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Two Articles About Personal Assistants


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"Star-Tenders Wanted: Big Pay, Little Ego"
By David J. Marrow
New York Times
September 29, 1999

Molding Loyal Pamperers for the Newly Rich

By Blaine Harden

New York Times
October 24, 1999

At butler boot camp, Lori Meyers, who wants to work for a very rich family in a Fifth Avenue apartment with a view of Central Park, was singled out from her classmates and scolded. "You are a little too slick for this profession, Missy," said Mary Louise Starkey, founder of the Starkey International Institute for Household Management, a school in Denver that markets itself as the Harvard of high-end household help. "The lady of the house will get rid of you in 10 minutes." A discerning household manager, which is the Starkey Institute's gender-neutral term for butler, would never, ever look more fetching than the lady of the house, especially if that lady is one of those young "trophy" wives, who tend toward insecurity and prickliness, Mrs. Starkey said. Ms. Meyers, a fit and attractive woman of 35, nodded compliantly. She conceded that she might have to retool her appearance to land the $60,000-to-$120,000-a-year salaries that household managers command in Manhattan. Having left her career as a chiropractor, Ms. Meyers is paying about $7,200 for an eight-week course in the elegant care and feeding of the rich.

These are lucrative and stressful times in the annals of household help in the United States. Never before have there been so many wealthy Americans with so many big houses that need tending. Yet many of these new rich need as much schooling in the art of living large as the students in butler school, according to Mrs. Starkey and many others in the service trade. The number of American households worth $10 million or more has quadrupled in the last decade, jumping to 275,000 from 65,000, said Edward N. Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University and an expert on wealth. The increase in the number of people who can afford a butler has no precedent in the country's history, except perhaps in the boom years of the 1920's, Dr. Wolff said. He estimated that up to a fifth of those worth at least $10 million -- about 55,000 households -- are in the New York region. There has likewise been an unparalleled swelling in the size of the American house. When the Census Bureau began measuring in 1984, only 7 percent of new houses were larger than 3,000 square feet (often considered the size threshold for household help). By the second quarter of this year, 17 percent of new houses were at least that big, and many were much, much bigger, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Its surveys show that the largest and most expensive of these houses are concentrated in the Northeast.

These numbers scream for good help. Mrs. Starkey's 10-year-old school, based in a Georgian mansion near the Colorado Capitol dome, now graduates about 60 certified household managers a year. She plans to expand next year with a second training mansion in the Washington, D.C., area. Carol Scudere, who owns Professional Domestics in Columbus, Ohio, said, "I wish I had more students and more applicants because I could place them all." She is the director of training at the four-year-old school, which competes with Mrs. Starkey's. In New York, Washington and Los Angeles, placement agencies that specialize in servants for the rich say that the demand for experienced household managers exceeds the supply.

Exactly how many household managers are working in the United States is not known. Until Mrs. Starkey's school opened in Denver, most either had been trained in the great homes of the very rich or had emigrated from England, where there are training schools and a long tradition of butlers learning their craft as underbutlers. After a long postwar slump for butlers in Europe (when the number of butlers in England shrank to the hundreds from more than 18,000), demand there appears to be rising. The International Guild of Professional Butlers plans to open a school in Amsterdam. "People don't want to deal with vendors, they don't want to cook, they don't want to hear about bickering and jealousy among the staff," said Keith Greenhouse, president of the Pavillion Agency in Manhattan."They want the butler to deal with it."

There is, however, a persistent and sometimes destabilizing undertow in this flood of big money, big houses and big demand for grade-A help. Many Americans new to wealth -- and three out of four households worth more than $10 million were minted in the past decade -- say they are uncertain about how to manage their servants, how to pay them and even how to talk to them. Their parents, in many cases, were not rich. They did not grow up with servants in the house. They sometimes are too chummy with the servants or too demanding, or both. Upstairs among the multimillionaires and downstairs among their better-trained servants, there can be grumbling, miscommunication and resentment. "We have learned not to include servants in family functions," said Mary Campbell, who grew up in a two-bedroom house and now lives in two large homes, in Boston and the Berkshires. Her husband is Lewis B. Campbell, chief executive of Textron Inc., which makes Cessna aircraft and Bell helicopters. "We have been burned through the years," added Mrs. Campbell, who three months ago hired a household manager trained at the Starkey Institute. "People took advantage of our niceness. They took advantage of friendship. They lied about their hours. They told other people about our business."

An experienced Manhattan butler says that working for the newly rich is almost always annoying. "Nouveau riches tell you the price of things," the butler said with a sniff. "I have worked for people who brag in front of their kids about how much their statuary art costs; then their kids brag to their friends. Americans also don't know how to draw the line about being too familiar." The butler, who was born in England, complained that many wealthy Americans do not even know basic table manners. "They don't know how to use silverware. People leave their knives and forks on table at all different angles instead of putting them together to show they are finished."

