School aims to preserve rare species: the butler

August 16, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- The proper modern butler brushes his teeth twelve times a day, hears and sees all but tells nothing, and can shoot to kill when necessary.

He, very rarely a she, makes $35,000 to $60,000 a year, will very reluctantly wear pink livery and can no doubt improve his employer's taste.

And he probably has been trained by Ivor Spencer.

Mr. Spencer is proprietor and principal of the Ivor Spencer International School for Butler Administrators -- "Trained British Style."

His school is virtually a butler preservation society. When he founded it 13 years ago, butlering seemed headed for oblivion. Changing times and contemporary taxes had taken their toll on the lives of the rich and butlered.

"There were 30,000 butlers in Britain before 1939," he says. "There were only 70 left when I started my school. I've trained about 125. There are still rich people who want butlers today."

In Britain he usually takes on a dozen students for each six-week course. When he gives his course in the United States he hones it to "three very intensive weeks."

He discusses butlerism over tea at London's posh Savoy Hotel. He presides over gallons of tea and mounds of scones with the aplomb of, well, a Spencer-trained butler.

"Discretion," says Mr. Spencer, when asked the quality a butler needs most. "Discretion, and loyalty."

And one must never, ever, express the slightest hint of disapproval of one's employer. The butler may be as superior as Jeeves, the nonpareil fictional butler created by P. G. Wodehouse, but he must never show it.

"We've got to be very careful," he says. "If you raise an eyebrow and your employer catches you at it, you're making a fool of him."

The butler's duties begin when he awakens his master, or mistress. He serves a morning drink, runs the bath and lays out a choice of clothes, but only the "top wear" for his mistress, never the dainties.

"We iron the morning paper, have done [it] for years," Mr. Spencer says, "to take the ink out, so you don't get it on your hands when having your toast.

"The butler will serve all meals in grand style," he says. "And he is never pompous."

He also never eats onion, curry or garlic. He eschews any after-shave lotion that might conflict with the caviar or smoked salmon. Mr. Spencer recommends Eau du Sauvage by Christian Dior.

The butler must understand wines, food and cigars. Mr. Spencer takes his students on field trips to London's finest purveyors of luxury goods.

"He will know the tailor who makes shirts for Prince Charles," Mr. Spencer says, "if that is what his employer requires."

Sad to say, contemporary employers, especially in the United States, need to be taught what butlers do.

Big U.S. market

"The United States is our big market," Mr. Spencer says. "I give a course to rich Americans who are new money on how to handle a butler. I've done it for nine years now. They love it.

"They've got an insatiable appetite to do things properly," he says.

He also brings employer and butler together in a luxury hotel for two days of orientation.

"We show them how the butler addresses them and how they address the butler. How we serve them. It's the whole how-to.

"Traditionally, sir," he tells his clients, "the butler answers only by his surname. If you called a butler by his first name years ago, he wouldn't answer you.

"After two days if you went into their homes, you wouldn't realize the butler is new, or that they haven't had a butler before, or I hope you wouldn't."

Americans prefer fit butlers to fat ones. Slim butlers look better in their uniforms, Mr. Spencer says. Health insurance costs less. And Americans like their butlers to jog with them.

"We get requests for butlers looking like Sir John Gielgud, you know, after the film," he says. The actor played a butler in "Arthur."

"I don't laugh, I smile," Mr. Spencer says.

"We have all sorts of people. They come from all walks of life. They're short, they're tall, they're slim, they're fat. Some speak // 12 languages. Some don't speak English properly. You have to send them to elocution class."

Some employers don't speak English too well either. One rock star, he says, couldn't spell. No names, of course, but Mr. Spencer recalls the following conversation.

"John," said the pop star, untowardly using the butler's first name, "I'm writing to my mom. How do you spell 'dear'?"

L Without being patronizing John went over and said "D-E-A-R."

"John, you're bloody brilliant."

John rose to the heights of great butlerdom.

"Sir, you sit down at the piano at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning and before you're finished, in maybe half an a hour, you've written a song. Within a few weeks it's in sheet music, I hear it on radio. You are brilliant, sir."

In the pink

Even today, even in America, butlers sometimes wear livery, uniforms that can cost as much as $18,000. A very, very wealthy Texan couple threw a pink party: pink champagne, pink Rolls Royces and pink uniforms for the butler and his staff.

Three weeks later, Mr. Spencer had to dissuade madame from making her butler wear pink livery daily.

"It's OK. As a theme party, you can get away with anything as long as everything's good quality," he says. "When you're doing it every day, it loses it's effectiveness."

The very rich today are also very insecure and increasingly ask for bodyguard butlers. Mr. Spencer will have his butlers trained in martial arts, evasive driving and the use of small arms by former special forces personnel.

"The experts teach them to fire and kill if the situation demands it," he says.

Sometimes the butler is as guilty as the mystery story cliche has it. A few years ago a butler murdered two people in England.

"And he stole the silver," Mr. Spencer laments.

"The worst thing you can do is murder your employer," he remarks. "Then you can't get a reference. Get the reference first, then you can murder him."

He once asked his wife if they should have a butler.

"No, she said. What would the neighbors think?"

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