The Great Escape Caper: The Butlers Did It

Times Staff Writer

It's one thing to hear that the fall of the British pound has put that country's capital on the run; but now that most venerable of British institutions, its domestic staffs--why, they want out too.

Just goes to show how times have changed. Used to be a position in the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace would be the goal of a lifetime; the head butler for someone like Lord and Lady Spencer (Princess Diana's folks) would just about die in the job before he'd leave.

Some local domestic placement agencies in recent months, however, have reported receiving a slew of inquiries from Buckingham Palace footmen just itching to get to the United States. The Spencers' former butler is already here, working at the Sheraton Premiere in Universal City. The butler at Brook's Club, that exclusive gentlemen's club on St. James Street in London, left that position three years ago to form the English Butler Service in the United States and, in the course of getting that business going, worked for an Arab prince here.

The lure is money. It's also a yen for travel and adventure. Seems many of the people who are entering domestic service these days figure it's a great way to see the world. And that's something else: The butlers who are coming to the United States are of a different breed from those who traditionally entered domestic service.

The Dedication of a Law Student

This new breed of butler trains and pursues his career with the dedication and finesse of a law student angling for a partnership in a top law firm. What's more, occasionally this new breed of butler is more pedigreed than his employer.

The classic example is Reimar Constitin Heinrich Kurt Franciskus von Alvensleben zu Eichenbarleben, also known as Reili. Son of a German nobleman whose lineage is among the oldest in the world, Zu Eichenbarleben spent the pre-World War II years in castles in the Berlin and Frankfurt area and Switzerland. All were lost during the war years, the price his father paid, says Zu Eichenbarleben, for helping his Jewish friends leave Germany. Suddenly broke, his father, "who never understood money" and had only occupied himself as a hobbyist poet and painter, found himself in the position of having to make a living. He sold his antiques, worked as a gardener and as his children grew up, they found jobs too. Zu Eichenbarleben, 63, says he must have tried 10 different jobs before he got into the travel business, conducting exclusive tours all over the world. Five years ago, he decided he wanted to settle in Southern California and he liked the suggestion of Gregory Peck's former wife, Greta (whom he'd met on a tour), to become a butler.

"After all," he says, "I knew how to do it. I'd seen butlers so much as a child."

Was he bothered by the irony of his position? "No, I was always much more at ease with the help and I detest snobbism."

Zu Eichenbarleben currently works as a butler-chef for a family in Beverly Hills.

Then there's Karl Ackermann. German-born, his parents in real estate and farming, he's been training for a career in service since he was 16. Now 28, his resume includes positions as assistant head waiter at the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich, where he met Lord and Lady Spencer, who subsequently hired him as a footman at their home at Althorp, England. He accepted the position, he says, to perfect his English. He left after several years for jobs in hotels in West Germany and Johannesburg, South Africa, then returned to the Spencers in 1982 as head butler. In 1984 he left the Spencers' employ again, this time to head the butler service at the newly opened Sheraton Premiere Hotel at Universal City. The Spencers, he said, expected as much.

"When I left, they understood why, and I could go back without any problem. But I chose this profession to get around. One of my life's ambitions has been to see the U.S., to find out about American mentality."

Christopher Ely and Paul Antony Richards, both 22, say they saw Buckingham Palace as the ultimate training ground. But after several years as footmen, "I'd gotten very stagnant at the palace," Ely said. "I wanted to start using my brain more. I'd had enough laying tables. Everything had become very mechanical." Ely came to the United States on a holiday and found a job working as a butler-valet with a New York family.

Richards, who only a few weeks ago took a similar job in New York, sees leaving Buckingham Palace as "a natural progression, a way of bettering myself."

As for coming to the United States, "well, there's no language barrier," he said. But there are some other advantages.

Come here and work, says Matthew Riley, the former Brooks Club butler now working in San Diego, and you can count on making about twice as much as you did England. Figure about $1,500 a month to start, according to Robert Mann of the Sandra Taylor Agency in Beverly Hills, which specializes in placing domestic help.

'Sometimes They Throw in a Car

In addition, Ely said, "you can expect your medical insurance included, at least one flight back home a year and decent accommodations. Sometimes they throw in a car. I love that. Essentially, the employer is paying for the butler's life and whatever salary the butler makes is like pocket money. That's how it should be. If someone's looking after your life (financially), you're freer to look after theirs."

Looking after someone's life--nobody says it's easy. But to a man, the foreign-trained butlers contended they're better suited for the profession than U.S.-born butlers. It's really a matter of temperament, they say. Americans, suggested one English butler, often have a hard time with the whole concept of sublimating their egos to take care of other persons--at least as a career.

Zu Eichenbarleben is more generous. American butlers, he said, "are a lot more casual, laid back. At times they can better understand Western civilization and can anticipate needs differently."

