one stood in time, it was always a generation or two in the past . . . For many years, the ideal servant had supposedly lived at the time of the American Revolution or during the early years of the Republic.
Sutherland found that for much of the nineteenth century some private houses employed as many as forty servants, but that most upper-middle-class families got by with one or two. By 1900, there were 1.5 million — almost all of them women, just as almost all women who earned a wage were servants (the average was about four cents an hour, around five dollars in today’s money). During the 1870s and 1880s, the new tycoons of railroads, oil, and manufacturing built mansions and estates. If not so much a golden age, this was at least the peak of private service in America; to find servants, middle- and upper-class Americans relied on “intelligence offices” that specialized in different types of workers, recent immigrants to the cities — Irish, Chinese, African Americans from the South. Most towns of any size had at least one intelligence office, and larger cities had hundreds. Some of these offices, like Starkey, specialized in placing servants with only the richest households.
The morning of our second day, our training began in earnest. I reported to the kitchen, where I encountered a massive man with a shaved head, a gray goatee, and a big stomach in a white chef’s tunic. His lively eyes were the color of mirrored aviator lenses. This was William Althoff, our chef and cooking instructor. During his Navy career, he had been assigned to the White House and cooked for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. He commuted to Starkey from Colorado Springs, where he lived with his wife and children and worked as a youth minister at a local church. I quickly learned to address and refer to him as Chef, as if it were his name.
I put on a long black apron and started unloading the first of two dishwashers. Anthony D’Amico was the student chef, and Tricia Berlin was the student sous-chef. Formerly a freelance graphic designer, Ms. Berlin had left Chicago after 9/11 because she wanted to live in a smaller city. When her design work began to dwindle, she went to culinary school.
My job in the butler’s pantry included brewing two kinds of coffee and making sure that there was sugar and cream. I’d never worked in a restaurant and didn’t know how to use the commercial coffeemakers, one of which, under Ms. Fowler’s watchful gaze, I promptly broke.
Both Debra Bullock and Mrs. Starkey had told us that private service is “the highest level of service” and that the level now available is “the highest it has ever been.” Compared with what? I wondered. Such an absolute statement made me skeptical. But after a few days at Starkey, I began to realize that private service can be tailored with almost unbelievable exactitude to the wishes and needs of one individual or family. The relationship is long-term, so the employee grows to know his principals so well that he can anticipate whatever they might want. When perfectly executed, this kind of service relieves the principal of all mundane tasks, concerns, and annoyances, thus creating a domestic environment entirely free of superfluous friction.
To eliminate such friction, the first week of class Debra Bullock introduced us to the Starkey HQ Service Management Software, which provides a quick look at how complicated the lives of the rich can be. Ideally, the software allows estate managers to create a vast living document that will tell them everything they might possibly need to know about the operation of a household: who should be where at any given time, what is being done, and what needs to be done.
In learning to be estate and house managers, we would create files on all members of the family, listing everything from birthdays to club associations to drug prescriptions to blood types. We would keep records on the people who worked in the house and the vendors who came regularly — tutors, dog-walkers, arborists, florists. We would also keep files on family friends and frequent visitors. Did they drink scotch, bourbon, or cognac? Were they vegetarian, vegan? Were they allergic to peanuts, seafood, certain fabric softeners? We would both script and document parties and events in the house — guest lists, menus, flowers, china, silver, crystal, shopping. When major festivities loom, the software lets you pull up the files to see what was done before, who did it, and how.
We were expected to maintain daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules. Each morning there is a set of tasks for opening the house — turning off exterior lights, disarming security systems, pulling drapes, bringing in newspapers, emptying ashtrays — and every evening there are routines for closing. We also made lists of personal services provided to the principals: drawing baths, setting out medications, polishing eyeglasses. We were told it was important to walk through the property often. In the world of vast mansions and rambling estates, there are frequent stories of floors collapsing because of a leak in a spare bathroom.
In starting a new position, Ms. Bullock told us, we must learn the schedules and routines of the principals so as to work around them. For the purposes of cleaning, we should divide the house into contiguous zones whose surfaces or furnishings required the same treatment. Next, the house manager should design a weekly cleaning schedule that permitted each room to receive a light cleaning and one or two rooms to receive a deep cleaning — furniture moved, rugs shampooed, windows and sills washed, floors buffed. As long as there is sufficient money, maintenance is never deferred. You never wait for paint to show its age; you upgrade appliances after a set number of years or model improvements. Carpets should never look as if they need to be replaced. Everything must be pristine and fresh.
“You will know everything about your principals’ lives,” said Ms. Bullock. “Everything! And at a certain point that becomes your job security, because they don’t want you to talk.”
