In the service of. . .
A former butler serves up tales about his experience in domestic service.
In the summer of 1974, Thomas Gardner
was employed by Dr. Leon Levy and his wife, Blanche, at their extravagant Palm Beach estate. One evening, he walked into the library expertly balancing a glass of Scotch with a splash of water and a few ice cubes on a serving plate, Mrs. Levy’s signature cocktail. As he leaned down to offer her the drink, Mrs. Levy scanned him from head to toe. With a hint of amusement in her voice, she coolly remarked, “You know Thomas, I’ve had many butlers in my life, but none have ever worn Guccis.”
This inspired him to title his 20-year work-in-progress The Butler Wore Guccis, a collection of fond memories and anecdotes of his experience working in domestic service.
In 1966, at the age of 19, Gardner stumbled into a job as a houseman in Newport, RI. Suddenly, he found himself being trained as a butler to wait and lay tables at the hand of Mrs. Robert R. Young. “I was not your typical live-in house staff member,” Gardner admits. “I was this young, 19-year-old, Caucasian American coming from a solid middle-class family.”
He quickly became enchanted by the magnificent homes replete with beautiful décor and lavish lifestyles to match. “It opened up a world that was so mindboggling you can’t imagine. I was like a kid in FAO Schwarz, not buying anything, but surrounded by these incredible objects, people and lifestyles,” he says.
Gardner’s resume boasts a pedigree of a dozen of America’s wealthiest and most renowned upper-echelon families. From Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post at Mar-A-Lago, always referred to by her staff as “Mother,” to Greenwich’s own Mrs. Bernard F. Gimbel at Chieftains, Gardner’s “ladies” ran the gamut among the elite of the
He never identified himself as a “servant,” despite popularized stereotypes of Downton Abbey. That type of dynamic, according to Gardner, is from a bygone era. “In this country, that’s gone. I’m always amused by people that attempt to emulate airs of living that lifestyle,” he says. “It’s interesting to see the present generation of family fortunes, what they expect and how they want to live. There are certain homes with rooms people never even go into… I learned that it’s the way people use finances that often forms their lives.”
Even the variety of attire worn by Gardner demonstrates the evolving nature of the field. While at Mrs. Post’s Mar-A-Lago, Gardner donned a separate formal uniform for morning, afternoon and evening duties. Yet, just a few miles south in Boca Raton, in the daytime, he could be found in shorts, a polo shirt and Topsiders while working for the Schine family.
According to Gardner, you won’t find the once-customary white-glove-and tux-aesthetic in a modern dining room today. “The children of the SR, now in their forties and fifties, no longer expect or desire the formalities of their parents’ time period, pre WWll,” Gardner explains. “In the old days, as far back as the l950s, the ‘maid’ who came in several times a week was expected to polish the silver and do the heavy cleaning throughout the house. Back then, the laundry was a big part of the workload, to say nothing of preparing the dinner for both the children and the Mr. and Mrs. Today, one is lucky if the help does more than two of those tasks.”
From improvising an additional napkin-serving course after coming to the horrifying realization that he’d forgotten to set them to chauffeuring a Rolls Royce limousine for a day, Gardner has many stories worth being told. He laughs as he remembers the Duke of Windsor’s habit of sliding off his slippers during formal dinners. On one occasion, the Duke motioned Gardner over after the lady to his right had kicked it out of his foot’s reach. At a loss, but maintaining his composure, Gardner hurried to the head butler for guidance. Returning to the table, Gardner “dropped” a serving fork next to the Duke. Crouching under the table, he spotted the rogue slipper, pushed it back to the Duke, and tapped his foot in acknowledgement before straightening up with the serving fork in hand and no one the wiser.
By sharing these types of memories, Gardner hopes that his book will allow readers to visit this world and appreciate the characters that helped it thrive. “Everyone marvels at these homes, but they don’t understand there is a personal dimension to it,” Gardner says. “If it weren’t for the staff, that lifestyle doesn’t exist. It’s like having a Bentley, but gee, you don’t have any tires. You can’t go anywhere without them.”
Learn more about life as a butler at Thomas Gardner’s talk at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, October 10, 8 p.m. Get tickets at 92y.org.
To see more, please visit http://www.92y.org/Event/The-Butler-Wore-Gucci.aspx