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What Ho, Jeeves! Watch Who You're Calling Jeeves, Buddy. : THE ART OF SERVICE AS GOOD FORM. A WAY OF BEING AND A SPIRITUAL ODYSSEY

January 28, 1996|Ted Gup | Ted Gup is Writer-at-Large for GQ and lives in Bethesda, Md

"You should never enter a room without a reason," continues Stanton. He has students practice silent entries and exits. (It's a trick every parent knows: turn the knob, keep latch depressed, slowly close door and release knob.) Later, rehearsing for a formal dinner, he advises that even if something goes awry, "Do not say, 'Excuse me.' Do not say, 'I'm sorry.' Do not enter into the conversation."

Stanton is now scanning the institute's sacred text, a monstrous three-ring notebook. By the end of week eight, after a blizzard of handouts and supplements--everything from recipes to how many centimeters from the table's edge a dinner plate must be--it will have swollen to nearly a thousand pages and spilled over into a second binder. The students open their notebooks and follow along as Stanton, like an Old Testment psalmist, reads: "You should never enter a room . . . "

Now to the duties of the Household Manager. Clean shoes and boots, carry wood to the fireplaces, do all heavy lifting, polish brass and silver, make restaurant reservations, valet gentlemen, vacuum "cobwebs, dead moths behind curtains, and paper punch dots . . . ." About the only thing Stanton says the class will be spared is learning how to iron the newspaper--a custom of British butlers to save their masters from getting ink on their fingers. Each student will serve as Household Manager for a day. The Starkey HM is responsible for "Morning Graces," which calls for opening the blinds at 6:30 a.m., turning on the lights, putting on the coffee, preparing Starkey's breakfast, raising the U.S. flag (stage right), the Colorado flag (stage left), and a host of lesser tasks that bring the house to a state of wide-eyed readiness.

Three hours into the class, many of the students are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the material. "I feel like a kindergartener in a room full of astrophysicists," Meg McCarthy announces to the class. Later, she elaborates. "I have no skills it seems. I'm pretty lost at sea." Forty-five years old, twice-divorced, McCarthy has platinum hair swept to the side, wears little makeup or jewelry and speaks in a voice as soft as down. Until recently she was a pediatric nurse working 60-hour weeks tending to HIV-infected children. Now, she has decided, it is time to give some thought to taking care of herself. In this she knows she is not alone. "Around this table, there is a lot of need to be needed," she says.

Even as Mary Starkey painted vivid pictures of penthouses and seaside estates, McCarthy's fantasies took a different shape. "A Midwest farm couple would be fine by me," she says. "I'm not going for the glitz." Once she lived in a commune in the Rockies, back-packed and had only two pairs of pants. "I was happy like that," she says. Now she hopes to simplify her life again. "I'll be living in someone else's home. None of this stuff will be mine."

Later that evening she tells Starkey she is dropping out. In part, Starkey's portraits of affluence have unnerved her. "I was terrified of ending up in the middle of 'Bonfires of the Vanities,' " she says. But Starkey persuades her to give it another try. Such timidity is common among these students who face not just an avalanche of new material but the uncertainty of a career change. Counseling them is a part of the job Starkey relishes, and she offers a therapy that is rooted in common sense, pop psychology and [pure] motivation.

Starkey speaks as if those who come here are on a pilgrimage, stateless souls seeking a place for themselves. She says she dreams of Golda Meir. "She was someone who created a state for a people," Starkey says. "I have been creating a structure for a group of people who serve to do it honorably. That's why I think I always dreamed about her, because that's what she did."

*

To the students, Starkey appears to share the life of her high-society clients. She is invited to address the debutantes of Denver. She reminisces about her grandmother's butler. She cruises in a sleek 1995 midnight-blue Mazda Millennium, shops in Neiman Marcus and sports a diamond solitaire on her left pinkie--her grandmother's engagement ring. Weekly she indulges in a massage.

But the image she projects is like a hologram. She makes a down-to-earth $40,000 a year, less than many of her graduates. Starkey has nothing against money, but neither does she envy the well-to-do. "All families are dysfunctional," she says. "The more money they have, the more dysfunctional. I saw people at this end of the spectrum going 90 miles per hour to chase the American dream, and the children literally get lost and the husbands and wives no longer talk."

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