At lunch, I found myself sitting next to Bolormaa Sarangerel. “My name is Miss Sharon,” she would say every time we ritually reintroduced ourselves. “I live in Mankato, Minnesota. I am from country Mongolia.” She had come to the United States to attend a community college in Los Angeles and was old enough — about thirty — to remember her native country under socialism. “Everyone was pretty much the same, but only a few could leave Mongolia, and we didn’t know much about the outside world. Now there are very, very rich people,” she said, her voice filled with wonder, “and very poor. We prefer the freedom, but I never could have imagined how hard people have to work here.”
Catherine Miller, the former flight attendant, was chirping about sports cars, comparing Mercedes SLs and Porsches. She volunteered that a recent boyfriend had told her he was breaking up with her because she was too fat, which I found preposterous.
“Did your boyfriend have money?” asked Ms. Fowler. “If he had money, he knew he could get younger women.”
After dinner that night, David Palmer and I went out for a drink with Anthony D’Amico and Gary Smith. Mr. D’Amico, who had served in Iraq, was scrambling for stability after his return from South Korea and discharge from the Army. He had been raised by a single mother and was divorcing a wife who was pregnant with another man’s child. Military aides with several years’ experience were fairly easy to place with principals, and Mr. D’Amico was happy because Chef had told him about a family in Virginia looking to hire a live-in cook.
Tall and lanky with an easy smile, Mr. Smith had gone to culinary school, then joined the Navy, volunteering to serve on a nuclear sub. He liked working for his admiral in Washington and was happily married. Things were going his way, and he felt confident that with Starkey on his résumé and placing him, he would get a great job after he left the Navy.
All three agreed that Mrs. Starkey had “really created something” with her school and that we didn’t need to worry about competing with one another, because we were all different and all the jobs required a particular kind of experience or type of person. Most house managers start at around $60,000 to $80,000, and estate managers usually earn salaries in the six figures. (In one of the telephone conversations I had with the admissions office before leaving Austin, I was told that a Starkey graduate who was a retired lieutenant colonel — which branch, I don’t recall — had landed a position paying more than $200,000, but that this was exceptional.) Mrs. Starkey would charge an employer 30 percent of the first year’s salary as a placement fee, which she presented as a good thing for students hired on a trial basis — fewer employers might want to pay Starkey’s comparatively high fee, but those who did would be less inclined to send the Starkey grad back.
I assumed that graduation from Starkey would ensure me a job, and I didn’t question what at the same time seemed too good to be true. Although the admissions process had been extremely rigorous, requiring background checks, detailed employment histories, letters of recommendation, and application essays, when I arrived at the mansion, it seemed no one had actually read my file. Ms. Bullock was barely familiar with it.
A good number of students are typically hired on graduating (Mrs. Starkey claims placement rates as high as 95 percent). Others who may find work by the end of the first year may not necessarily do so through Starkey. And the last category decide (after trying how hard or how long isn’t exactly clear) they aren’t suited for private service.
Searching the job listings on the Starkey website one afternoon, I saw that in addition to our class there were former graduates waiting in the wings. While cleaning the placement office, I noticed anxiously that there were only eight hot prospects listed on a whiteboard — eight jobs. When I asked the placement director about these numbers, he assured me they were only the hottest, latest prospects.
Debra Bullock told us that our next project was to use the Starkey software “to write a book” that would be a vision of our ideal position. “It can be whatever you want,” she told us. “It can be a real house and family you know, or something you imagine.” Anthony D’Amico decided his principal would be Bruce Wayne. Mary Anne Fowler would do hers on the house she’d helped run in Palm Springs. I conjured up as my principals Reid and Mimi Williams, who lived in a 12,000-square-foot apartment at 63rd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. He was a partner at Goldman Sachs; she, a civic leader and philanthropist. I had to decide immediately how much staff we would have and of what sort. There would be housekeepers, of course, and a personal assistant for Mimi, but would there be a chef or would I do the cooking? How often did they have dinner parties? Would they keep a car in the city? Would they have a chauffeur? How did he get to work? How did they get to their house in the Hamptons on weekends? How much did they travel and where did they go? Did they own a jet?
Happily, the Starkey Household Management Bible provides formulas and rule-of-thumb baselines for calculating staffing needs. For example, it takes four hours to clean 2,000 square feet once a week. There are variables that might increase the number of hours. Are there children in the house? Pets? Are there vast collections of precious objets requiring meticulous dusting?
The baseline for administration (planning, organization) is two hours per day for a family of four. On average, a meal for a family of four takes two hours for preparation and cleanup. To run one load of laundry and then dry, fold, and put away the clothes takes one and three quarter hours. Ironing a man’s shirt is fifteen minutes. Car transportation for a family of four equals sixty hours per week. Each formal dinner equals twelve hours. Every acre of landscaped grounds equals six and three quarter hours.
After dinner that first Thursday, I drove Doris Brown to Walgreen’s to buy tape and wrapping paper. Despite Debra Bullock’s injunction against speaking a principal’s name, Ms. Brown told me that her first position had been with Ethel Kennedy. As a law student at American University, Ms. Brown had responded to an ad for a summer job and was hired to run a household of seventeen at Hyannis Port — “We had two people doing laundry twenty-four hours a day.” At the end of the summer, she returned to Hickory Hill, the Kennedy estate in Virginia. From there, she went to work for Mrs. Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Eunice Shriver.