To iron out wrinkles in wealthy households, Mrs. Starkey preaches professional management and personal boundaries. Her students are taught to trim their nose hairs, wax their eyebrows, use a yardstick to space plates at the dinner table and always call their employers by their surnames and use the proper courtesy titles. Mrs. Starkey also drills her clients. During home inspections, she advises prospective employers to tell their household managers many details about their personal lives, from how they like their coffee in the morning, to favorite television shows, to which child is related to which ex-spouse. Mrs. Starkey repeatedly alerts clients to the insidious dangers of familiarity. "You have chosen the profession of service," Mrs. Starkey told Ms. Meyers and seven other aspiring household managers at the Starkey Institute. "You are about to be propelled into a world many of us never see, a world of plenty, of power and of indulgence. Remember, you are going to be paid as a professional."

The morning course in "boundaries" at the Starkey Institute raised these sticky questions: What if the lady of the house asks the household manager for help in adhering to a strict low-fat diet? And what if the household manager, while working in her employer's bedroom, finds an empty container of double-chocolate ice cream? "Throw it in the trash and keep it to yourself," said Jenny Hookey, a former household manager for Gov. John M. Engler of Michigan and an instructor at the school. "You are not supposed to be your employer's conscience." Mrs. Hookey rose from her chair in a basement classroom of the mansion-cum-school and wrote these initials on the blackboard: YBYJ. "You bet your job if you cross a boundary," Mrs. Hookey said, explaining what is perhaps the most dismal fact of life in the service trade. Servants have almost no job security. If an employer does not like your look, your attitude or your work, you are out, no matter how well trained or highly paid you may be. In a class on "personal style," taught by Mrs. Starkey, students were asked to describe the character of the wealthy people for whom they hope to work. The class volunteered these words: selfish, intelligent, aggressive, rushed, motivated, stuck-up, philanthropic and judgmental. Why would you want to work for people like that? Mrs. Starkey asked her class.

The answer, gleaned from separate interviews with all eight students in the class, seems to be as follows: Those who aspire to the butler trade are middle-aged people in post-marriage, post-child-bearing phases of their lives. Ms. Meyers was the exception, and she has been advised to compensate for her relative youth. A beautician who consults for the Starkey Institute told her: Trim the blond, highlighted hair. Lose the showy earrings. Lay off the dark red lip-liner. Most of the students said they enjoyed taking care of expensive things. Many have worked for restaurants or in catering, luxury sales or property management. They are intrigued by the idea of working for a very rich family with many houses and jetting around the world. One student, Chief Petty Officer Samuel Sutton, 39, has worked for several generals and admirals in Washington as a chef and a senior household manager, and he is hoping to go to work soon in the White House. He said he went to the Starkey Institute to polish his skills and prepare for 2003, when he will leave the Navy and look for a household manager job that will double his military pay of about $40,000.

A more typical student was Ingrid Lawrence, 56, who is divorced with no children. In "personal image awareness" class, Ms. Lawrence, a tall German-born woman with ramrod posture and an expensive but understated wardrobe, was judged to have a near perfect look for service: tasteful, elegant and simple. "I am kind of fussy," said Ms. Lawrence, who recently quit her job at Neiman Marcus in San Diego, where she sold china, crystal and silver. "I love housework. I love to be surrounded by beautiful things. It will give me pleasure to take care of these beautiful things in a private house." Ms. Lawrence explained that in her own house in San Diego, she used only fresh linen napkins, never paper. She kept her linens damp in plastic bags in her refrigerator, she said, so that she could iron them as needed, obtaining the crispest and most wrinkle-free napkins possible. In ironing class at the Starkey Institute, when a teacher mentioned the linen-in-the-refrigerator trick, Ms. Lawrence smiled knowingly.

At the end of a grueling 12-hour day at the Starkey mansion, all the students gathered in the basement over dinner to watch "The Remains of the Day," the 1993 film in which Anthony Hopkins plays an emotionally remote English butler. The butler, Stevens, resolutely refuses throughout the film to judge the character of his employer, Lord Darlington, even as he makes a national fool of himself by appeasing the Nazis in the days before World War II. Near the end of the film, the butler is asked how he could endure working for such a despicable man. "I was his butler," Stevens replies. "I was there to serve him, not to agree or disagree."

Although the students laughed during parts of the film, especially when servants ironed The Times of London, it struck most of them as profoundly sad. The next day in class, however, Mrs. Starkey said that Stevens had had it exactly right. "If you start judging your employers," she said, "your days are numbered."

