The Butler Bellwether

Forget the consumer price index. If you really want an economic indicator, ask the help.

On a sunny afternoon a little while back, we found ourselves inside the mansion of a wealthy Pacific Heights couple. How wealthy? So wealthy that we had to promise not to reveal their names. So wealthy that there was a large atrium, swimming pool, and collection of Oriental art on the first floor. So wealthy that we will never, ever, see the other four floors. So wealthy that on the front step, somebody was making a delivery of the biggest robin's-egg-blue box we've ever seen. Perhaps Tiffany makes bowling balls. If so, someone had just ordered two.

Perched in a Louis XVI chair in the living room -- we've never sat so carefully, yet so well -- we took a moment to observe the rows of marble obelisks, the parquet floor, the threadbare Oriental rugs, and the impressionist paintings on the walls. We would not be speaking with the master and mistress of the house this afternoon, which was fine with us. Our appointment was with the estate manager -- the butler, if you will. "It can be an insane household," the estate manager told us (we can't name names here either). "Every day it's something different." She told us about the long list of errands, the difficulties of handling a dozen housekeepers and a pair of decorators, the 60-hour weeks. We wanted to get to the bottom of this business of 21st-century estate managing and, more important, to find out if the industry can tell us whether we're pulling out of this recession any time soon.

"Number of out-of-work butlers" doesn't show up on any lists of leading economic indicators, but the world of high-end personal assistants isn't a bad place to look to get a sense of how things are going. That's especially true in the Bay Area, which is home to both the ultra-wealthy and the culture of tech millionaires. "More people are looking for positions, and fewer positions are available," says Wayne Boyko, a butler who has been searching for work ever since his last employer -- a Texas oilman with homes in San Francisco and Sonoma County -- died a year ago. He's shopped his résumé to various agencies, without much luck. "Many will not even answer or respond," he says. "My sense is that they're on overload."

"We're getting floods of résumés," says Susan Feigon, who heads the estate staffing division of San Francisco's Aunt Ann's Agency. Much of the fluctuation in the numbers of people Feigon shepherds -- butlers, personal assistants, private chefs -- can be pegged to the dot-com boom. "A lot of money was coming in from high-tech folks, and my staffing was increasing -- it had just been amazing. With the downturn, it got quiet when money disappeared. People got rid of a lot of the fluff -- the chauffeurs, the chefs." She and others in the industry agree that while the obscenely wealthy remain, as always, relatively bulletproof, lower tiers -- the middle-upper class -- have had to make financial adjustments. It's difficult to cite hard numbers because "butler" is such a fungible term -- it can mean everything from supervising a staff of 50 to just driving the Town Car and watering the ficus -- but a plunging real estate market means a plunging demand for people to manage those estates. "There may be a change among people who have less money but still have a lot of money," says Werner Leutert of the International Guild of Professional Butlers. "Until you see real estate take a hit and people start to sell off their huge residences, people will try to keep their staffs."

For those who have lost their jobs, making their way back in can be difficult. Before the holidays, Andrew Gyorke spoke enthusiastically about his dream job: For the past eight years, he was the personal chef for a wealthy San Francisco family and comfortable enough in his position to mock the Johnny-come-latelies. "When there was a big gold rush going on, there were a lot of people who shouldn't have been in the business -- chefs who didn't know how to be invisible and do good work," he says. "There were probably a lot of bad meals cooked back then." But shortly before the holidays, he received a call from his employers telling him they were letting him go. He doesn't question the reasons his employers gave him -- that they were making the wrong impression on their kids, that they ought to be more hands-on around the house -- and he doesn't believe he was fired as a cost-cutting measure. But keeping busy in what he describes as "the darkest time ever in the food industry" has been hard -- restaurants are closing, expensive private dinners are getting canceled, few are willing to stick their necks out launching a five-star venue these days. "It's as empty as the Grand Canyon. Happily, I have another business working with old French posters," Gyorke says.

Things may be improving, however. "I placed two personal assistants this week," Susan Feigon told us after the holidays. "I think it's picking up."

 
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