Her only reason for being at Starkey was placement. She had gotten two interviews via Craigslist with billionaire principals, but Mrs. Starkey had the reputation of finding the best positions at the highest salaries. As I followed Ms. Brown through the aisles of Walgreen’s, I asked whether she understood why principals felt so entitled. “Sure,” she said. “If you thought you were changing the world, you’d be the same.”
Upstairs in our room, Mr. Palmer was once again sitting at his desk. “Did you hear what Mark Tollison said at dinner? He told us we didn’t know what we were getting into. Everyone at that end of the table who could hear what he was saying looked sick. You know, he’s a lawyer. I think this is full disclosure. Before I signed up for this, I talked to him several times on the telephone. I questioned him very carefully about the jobs. Did they exist? Did they pay well? He kept telling me what a great career I was choosing. I think now he’s trying to cover himself.”
The following morning at the student meeting, Mary Anne Fowler had grave news for us. Someone had left a bloody tampon in the powder-room trash can without wrapping it in toilet paper. “This is very serious. What if a guest had looked in the trash can?” she asked, her face stricken as she tried to imagine the consequences. We had already been scolded at a student meeting about the rapid depletion of clean hand towels in the ground-floor powder room; the towels had to be laundered and ironed, so we students were told instead to use the paper towels in the cabinet beneath the sink.
Now a new conversation ensued about the powder room. Perhaps there hadn’t been toilet paper? Who was responsible for the powder room? Whose work rotation was that? Did everyone know where the extra rolls of toilet paper were kept? At what point should a roll be replaced? Half empty? Three-quarters empty? The soon-to-be-exhausted rolls should be put in the cabinet with the fresh rolls, and students should make an effort to use the former. Was the roll in the dispenser being peaked? Did everyone have to peak the paper every time they used the toilet? Did everyone know how to peak toilet paper?
At our student meeting Friday morning, Debra Bullock announced that Mrs. Starkey had decided the powder room would be off-limits to students; her office was near it, and she didn’t like finding it occupied. From now on, those of us living in the house would use only our own bathrooms. We then proceeded to the powder room for a lesson in the three ways to peak a roll of toilet paper. All of us crowded around the toilet while Ms. Fowler demonstrated.
It was going to be a big day in the mansion. In addition to our work rotations and morning classes, and our afternoon exam, we had to turn in the first part of our books, and Mrs. Starkey was going to teach a class after we celebrated her birthday.
We gathered in the living room for cake and shortly thereafter adjourned to the classroom. Mrs. Starkey began to tell her story — how she had moved to Denver, married a schoolteacher, and had two sons. “I trained in community-services development. I took God by the scruff of the neck and asked him for something to do. I left my husband . . . I was pretty lost, but I knew in my gut that I was meant to do something. I have a world vision. I have the energy of a forty-year-old. Why? Because I’m following my bliss. I get helped every single day by the universe and by God.
“I started peeling the onion, Jungian analysis. You may not know about that. The process is to peel the onion until you get to the core. In my office, you’ll see a picture of Golda Meir. I had a dream, six times, of a teapot that kept getting brighter and brighter. The person in the dream sent me the message that she was Golda. She lived in Denver when she was about sixteen. She was starting a movement when she was sixteen. I moved to Denver when I was nineteen. I found out what I was going to do and have been doing it ever since. You can beat me up, throw me away, but I’m not going away.”
She then told us about a client, a billionaire, who had a 20,000-square-foot house in the canyons above Malibu. “He has a master French gardener,” she said, rolling her eyes and slapping her face in amazement. “I just can’t tell you what that means, what a big deal a master French gardener is. I know all the billionaires and multimillionaires, the real wealth in this country. I have a proposal next week for a Vegas hotel to teach sixty butlers. I have a new agreement with China for education companies throughout China. I’ve had forty offers on my desk for reality-television shows. Producers are flying in next week, but I’ve made up my mind. That’s not my style.”
From time to time she would pause to wonder about “Mr. Smith”; where was Mr. Smith? “You don’t know it,” she confided in us, “but sometimes I really fall for one of you.”
At one point, talking about feeling lost, she looked as if she was going to cry. She touched the track pad of a laptop on the desk, and images began to appear on the wall behind her, pictures of the school, the staff, and former students. When she came to a photo of a handsome black man, a Starkey student, standing next to a Rolls-Royce, she pretended to swoon, saying what a big crush she had had on him. “It was really a problem. I finally had to arrange a couple of dates for myself to chill out.” Then she added, “I could really get a big crush on Mr. Smith. Where is he?”
Upstairs, Gary Smith waved me into his room, where he had his bags packed. “She won’t place me,” he said. “When I applied, they said they would place me, but now Mrs. Starkey says I have to come back for four more weeks.”
