As anyone who has a huge estate knows, it’s hard enough acquiring it, but even harder keeping it up.
I’m not talking about estates of the net-worth variety that you’d prefer to keep out of the hands of the I.R.S. and leave to your kids, but of the various de rigueur residences that go along with great wealth— the duplex on Fifth Avenue, perhaps, and the mansion in the Hamptons, the chateau in the south of France, the ski house in Aspen.
It’s challenging enough making sure the pipes don’t freeze (especially this winter), let alone keeping all the surfaces polished. What one really needs is a major domo, someone with the know-how to coordinate staff, but also to repair a broken boiler (or at
least know the right person to call), press a shirt and, in a crunch, even whip up an omelet.
Where to find such a Renaissance man or woman? Does such a multi-talented individual even exist? And if so, how much are they charging?
As one can well imagine, there’s a dearth of such Supermen and Wonder Women in the marketplace,though due to the felicitous accumulation of obscene wealth among the top 1%, apparently there is a crying need for domestic servants of great distinction. These resemble the head butlers of British yore and lore, though Dorothy Hamilton prefers to think of their Americanized versions as chiefs of staff.
Come April, Ms. Hamilton, the founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center, will inaugurate an Estate Management Studies program, its mission, according to a press release, being “to Train a New Caliber of Household Staff.” “I had a couple of homes and a few people who worked for me,” she explained. “It always fell to the wife to run the home. I thought there are a lot of women in my position, who were looking for a chief of staff.” But where to find such a polymath, one who knows how to kick butt, but also to make a bed, iron a collar, dust, polish silver—and do all of the above in an environmentally friendly way? Oh! And also teach. However, if Mr. Ely’s name rings a bell, it’s more likely because of his most recent employer, Brooke Astor, and Mr. Ely’s valiant attempts, detailed in the tabloids, to protect the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grande dame from her scheming, penny-pinching son, Anthony Marshall. Mr. Marshall was convicted in 2009 of defrauding his mother’s estate but remains free on appeal.
Mr. Ely—whom I got to know after he humbled Mr. Marshall’s million-dollar lawyers on the witness stand by evincing both total devotion to Mrs. Astor and to the knotty details that didn’t always show Mr. Marshall, nor his wife Charlene, in the most favorable light—will become the program’s dean. “I’ve been teaching my whole life,” said Mr. Ely, who, with 30 years “in service,” is said to have coached Mrs. Astor’s nurses to keep notes of the hanky-panky happening under their noses, recollections that proved unhelpful to Mr. and Mrs. Marshall over the course of the trial. “I’ll have a few more in the room at the same time.”
The program will ultimately cover as many as 20 skill sets within the framework of household cleaning and organization, and culinary and laundry essentials. These include silver polishing, pressing, stain removal, organizing closets, packing, making beds, creating healthy meals and, perhaps most important of all, doing no harm to your employer’s Warhols, Chippendale chairs or 18th-century Limoges dinner service. “People will spend thousands of dollars,” Mr. Ely observed, “and have someone getting minimum wage take care of it.” Each unit will take a week to complete, costing in the $1,500 to $1,700 range and coming with a
frameable certificate. “He has a passion about bringing dignity to this profession,” Ms. Hamilton explained.
“I hope to give them self-confidence, a better skill set,” said Mr. Ely, “to turn them into professionals rather than people who just fell into it. They’ll be able to walk into any home and find their place there, and hopefully be better paid for what they’re doing.”
Ms. Hamilton also hopes that homeowners will be tempted to send existing employees to her bustling school on the corner of Broadway and Grand Street. It also includes the French Culinary Institute and the Italian Culinary Academy. “A lot of people have staff they absolutely adore, but think they could do a little better,” she explained.
The Institute is building a new classroom for the program, specifically designed for the sort of talents required by demanding hedge-fund guys. “We’re putting in sinks so they can clean silver,” Ms. Hamilton said.
“Everybody is going to iron the same thing,” Mr. Ely added. “It’s not everybody watching three people do it, and have a turn.” The curriculum is clearly a work in progress. As we chatted, Ms. Hamilton decided it might not hurt to have a unit that included self-assertiveness training for heads of family, some of whom might have come by their
wealth recently and may be squeamish about ordering around domestic staff. “Maybe we should have a little class for the employers,” the culinary school CEO mused. “What are the pay ranges? The hours? So they don’t abuse them. A lot of people feel conscious about having staff, and they needn’t be. They feel funny being called ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ That kind of formality allows the staff to have a confidence level.” “I didn’t tell you, Dorothy,” Mr. Ely confided, “I’ve been working on it.” Ms. Hamilton doubts she’ll have any problem filling the classes. “I have talked to a lot of friends,” she said, of the employer rather than employee variety. “They can’t wait.” Mr. Ely noted that, as opposed to most other professions, youth isn’t an asset when it comes to running multiple homes. “I have friends who are 40 who lost their jobs,” he said. “With this line of work your maturity is a strength. Who wants to entrust a 65-acre estate—with multiple buildings, and with a large staff with multiple personalities to deal with—to a 25-year-old?”
© 2018 Christopher Ely. All rights reserved.