The Commercial Appeal
The butler did it all – and talks about the trade
Tampa Bay Times
They can be quietly powerful (Alfred), wise and witty (Benson) or mysterious and slightly overbearing (Hobson).
Those are f ictionalized versions of butlers, the most likely contact many of us will have with them. There are only about 30,000 active butlers worldwide, about half of them in the United States. That puts them in the same category as private jets and bottles of 1947 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, something butlers probably serve on board those personal planes.
But what of the modern butler? What does one do?
“The modern butler is not like the old butler, but he does have elements of him,” Steven Ferry said recently. “He should bring wisdom, calmness and smooth the lives of his or her employer.” He or she should be just as comfortable, Ferry added, working a serving tray as an iPad.
“Look at it like a nurse or a doctor,” he added. “They also look out for other people and take great joy in it.”
Ferry, 60, splits time between homes in Clearwater, Fla., and New Mexico, and is to butlers what Emeril Lagasse is to chefs. He was a highly paid butler for several years, wrote the definitive book on butlering (“Butlers & Household Managers: 21st Century Professionals”) and is chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, a sort of butler college.
Butlers used to work their way up the butler ladder, Ferry explained. They were usually employed by a family with some connection to royalty or old money. That’s all changed.
Most are men and most are trained by people like Ferry. They often work for people who made their fortunes within the past few decades. “It’s almost all new money now,” he said. “Fortunes made in the stock or futures market, or in hedge funds. And celebrities.”
Beyond the United States, most of Ferry’s clients come from China, the Middle East and Russia.
“They all look to the British butler as kind of a cachet,” he said. “It reinforces that they’ve arrived. After you’ve bought your fifth Bentley, where do you go after that? A butler.”
The British butler: That would be Ferry. The son of a lawyer, he attended a boarding school where he “learned about that stiff upper lip.” That lesson compelled him to move to Los Angeles, where he studied art, film and television. He and his wife, Monica, returned to England in the late 1980s and asked themselves, “Now what?”
“I remembered a butlers school in London,” Ferry said, “and the idea seemed attractive.” He completed the training, worked as an estate manager for a few years and came back to America, where he found a butler job within days.
Over the years, he accumulated a wealth of butler information – the rules of being a good butler, the subtle advice and cautions.
“So I basically wrote a manual about how to be one and shared it around a bit,” he said. “Someone caught wind of it, and I got it published as a book. Then I started consulting and training.”
The most important duty of a butler, Ferry said, is to manage and train a household staff that can number in the hundreds, from gardeners to cooks to nannies. Perhaps the second-most-important duty is to build trust.
Ferry notes that if a butler witnesses “an indiscretion by one party that is being withheld from the other party,” the butler should remain silent. If questioned, Ferry advises, a butler should “answer without answering. Say, ‘I really couldn’t say, madam,’ or ‘Not to my knowledge, sir.’”