He shrugged. “She’s manic-depressive.” (A staff member would later offer the same casual diagnosis with the same shrug.)
I waited for Doris Brown to come in from taking Mrs. Starkey to dinner. She was leaving the next morning, and I was eager to get a sense of her impressions. When she arrived, she was especially pleased that she had been able to put in a good word for me with Mrs. Starkey. “She wanted to know if you were Old Guard.”
“I told her you were very well-bred.”
Without Mrs. Starkey’s approval, I realized, the chances of being placed were remote, though if the perfect position came up for a student she didn’t like (I hoped, given that already I fit that description), she would place the student rather than forgo her fee.
At dinner on my first Sunday night at the mansion, Tyler Averill recounted how Mrs. Starkey had called him over to her chair at her birthday party.
“She whispered to me, ‘Are you gay?’ And I answered, ‘Yes, Mrs. Starkey, I am.’ She said, ‘Good, I thought so.’ I guess she’s thinking about placement for me.”
“A lot of employers specify gay,” said Cheryl Drecker, echoing my source in Atlanta.
“Yes, it’s because we’re all so anal,” Mr. Averill said. I remembered the “rope” on Debra Bullock’s jacket that had driven him, by his own later admission, half crazy. “And I guess a lot of principals like to have gay employees so they don’t have to worry about their teenage daughters.”
“And husbands don’t have to worry about their wives,” Ms. Fowler added.
Monday morning, after our work rotations, we began our cooking class with Chef, who taught us knife skills, the difference between small dice, julienne, and brunoise, and how to carry a butcher knife safely in a crowded kitchen. We learned about mise en place — having all your ingredients out and together before beginning to cook.
We prepared lunch during class, then went to our rooms to change clothes, which on some days we did two or three times. Then we stood behind our chairs in the dining room for a full fifteen minutes, waiting for Mrs. Starkey to come in. When she finally joined us, she started to talk in her booming voice about the people in Malibu who had the master French gardener.
“These people are billionaires,” she kept saying. “Billionaires! I have a big personality. I know that. But I have to have a big personality to stand up to people like this.”
She mentioned the Malibuan’s billions so often that at last I asked where the money came from, assuming she would answer in generalities — oil, software, real estate.
But she immediately offered up the client’s name, as well as the company from which his wealth derived.
Taken by surprise, I repeated the name of the principal back to her.
She clapped her hand over her mouth and rolled her eyes with an impish, shame-on-me expression. She had broken a cardinal rule. She then went on to say that although the house was fabulous, there would be renovation projects. This being California, most of the workers would be Mexican, and because Mexicans were “macho,” the house manager would need to be a man, because Mexicans wouldn’t respect a woman. “I think Mr. Averill would be right for this style of job,” she announced. “Isn’t Mr. Averill wonderful? Isn’t he wonderful?”
Why Mr. Averill instead of Mr. Palmer or Mr. D’Amico? Why not me? I spoke fluent Spanish. Even more unbalancing than the fleeting glimpses of such tantalizing leads was the fact that some of these high-roller principals Mrs. Starkey bandied about were apparently composites or fabrications designed to test and motivate us.
Moving on, she said, in a flirtatious voice, “I talked to the Kensingtons’ principal in New York. I think I have something interesting for them.” She was teasing Mrs. Kensington with the hope of a job while flaunting the prospects of a position in front of the other students. Given that everyone at the table was desperate for employment, I found myself as shocked by her performance as by the students who played along by groveling.
I would wake in the mornings in a fury. Why didn’t anyone see what was happening? Mrs. Starkey says she’s training us to be professionals but treats us like servants. I considered trying to incite a revolt, but they had paid nearly $17,000 for her eight-week course, had perhaps even taken out loans. They had no choice.
After lunch Mrs. Starkey came to the basement to teach the first session of a class called the Personal Statement, and I noticed that she had what appeared to be the casing of a black bean stuck to one of her front teeth. I figured Tyler Averill was noticing nothing else. I was waiting for him to jump to his feet and ask to remove it.
Debra Bullock had moved me into Gary Smith’s seat in the front row, so I was sitting directly before Mrs. Starkey. “I was raised in the Midwest,” she shouted, “which means I’ve got a Puritan work ethic. I like to work. And I was raised a Catholic. When I put my name on something, I’d better do it. And when I’m late for something, I feel bad.”
“And you should,” I muttered carelessly.
I didn’t think she’d heard and was astonished when she wheeled on me, wanting to know what I’d said.
“I was agreeing with you,” I offered, equivocating. “If you’re late, you feel bad.”
“No, that is not what you said!” she shouted. “You were trying to make me feel bad! You can’t do that in my place.”
I apologized, but that wasn’t enough. Later that week, Chef torpedoed me in the kitchen. As the student chef, I had begun preparing lunch during my morning work rotation, then gone to class for three hours as required. That was how it worked. We started the meal, and he finished it while we were in class. But when I went upstairs, he announced angrily that lunch would be late and that it was my fault. It didn’t matter that I had followed his directions or that he had switched a recipe; there was no court of appeals.
