HEMPSFORD MANOR, ENGLAND
A reverential hush falls upon the library. "What did you do?" they demand, all as one, wondering what Robert Watson did when a suit left behind in a London closet was needed in Norway immediately?
"Well," intones Mr. Watson, a dapper middle-aged man leaning on the velvet chaise longue and tapping his spectacles. "I simply found the gray suit with the wide lapels in the London house, flew business class to Oslo, and hand delivered it myself." He raises his eyebrows and closes his eyes. The relief in the room is almost tangible. Yet another crisis averted by the master butler. "Simply brilliant," they gasp, and take a short tea break.
Butlers are making a comeback. Musician Puff Daddy has one. Financier George Soros has two. Singer Posh Spice is trying to lure one out of the Queen's entourage, and Madonna is reportedly interviewing madly.
More capable than the maid, more attentive than the secretary, and much grander than a 'personal assistant' who, really, can do without a butler?
"You would be rather surprised by the number of people Americans in particular who like someone to answer their phone and say, "Hello, this is Spencer the butler speaking," says Ivor Spencer, the doyen of the butler school circuit, who opened his London institution 21 years ago. "In the US today" he confides, "the only real status symbol is a butler."
With the growing demand for such status not to mention the extra help with laundry and car washing no fewer than 39 butler-training schools have opened their doors in England in the past two decades, offering four- to eight-week courses. Almost all require some initial familiarity with the white-gloved service sector, and all cost around $1,500 a week. The various schools boast that, once trained, butlers should expect to find a position with a starting salary of at least $55,000 a far cry from the meager £50 a year remuneration for butlers in Victorian England.
John, a top international butler who works at an exclusive resort and says he once received a $10,000 tip for a week's work, stresses, however, that it's not about the money. "I like to pamper people and provide the highest possible service," he explains. "You have to love it."
The list of potential disasters a butler must grapple with is, it seems, endless. What if you are yachting around the British Virgin Islands and there is no one to iron the linen table cloth in that special no-crease-down-the-middle way Madame insists upon? Or what if Madame's children, eating their asparagus with the hands, as is mind you permissible, fail to dip into the lemon finger bowl before the next course?
For answers to these and other questions, butlers head to class.
Seven butler trainees are spending this semester at the Guild of Professional English Butlers school at Hempsford Manor. Some are assistant butlers aspiring to the top, others are here to touch up on specific skills, and one is a Filipino houseboy whose wealthy German employer thought he needed some extra pizzazz.
The question being addressed in one morning class is: What to do when you are on vacation, you have just enough napkins for all the meals, and Madame decides to stay an extra day and host a luncheon for 12. The possible solutions are analyzed from every angle. The debate is fast and furious.
"This is how a good butler gets his reputation. He thinks on his feet, foresees possible problems and finds solutions," says Watson, the Guild's director of training and himself a butler with 25 years of experience with the rich and famous. "You can never say no, it's impossible to get hypoallergenic soap in the middle of the night," he says, by way of simple example. "There has to be a solution. We need to think broadly ... need to make it happen."
The trainees spend most of their days in the library going through real-life scenarios with Watson. What if the Marmite runs out on a Sunday? A vegan shows up for dinner?
Role plays are conducted: One student will pretend to be a drunken guest, throwing around a bread roll; another might be a demanding great- aunt displeased with the menu. "Your bosses are not interested in solving these things," explains Watson patiently. "If you ask them to make $3 million, that's not a problem. But when it comes to napkin wear, they might lack understanding. That's why they hire you."
Being a butler in this day and age is, apparently, more complicated then ever before. The times when setting the right silver and stage-whispering orders to the assistant butler were one's entire job description are, alas, no more. Today's butlers have to do all that but also surf the Internet, find their way around a workout gym, and keep track of the Thursday night sitcom lineups on TV. They must be as comfortable wearing Bermuda shorts and serving pastel-colored drinks as they are polishing china in a single-breasted jacket and pinstriped trousers. "We do everything," says Carlos Antonus, a young Portuguese butler who serves a celebrated figure in Britain and is as well versed in karate chops as in comparison shopping for Norwegian salmon and decanting wine, "and everything is expected."
Mr. Antonus brings in freshly ironed shirts to his boss before every meeting, and stands behind him at every formal dinner, pouring his wine. He arranges air tickets and travels alongside the gentleman, making sure both appointments and diets are kept, but never asking any personal questions. He welcomes in house guests with a "Good evening your lordship and ladyship," and calmly calls for an ambulance if anyone faints.
The word "butler" is derived from old French 'bouteillier' or "bottle bearer," and historically, the butler who rose to his stature by way of apprentices was responsible for overseeing the wine cellar, announcing dinner, and directing the rest of the staff. The profession all but died out during the two world wars, with butlers and homeowners away fighting, and households falling into disrepair. The revival of the modern-day butler came in the 1980s and '90s with the stock market boom and the dotcom millionaires. And with the apprentice tradition long gone came the advent of butler school.
"So what did you learn at butler school?" Lorenzo Bulosan, the Filipino houseboy, is asked at the end of the course. "Well," he reflects, taking a break from his cigar-storing practice. "I had never heard the term 'butler' before, but now I will wear it with pride." "And," he concludes, "I will certainly explain to Madame that this butler needs an assistant butler. So very much to do."