As for American employers, "it's much less formal here than it is in Europe and at the same time, it's more fun," said Ackermann, whose parents wanted him to become a banker. "Being in a hotel and around so many people is different, of course, from working for just a single family. But I can see that people here really enjoy butler service. In Europe, they take it more for granted. There, the rich have always had staffs. It's a necessity when you live in a place with 100 rooms. It has been and still is a matter of coping.

"Here having a butler is more a matter of pleasure. He's viewed as making life easier for you.

"He's also viewed as a status symbol," Ackermann added with a laugh. "Like a Rolls-Royce."

The Sandra Taylor Agency's Robert Mann agrees that a butler (for many people the term is synonomous with houseman) can be a status symbol, especially if he's foreign-trained. Of his butler applicants, about 50% fall into this category, he said. But a foreign-trained butler is no shoo-in on the American job market. For one thing, said Mann, the very notion of an English butler can be intimidating. "We get people who say, 'Omigod, I can't have one of the Queen's butlers in my 10,000-square-foot house.' "

Butlers Aren't Worried

Then there's immigration. To get a work permit, an applicant must prove he's not taking a job which could be filled by an American. That doesn't seem to worry the butlers interviewed. "An American couldn't do this job with all the aspects I offer," scoffed Ely.

Nevertheless, some domestic employment agencies refuse to handle applicants unless they're already here and have all their papers.

"I'm not interested in placing someone with no prior experience in the U.S.," said Dora Renet, owner of International Services Agency in Beverly Hills. "It's too complicated. I don't want to be bothered."

A Certain Finesse

Without a doubt, the foreign-born butlers have a certain finesse. Maybe it comes with the training, this reserve, perfectionism and polish: the way a butler never sits, even to chat on the phone; the way Ackermann requested from the hotel kitchen not only Perrier and five glasses on a silver tray, but also a flower which he arranged alongside the beverages; the way butlers dismiss people who treat them rudely as lacking breeding.

They also have a sharp sense of propriety. Referring to what was virtually a royal scandal in 1983 when a former valet to England's Prince Charles wrote a book on the experience, all the butlers interviewed refused even to name their employers for publication. They were happy enough to talk about their jobs in the theoretical sense, how people treat them and their own attitudes toward their profession, but pressed for specifics of their particular situation, they become the model of reserve.

Ely's reaction was typical. "Their (his employers') private life is their business and they've entrusted it to me."

Added Ackermann:"These people (his employers) spend half their life in public anyway. If they can't be relaxed at home, that's a very sad thing."

Duties and Schedule

As for their duties and schedule, "it depends on the boss, what they want, what they expect," said Ely. But the job description he likes is one that would have him traveling with his employer, being the link between all the parts of his boss' life. That can include making travel arrangements if there's no secretary to do it, but particularly tending all aspects of his employer's wardrobe, from laundry to packing. (And you never, but never, offer a shirt that's not freshly laundered. If an employer changes clothes nine times a day, then it's nine fresh-pressed shirts.)

On his current job, Ely is not getting in the traveling he'd like. So a typical day runs to laying out breakfast, waking-up the employer, preparing the clothes for that day, relaying any messages or reminders, serving breakfast and, once the employer is out the door to the office, taking care of madame's needs and doing what needs doing around the home. Around the home? Coordinating the meals with the cook, cleaning all silver, tending to any workers who might be in the house. The valet-butler might also do personal shopping for his employer. He usually gets a few hours in the afternoon off, but is back by 5 for tea, getting everything together for dinner, laying the table, tending to extra staff if there's a dinner party, arranging flowers, attending to the wines and keeping a stock check on the wine cellar.

Zu Eichenbarleben is less inclined to the valet duties and more to being a major domo. That is, taking charge of everything. Including cooking, which has always been a hobby. Most butlers, however, don't cook. And they certainly never clean--except for the silver which only they, it seems, can do as it should be done. The operative word apparently for a butler's life is flexibility-- from his duties to his days off. Ackermann, working in a hotel, especially sees this. Though he did tend to ABC Sports head Roone Arledge for the lengthly period around the Olympics last summer, most of the people occupying the Sheraton Premiere's $2,500-a-day Presidential Suites are short-term. That means learning what they like and dislike fast, very fast.

"Some like dinner at 12, others at 6. You just have to be flexible."

Richards and Ely agreed, especially remembering the occasions they were assigned to valet a guest at Buckingham Palace. But with the vastness of Buckingham Palace and though they learned to work all the "houses" of the royal family, much of it became "pretty mechanical," Ely said.

"That's why I decided the ideal would be to have just one person to look after, a person with whom you could strike up a rapport. You'd have their best interests at heart all the time, you'd be someone who they could trust."

Given all that, do he and the others plan to remain in the United States and as butlers all their lives?

Always a pause for the first question. None of them had a firm answer. But as far as being butlers, Zu Eichenbarleben at 63 was no different from Ackermann at 28.

"No, I don't plan to retire," Zu Eichenbarleben said. "What would I do if I did? Start to write?"

"I see doing what I'm doing for the rest of my life," Ackermann answered. "I enjoy it a lot. People appreciate what I do and that's very satisfying.

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