Some staff members, the ones who didn’t deal directly with the students, seemed to feel uncomfortable about what was happening. It was visible on their faces. Why are you submitting to this? Why are you paying for this? Occasionally they would offer support or sympathy. “None of this is about you,” Mark Tollison told me. “It’s all about her. If the right job comes up for you and she can place you, she’ll forget that any of this happened.”
Watching Downton Abbey, I had never imagined myself as Thomas, the handsome evil valet (now risen to under-butler), smoking cigarettes and conspiring outside the kitchen door with O’Brien, the evil lady’s maid. Yet that was how I felt when I encountered Theresa Swaim, the admissions administrator, while she was having a smoke in the alley. She had been friendly on the telephone when I was applying for the course, and now she asked whether Mrs. Starkey was setting up any interviews for me. I said there weren’t any I knew of. “Oh, that’s too bad,” she said. “You have such a great résumé.”
I replied that I was under the impression Mrs. Starkey didn’t have time to read résumés.
“She should read them. She has time to screen all our outgoing email.”
As a pack, the students turned on their weakest member. I wasn’t sure who initiated this, but Debra Bullock and Chef began to grimace and frown whenever Catherine Miller asked a question. She wasn’t coping with the stress. She wasn’t sleeping. Her nerves frayed; she occasionally snapped at other students, and she had a difficult time listening in class, where she had a propensity to ask the very question that had just been answered. “What is mise en place?” she might say just as Chef finished explaining the term. I did my share of eye-rolling but eventually started to worry for her well-being. The conversation would stop when she walked into the room. The moment she walked out, the sniping would begin.
A poisonous mood pervaded the house the day of our first class in flower arranging, the second week of the course. “So there’s going to be a reality-television show after all,” Helga Day announced as we gathered around the big table in the middle of the laundry room. Mark Tollison had described Day as being “really like Mrs. Starkey’s mother,” and there was a discernible similarity. Having worked as Mrs. Starkey’s personal housekeeper for more than twenty years, Ms. Day shared her principal’s facial expressions, affected the same wide-eyed stare of innocence, and tended to scold at great volume. Ms. Day was from Berlin and sounded a bit like Marlene Dietrich. She referred often to her advanced age and had a risqué sense of humor, which made one even more aware of her large, bullet-shaped breasts. She told the men in the class she hated for us to “cover [our] privates” when we put on aprons.
“Really?” I asked. “A reality show? But Mrs. Starkey said —”
“Chef thinks Mrs. Starkey’s ripping him off. He’s hiring his own publicist. The producers are coming this week.”
And indeed two producers, a middle-aged man and a younger woman, arrived at the mansion. Mrs. Starkey brought them down to the classroom, where we took turns introducing ourselves: “Mrs. Starkey, Ms. Bullock, honored guests, my name is . . . ”
That was the last we heard about a reality show. Mrs. Starkey went on a two-week vacation — to Virginia Beach, New York City, or China, depending on whom you asked — leaving us to proceed with our classes on dusting, making beds, and cleaning bathrooms. After we finished scrubbing a toilet and a tile bathroom floor, Ms. Bullock turned on an ultraviolet light that made the remaining organic matter glow. She taught us how to iron a shirt and how to steam clothes (suits should be steamed and brushed more often than they are sent to the dry cleaner, which harms the fabric). We learned to sew on buttons, making sure that the thread pattern on the replaced button matched the pattern on the other ones — it might be an X or a square, or an X inside a square, but under no circumstances should the new button differ from the others! Designer clothing should be sent only to high-end dry cleaners who remove buttons for cleaning or wrap them in tinfoil. Couture gowns should be stored flat, wrapped in acid-free paper. On hangers, dresses have been known to stretch in length as much as three inches.
“I’ve never been in a house where closets weren’t a major issue,” Ms. Bullock told us. “These closets look like stores! Every house I’ve been in has clothing issues. The staff puts away clothes in the wrong places.” She discovered on one of her consulting jobs in Dallas that the principal received what seemed like daily deliveries from her personal shopper at Neiman Marcus. The staff put the clothes away without the principal ever seeing them.
Closets lined with Kevlar now double as safe rooms in mansions, and for clients with extensive wardrobes and multiple addresses there are “cyber closets.” One company, Garde Robe, offers climate-controlled storage lofts, archiving and preservation, and luggage packing and shipping. With access to a “cyber closet,” the client can be in Nantucket, Aspen, or Paris and easily summon the sequined Balenciaga stilettos.