Star-Tenders Wanted: Big Pay, Little Ego

By David J. Marrow

New York Times
September 29, 1999

The call came in around midnight, and Leeza Tander-Tostenson, a personal assistant to a handful of Hollywood luminaries, knew who was calling. A client, a sometimes testy entertainment mogul, was upset because his housekeeper had not made his bed properly. So the next day, she made the bed the way he liked it, then corrected the housekeeper, who promptly quit. ''This is just how the job can work,'' Ms. Tander-Tostenson said. ''If you're someone's personal assistant, they are often lost without you. You've become part of their brain.''

Once known as girl or guy Fridays, these ultimate helpers to the megarich are in hot demand, as much a staple of cyberspace-made millionaires as an American Express platinum card. The Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants, a trade group founded in 1992, has become so popular that it turns away 150 people each year who want to be members. And Keith Greenhouse, who has placed butlers and other domestic help in New York for 38 years, says the number of personal assistants placed through his Pavillion Agency has increased 50 percent in the last five years. Millionaire Americans are even nabbing high-priced factotums overseas. The Ivor Spencer International School for Butler Administrators and Personal Assistants, a leading domestic-help agency in London, placed 30 of them in the United States last year, up from about 15 in 1995. ''There is absolutely more demand now,'' said Ivor Spencer, the owner. ''It used to be that the personal assistants I trained went to work for the English aristocracy. But they don't have that kind of money anymore. American businessmen have it.''

A personal assistant does virtually everything: managing the house staff, which often includes butler, maid and gardener; paying the boss's bills; scheduling appointments (including the vet for the pet) and running interference on any matter that might trouble the master. One personal assistant said she spent 80 percent of her time answering her boss's social invitations. Katherine Vailakis, who owns KV Personal Assistants in New York, does everything for her clients -- mostly Wall Street financiers -- from paying bills to returning newly bought shoes for refunds. Dean Johnson, a personal assistant for the actress Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, books travel plans, fields calls from her lawyer and agent, and oversees the staffs at her homes. ''You have to have an innate ability to get things done,'' Ms. Tander-Tostenson said. ''If the star asks you for peanut butter from Japan, you don't ask, 'How do I get it?' You just say, 'O.K.' '' Ms. Tander-Tostenson has designed seven bathrooms in one star's home and advised another on who should be included in his will. Another personal assistant said that one master of the universe asked her to alphabetize and organize by genre of music and artist his compact disk collection, which had more than 1,000 titles.

Regardless of how mundane the chore, the boss usually appreciates its completion. Lindsay Crouse, the actress, who employs Ms. Tander-Tostenson part time, referred to her fondly as her left and right arms. ''People like Leeza aren't squeamish about dealing with the plumber or getting the light bulbs,'' she said. ''And she really understands the service she's providing.'' The best personal assistants tend to be assertive people with strong organizational skills. Employment experts say that a small ego certainly helps, since the boss and his needs must always come first.

As to whether the ideal personal assistant is a man or woman, one school of thought favors women on the ground that they know more about running a household, while another holds that men have the edge because wives do not want female aides-de-camp following their husbands around. (In fact, a growing number of women, especially actresses, are hiring personal assistants.) ''During the past 20 years, I've only trained six ladies,'' said Mr. Spencer, the owner of the London butler agency. ''I tell them to behave themselves. They must not ever upstage the lady of the house or the chief executive's wife. They can only wear a hint of lipstick and a proper suit, certainly with no cleavage.''

Salaries of personal assistants usually fall between $50,000 and $80,000, but can swell beyond $100,000. Perks often include medical insurance, paid vacation, free travel and a front-row seat to how the wealthy live. One assistant said it would be hard to beat her work site -- an opulent Manhattan apartment. And Jackie Moses, chief attendant to Sela Ward of the ABC show ''Once and Again,'' sometimes travels with her and has attended Emmy Award rehearsals. ''You become very involved with the star's personal life,'' Ms. Moses said. ''But you have to separate your life from theirs. It's a career like any other in Hollywood, like their agent or publicist. We work with all these people.'' Bosses often demand that their assistants keep their mouths shut, especially to tabloids. The assistants say they are often only too familiar with their bosses' habits. One, who has done stints for both men and women, said she had become well versed on the sex lives of several. ''You're in their house,'' she said. ''You know everything. Sometimes they tell you about it.''

Mr. Spencer said that years ago, personal assistants who graduated from his school, which costs about $7,000 for a six-week course, needed almost nothing else to start a job. Not anymore. ''We were used to sending people to be trained in how to value antiques or furniture,'' he said. ''But now people want to hire a super personal assistant. These employers call and ask for someone who can fly a helicopter or airplane.''

The 125 members of the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants meet once a month to exchange ideas on how to do their jobs better. One coming seminar will examine security and celebrity stalking. ''One thing you should know about the people we work for is that they are extremely busy,'' Ms. Tander-Tostenson said. ''They deserve to have a personal assistant. Everybody needs a personal assistant. They may not be able to afford one.''

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.