A traditional butler is someone who devotes his life to supporting another.
WORDS JOSEPH L. GARCIA | ILLUSTRATION JOY D. DAGUN
Are you sure you have everything in the world when you’re missing someone in your life? We’re not talking about a lover; we’re talking about a butler.
“He’s devoted his life to supporting someone, which is what you do as a butler,” said Steven Ferry, founder of The International Association of Traditional Butlers, the first organization of its kind. Mr. Ferry was speaking about Stevens, the main character in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, eventually made into a film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.
To Mr. Ferry, Stevens is the most accurate depiction of a butler in fiction: not Alfred from Batman, nor Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. “He’s the old-fashioned butler, but he embodies everything that is good about the butler, but he also has the bad things about the butler,” said Mr. Ferry, describing Stevens. “His attitude, his devotion to duty—that is really the epitome of what a butler should be.” Stevens is a butler who serve Lord Darlington, who unfortunately sympathized with the Nazi cause in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. Mr. Ferry points out, that in the end, Stevens devotes his life to “somebody who isn’t worth devoting your life to.”
In any case, Mr. Ferry’s career began in the ’80s, after attending the Ivor Spencer International School for Butlers and the Professional School for Toastmasters, taught by Sir Ivor Spencer himself (Spencer, who passed away in 2009, received his MBE for his service to the Royal family). Mr. Ferry then went on, armed with this education, to serve as a butler in domestic settings and then moved on to consultancy work. Mr. Ferry has authored various books on the subject, such as The British Butler’s Bible: The Key to Private Service in the British Tradition, the two-volume Serving the Wealthy, Hotel Butlers, and The Great Service Differentiators.
High Life spoke with Mr. Ferry when he visited Manila this August to teach a basic butler service course at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde.
Most butlers usually come from a long line of butlers, so if judged on this metric, Mr. Ferry wouldn’t have been a butler. His father was a lawyer, and his brothers were doctors. He said that his mother was “jolly sure” he’d become a doctor too, but Mr. Ferry was not interested in the profession. Instead, he went into education, then counseling, and along the way, jumped from job to job. He spent a period in Hollywood doing—of all things—intelligence work. “If I told you before, I’d have to kill you,” he said while laughing. His wife was involved in the launch of a yacht, and, in her efforts for the event to run seamlessly, came upon Sir Ivor Spencer’s butler academy. “I learned to be a butler from him; the basics of it.”
“To become a butler,” he continued, “you really have to either go up the ranks, which doesn’t really happen anymore.”
RUNNING THE HOUSEHOLD
In the old days, at least starting from the Victorian Era, a young boy entered domestic service to a great household by applying as a lower-ranked employee, say, a footman or a valet, and was supervised by a butler already in place. In time, if he worked well, he would come to replace the butler himself. Mr. Ferry compares the former life of the butler to an apprentice program, and said that knowledge of buttling was usually passed through word of mouth.
The butler’s role has expanded in the thousand years since the profession’s inception. Originally, the butler was in charge of wines and bottled beverages in a household (the word shares its etymology with “bottle”), but the role of the butler as we see today really came about in the Victorian Era. The butler was in charge of the household staff and the way it ran, and, in a manner, also influenced the life of the house’s master from the time he woke to the time he slept.
The way of the butler suffered a decline after the First World War, the flaming sunset that closed most of the doors of Europe’s great houses and the age of the aristocracy. Taxation and political reform in England lessened the power and prestige of the great houses which needed armies of staff to run it. “They couldn’t afford it so much,” said Mr. Ferry. Furthermore, while the social reforms and the carnage of the war changed the lifestyles of the lords and ladies who employed them, the War also brought a change in the mindset of the household staff. “They saw a wider world out there. They were paid more, they had more respect, perhaps, and those who survived the war didn’t want to go back to the drudgery of household work.”
For a period, only the wealthiest of the wealthiest could afford a butler, but financial booms in the ’80s brought the butler back in fashion. Continuing financial booms in Asian countries such as China fuel the demand for British-trained butlers. Speaking about the modern butler’s role in the modern world, he said, “You really are CEO of Home, Inc., meaning that you run the household,” he said, citing duties such as the effective management of staff, and, in some cases, even managing funds.
“You’ve got, maybe, ten companies, and you’ve got people running each of the companies for you. You don’t run them yourself necessarily; you’re maybe Chair of the Board,” he said, profiling what sort of person would require the services of a butler. “If you’ve got everything in the world, you must be wasting an awful lot of time managing it all.”
HE SMALLEST THINGS MAKE THE GREATEST IMPACT
As in any profession, one must have the proper traits and character to handle the position for as long a time as possible. He says that as a butler, being invisible is one. “You’ll want to be invisible because you’ll get up the boss’s nose if you’re in his face the whole time.” Another important trait: discretion. “If you have someone in your house, you don’t want all your secrets or private matters appearing in The Times of London.” One such person who arguably broke this rule was the butler of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. In 2003, he-who-shall-not-be-named released a memoir titled A Royal Duty, where he wrote about his career in royal service in great detail. He also served as a witness during the government’s inquest in the death of the Princess of Wales, saying things that could have painted him as an unreliable witness. “We don’t mention his name around here,” said Mr. Ferry, laughing.
As in any type of service or work, while one is expected to do one’s duty, it’s always the smallest things that make the greatest impact. “Helping with their mother,” he said, when prompted to recall an occasion where his employer thanked him for something. “It’s a stupid little thing,” he says modestly. “The mother wasn’t in good shape, so I helped her.”
On another occasion, he was working under a Russian magnate who had a fabulous estate hidden near the Urals. “He could’ve bought anything he wanted, but he was eating slop.” He said that he wasn’t there to handle the cook, but he was there to train the Russian magnate’s butler. Going to the kitchens to investigate, he found out that the cook had given up on life after her husband killed himself in the garage. Relying on his counseling skills from his previous life and vocation, he helped the cook find her footing again. “She came back the next day with lipstick on,” he recalled. “She cracked open a cookbook, and started cooking fantastic food.”
Our lives never run truly smoothly. What would compel a person to devote their life to making sure that another one’s life goes on smoothly, when a whole world runs inside you already? He said, “You take joy in helping others. You could do that as a nurse. You could do that as a minister. As many things—as a mother, even. But you have the additional benefit of working with very high-end possessions and properties, and so forth, in a beautiful environment where money is no object.”
In the end, however, what matters most is a quality that Mr. Ferry describes as “solicitousness.” “You’re really caring about another person. You really care about the boss, all the guests, all of the family,” he said. “You really make sure that there’s a smile on their face as much as possible. Their life just really rolls along smoothly. And that’s really what you’re there for.”