Dwight Tjornhom, Mrs. Starkey’s personal assistant, gave a class on cars and transportation. A Starkey grad, he had worked as a butler in London and for Henry Kravis and A. Alfred Taubman in New York City. Pale and balding, he always looked as if he were trying to disappear. He showed us how to open a car door, where to stand, and how to hold out an arm to offer assistance. If there wasn’t a travel manager on staff, we could engage one through a high-end agency. (Mary Anne Fowler’s principals had both a travel manager and a flight department.)
Some of Mrs. Starkey’s favorite students used the mansion as a safety net between jobs. Andrew Hoffman, another butler, was back from a placement with a Houston couple. Hired to work in Texas, he found himself in Camden, Maine, where his principal, a man in his seventies, entertained guests by firing cannons over his yachts as they sailed past the house and staging dogfights over the bay with antique planes. The wife was an entertainer in her own right and made the staff address her as Marilyn to help her get into character for a one-night performance she was giving at the local theater, which the couple had bought and remodeled for that purpose. To support these fantasies, Mr. Hoffman needed to work six or seven days a week for as long as they wanted him. “It’s what I do,” he said. “People have their hobbies.”
When Mrs. Starkey returned from vacation, she stalked through the kitchen, scowling at the students. “I know exactly what’s been going on here,” she announced. “I know exactly who’s happy and who’s unhappy. I could see all of you here.”
We still had our morning meeting and work rotations, but we started going on frequent field trips around Denver — to a store that sold fine linens, the fur department at Neiman Marcus, a stationer, an art restorer, an Oriental-rug shop. At Denver’s fanciest dry cleaner, the proprietor explained that because of the great care they practiced, customers all over the United States shipped their clothes there. She pointed to a six-foot stack of boxes and said they were table linens sent from Durango by Colorado’s wealthiest family. As we toured Denver’s private-jet terminal, the facility’s manager gazed at a beautiful blue-and-white Beechcraft King Air waiting in a hangar. “We’ve had it six months,” he said, “and the new owner still hasn’t come to see it.”
To complete our training we would participate in two formal dinners, which would count as a significant part of our final evaluation. At our first practice session, which lasted five hours, Debra Bullock introduced us to “mirrored service,” a kind of choreographed dance in which all six servers — there would be six for twelve guests — move simultaneously, following visual cues from the captain, who stands between the entrance of the butler’s pantry and the principals’ head of table, while a wine steward stands at attention at the opposite end of the room. Like marionettes, we had to step in on the same foot and bow down with a platter, our left hand pushed smartly halfway up our backs. “And do we speak to the guests we’re serving?” I asked.
“If they ask a question, yes, you reply,” Ms. Bullock answered.
The dinners would have nine courses, and we would use four different styles of service — French, Russian, English, and American. French was the most difficult: the waiter must balance a platter in the palm of his right hand while holding a large serving tongs in his left hand and leaning down to serve — a tricky maneuver unless you’re left-handed or ambidextrous. The Russian style is relatively easy: the waiter holds the platter in his left hand, and the guest serves his own plate. In the English style, the host serves at the head of the table and passes plates around, whereas in the American style, the food arrives at the table already plated.
Each table setting would have a place card, salad fork, meat fork, fish fork, salad knife, meat knife, fish knife, soupspoon, charger, wineglasses, water glass, napkin, and individual salt and pepper shakers. The unbreakable rule of formal table setting: “Everything must be symmetrically spaced.” The plates should be one inch from the edge of the table and at least two feet apart from plate center to plate center. The yardsticks came out during our second practice session, and we somehow spent forty minutes determining the true center of the table.
We began to see more of Mrs. Starkey when we started our family-tree and “service vision” assignment. For family tree, we examined our personal histories to determine the origins of our service hearts, which I interpreted to mean: Find the trauma or wound that explains a desire for subordination. Debra Bullock told us that Mrs. Starkey appreciated some drama and tears; most of us resisted baring our souls, though one of the men broke down weeping as he talked about a death in his family.
Another exercise, “service style,” was a continuation of our book projects. We were to stand before Mrs. Starkey and the class, introduce ourselves (yet again), recount the experience that qualified us for service, and describe the position we saw ourselves in. What was our service style? “Fast-paced, intense, direct” — New York style? “Casual and familiar, with no clear definition of roles” — California style? Or “Family and socially centered, either patriarchal or matriarchal” — Southern style? Were we suited for an Old Guard family (accustomed to servants), a Legacy family (inherited wealth), a New Wealth family, or International Wealth? Would we be estate managers, butlers, valets, or house managers? What job skills had we perfected?
Part of the personal-statement course consisted of mock interviews, which the first student sailed through with hardly a hitch. I was second up and was just getting started when Mrs. Starkey began shouting, “No, no, no! That’s wrong! Start over!”
The more she shouted, the more flustered and humiliated I became. By the time it was over, I could barely speak, and seeing other students receive the same treatment was no consolation. To cheer us on, Ms. Bullock assured us, “Mrs. Starkey’s really good at telling you what you’re worth.” Then, with a small laugh, she added, “She’s the one who sells you.”
The verbal hazing was rationalized as preparation for job interviews, which, to my increasing dismay, I wasn’t getting. The billionaire in California with the master French gardener evaporated; he wanted a house manager who was educated. Mr. Averill, meanwhile, was going to be sent to a French-Iranian woman who had a reputation, per student gossip, for “going through staff.” This principal had houses in Big Sur, Ojai, and Palm Springs, and six Porsche SUVs, two at each house. The job would be that of butler/personal assistant, following the principal from house to house. The Kensingtons had a Skype interview for a situation that would have required Dolly to live in Manhattan while Carl lived in the Hamptons. Not ideal, but nothing came of it anyway. The Dreckers had possibilities, but it seemed Mrs. Starkey had yet to notice some of the other students.
The days grew warm as spring came on strong in Denver, and in the rare moments we got to leave the mansion, the entire city appeared to be celebrating. We spent more and more of our time preparing for the first dinner: planning the menu, choosing china patterns and wines, polishing silver. That morning, Debra Bullock had us clean the chandeliers. To remove the folds from the linen tablecloth, two ironing boards were set up at one end of the dining table so that the linen could be pressed as it was drawn into place. By the time we finished, the table looked splendid, with crystal and silver and low arrangements of pink tulips.
Mrs. Starkey arrived at about three that afternoon, carrying on a hanger a gauzy “serape” that had swirling vivid stripes of orange, green, and black. She had to wear something flamboyant, of course, because the guests were a gay men’s civic group. Proceeding to the dining table, eyes darting, she looked for flaws. “Now, the main question,” she said, turning to the students. “Does this support your principal? Does this support me?” I feared for a moment that she would demand everything be redone, that we rush out and buy Fiesta ware, but the assembled students insisted that the formal table with the delicate pink flowers was a perfect setting.
That evening, the pocket doors between the living and dining rooms were closed so that the guests wouldn’t see the table as they arrived. Mrs. Starkey wore red pumps, black leggings, the swirling serape, and a bustier for maximum cleavage. Her face stony, she looked miserable, sitting alone in the living room surrounded by her guests, all in tuxedos, talking among themselves. My first assignment for the evening was to assist in serving the Starkey house cocktail — Lillet and champagne with a slice of orange. Everyone on the Starkey staff was working. Mark Tollison, wearing a business suit, was on the street parking cars. All the students wore black bow ties, black vests over white shirts, black trousers, and black soft-soled shoes.
The pocket doors opened wide enough for the captain, Tricia Berlin, to step out and read the evening’s menu. As she announced, “Dinner is served,” the doors slid open to reveal the table, looking more splendid still with the candles lit.
The servers lined up in the butler’s pantry under Ms. Bullock’s supervision. On cue, we filed into the kitchen, which was set up like a command center, strips of tape marking where we could and couldn’t cross. We stopped at the first strip, waiting for our signal, then proceeded to a work island, where the soup course waited. Filing back into the butler’s pantry, we waited until Mrs. Starkey nodded to the captain, who pressed gently on the door to the butler’s pantry — our cue to file around the table to our places. Mirrored service might be sublime if your guests are accustomed to it, but otherwise it’s a distraction. Every diner watched us intently, trying to figure out how we all knew to move at the exact same moment. We used all four styles of service.
After dinner, I went around the living room serving coffee, chocolates, and liqueur. Chef, wearing a tuxedo, had sat at the foot of the table opposite Mrs. Starkey. Now he was talking to some of the men, laughing, enjoying himself. As I passed by, he was saying, “The one thing you never do is lay a hand on a student.”
I knew he was discussing Mrs. Starkey when I passed a moment later and he was talking about mug shots.
“What are you going to do when you’ve just started to work and your principal says that she’s told you there are going to be guests and she hasn’t?” Mark Tollison asked us. “What are you going to do when she says she’s told you that you have to pick them up at the airport and she hasn’t? What are you going to do when your contract says you’re not supposed to work weekends and they insist you work weekends? That will happen; they’ll forget the contract as soon as they sign it. With these extremely rich couples, at least one of them is likely to be crazy.” He advised us to always have enough money saved to survive three months’ unemployment.
“Why would they be crazy?” I asked. “Is it the money?”
“It might be genetics. You don’t usually get rich by being nice.”
I dreaded the dinner parties and dreaded even more my rotation as house manager, which would account for the last four days of our course. As house manager, in addition to many other duties, I had to perform a long list of personal services for Mrs. Starkey: prepare a morning brief to place on her desk, place a glass of water on her desk before her arrival, greet her when she arrived, make coffee and tea as requested, deliver mail to her desk, put out her pills, clean her eyeglasses, determine her lunch and dinner needs, notify her of when meals would be served, turn her car around so that she could get out of the driveway at night, escort her to her car. I also had to sit next to her at the dinner table and serve her meals on a tray in her office if she wasn’t coming to the dining room.
None of this would have been particularly difficult or unpleasant had it not unavoidably brought me into much closer proximity to Mrs. Starkey. The indelible moment came with me standing in the doorway to her office as she screamed at Dwight Tjornhom, who was at the desk facing hers. She had to have a certain computer file immediately. He looked desperate, his face more ashen even than usual as he scrolled through his cell phone looking for it. “What good are you?” she yelled at the hapless assistant. “What good are you?”
I stepped away from the door to wait for the storm to pass, but it didn’t. Mrs. Starkey’s screaming could be heard throughout the house. Steven Bennett, the head of placement, arrived. One of Mrs. Starkey’s mercurial billionaires would consider hiring one of her people, but only if it happened immediately. Mr. Bennett came and went several times, doing his best to avoid Mrs. Starkey’s wrath. I had no idea what to do. I had to be there; I had to serve her. Desperate to be helpful, Mr. Bennett finally asked Mrs. Starkey if she was going to want lunch. “Is someone trying to use you?” she demanded. “Is someone out there trying to get you to do their job?”
“No. I volunteered,” he answered.
She finally glanced past him to acknowledge my presence. “Mr. Davidson, if you can’t see I’m busy then you’re not looking.”
Like George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Starkey appeared to me to believe that servants weren’t worth having if you had to treat them like human beings. But maybe she, too, was scrambling to make ends meet and getting bullied by someone with power.
I was counting down the days and the hours until we graduated. And every morning a crisis would loom, something that in any other context would be insignificant. A bow had to be tied on a package. A pan of brownies had to be baked. In retrospect, it all sounds fairly silly, but I had never been so exhausted or demoralized. I could do nothing right. When I received a text message from my agent saying she had found a publisher interested in my novel, it was like a voice from a distant world.
That final week, I realized that despite my passing grades, Mrs. Starkey might withhold my certificate. She had told me in class that — coming from egalitarian Austin — I didn’t have the right attitude to serve the rich. Although I would still have the work experience, I didn’t want to leave with my ego tattered, and I still hoped to find a job. The day of graduation, we received our final evaluations from Ms. Bullock, and for the last hurdle we had to clear our final mock interview with Mrs. Starkey and Steven Bennett in the dining room. In my previous evaluations, Ms. Bullock had always concluded by saying, “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” As if that were possible. I had kept my mouth shut, but this time I spoke my mind, telling Ms. Bullock what I thought of the program, the favoritism, the way students were treated.
I expected some sort of push back, but Ms. Bullock listened, taking it in, nodding. I felt better going downstairs, more confident. By this time, I had observed enough students to understand what Mrs. Starkey wanted: a straightforward statement without qualifications or complications. When she asked for a volunteer to go first, I stood up. I talked about where and how I grew up, my family’s values, joining the Peace Corps, work I had done, experience I had invented, and the kind of position I wanted. I kept waiting for her to stop me, but when I finished, rather than tear apart my performance, she turned to Mr. Bennett. “Did you just see what I did?” she asked with amazement.
I had aced my presentation.
At lunch, Ms. Bullock came hurrying in with an envelope containing my evaluation. “This will make you happy,” she said. “I changed your numbers.” (I flushed with relief; Ms. Bullock later claimed she was merely correcting a bookkeeping error.)
The graduation ceremony took place that afternoon in the living room. There were guests, a few family members, and friends. In the kitchen, Mrs. Starkey had the students and staff circle around the work table and hold hands. “If any of you have been hurt, please forgive us,” she said.
We all filed into the living room to introduce ourselves one more time. “Mrs. Starkey, honored guests . . . ” When she called my name to come up and get a certificate, she said, “Well, I never thought this would happen.”
I counted three students out of our class who left Denver with jobs. The Dreckers were going to run a house in Arizona. D’Amico didn’t get a job as a house manager but had been placed as a cook with a family in New Jersey. A rich woman in San Jose later plucked Catherine Miller off the Starkey website to be her companion and personal assistant — a position that lasted three days. Tyler Averill, who ultimately lined up a job in New England, was allowed to remain in his room at the mansion for two months and received payment for housekeeping duties.
For several months, I looked for jobs on my own as other members of my class found work in the booming private-service field. Both Mark Tollison and Steven Bennett had offered to give me recommendations, and Bennett called once about a position working for an elderly woman outside Boston, but then Bennett left Starkey abruptly. I posted on Craigslist in various cities, and I flew to Los Angeles for the 2012 Domestic Estate Managers Association Convention, where there was a job fair. I waited in line to talk to the placement agents and learned that my certification wasn’t going to get me a position. Employers were looking for experience and invariably wanted to hire locally. It seemed that often the very rich would hire someone they knew in some other capacity — a secretary from the office, a waiter from their club. Moreover, I learned (though it was little consolation), many principals, despite their growing wealth, were cutting back on domestic staff because of the recession.
In the end, I would have been better off taking the advice Mrs. Starkey gave me at graduation — that I should move to Dallas and round up some jobs mowing lawns as a way into private service.