Thursday, February 16, 2017

Domestic Service

The ballroom of the double Astor Mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, built by John Jacob Astor IV for his wife and family, and his mother Caroline, the Mrs. Astor of the Gilded Age, where their entertainments with several hundred guests were carried out by a fulll time staff of dozens. The great house was located on the lot which today is occuped by Temple Emanu-el.
Thursday, February 16, 2017. Mild day, yesterday in New York with temps reaching up to the forties; turning windy after sundown, dropping to the low 30s, and a little threat of rain, a few drops.

My friend Jesse Kornbluth a/k/a “Head Butler” (as in went to a book party last week for Daphne Merkin, one of the smartest girls both he and I know, who has written a book, “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression.” He reviewed the book on Head Butler and opened with the following:

“Lately I’ve been thinking about the allure of suicide again.”
Daphne at home. Photo: JH.
Now there’s a book you don’t want to read. And Daphne Merkin, the author of that book, understands. Clinical depression, she writes, is a “sadness that no one seems to want to talk about in public, not even in this Age of Indiscretion.”

If you’ve ever been depressed, you might turn away. Although if you’ve been depressed enough to really feel it, you might be inclined to learn more. You can find that out by reading all of Jesse’s review.

If you do, and you read the book you’ll get a look at a brilliant personality. You can read about Ms. Merkin also on NYSD HOUSE where we interviewed her at her apartment here in New York. She is a woman who knows a great deal about depression from experience. She has written about depression before, among her works. But this is a memoir.

I know Daphne, and if you see her apartment as photographed by (JH), it reveals a side of her that avoids, eludes, evades any kind of depression. Frankly in conversation with her, she’s one of the most delightfully interesting (brilliant) women I know. Part of her charm is that even her presence can belie that. But it’s inevitable. Like reading the book is for many of us.

Which, speaking of ... butlers, that is. I was having a conversation with Steve Candland who heads the US office for Angela Mortimer the international domestic and business recruitment agency out of London.  Steve and I were talking about a subject that always interests me — that is, Domestic Service. My interest, fascination even, dates back to my early childhood when I listened to my father and mother occasionally talk about his life in the 1920s when he was a young chauffeur here in New York. It was a world rich in my imagination, as is apparent in these pages.
Stephen Candland of Angela Mortimer US.
I’m not an eavesdropper although that kid listening to his father’s tales of the rich — all of which he recalled with great pleasure and even awe — was always jaw-dropping curious to this kid. Many years later that curiosity now a way of life, has been pared by experience to normal, even at times just professional interest in people and their lives. Those who work in domestic service of one kind or another, including those who we unwealthy have assisting us now and then -- housekeepers, for example, have interesting lives. Besides their own lives, they enter other's private lives in a way that almost no one does, other than family or intimate friends. And yet they are simply paid employees.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I knew a woman prominent in the community named Edie Goetz — whom I’ve written about before on these pages. Edie was the daughter of the ultimate mogul of the glory days of Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer. She and her sister Irene Selznick were real Hollywood princesses by design as well as ambition, and their father was the hands-down king.
Bill and Edie Goetz in their living room with a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1952.
In her day when she was ne plus ultra as the hostess of the movieland elite, she was famous for her house, which was mainly a social and entertainment center for only the crème de la crème of the industry (stars, directors, producers) and visiting society poobahs from New York and elsewhere. Being a child of MGM everything had to work like a perfectly edited Technicolor musical in Edie's Holmby Hills mansion. And it did. Grand as the grandest, her dinner parties were a cut above all others. Billy Wilder once told me that knowing after a day on the set, that he was going to Edie Goetz’ for dinner, he knew he was going to have fun.

Edie’s secret was her management capabilities. Always in the role of the princess, her executive abilities were shrouded in silk chiffon, but they weren’t accidental. I recall specifically one night when I went up to her house on Delfern to pick her up to take her RJ Wagner’s birthday party (it was his 53rd — that’s how long ago it was).

The Goetzes' private secretary Sonja Gilbert in the dining room on Delfern Drive in Holmby Hills, admiring the Bonnard.
While waiting for her in her Billie Haines designed library with the van Gogh self-portrait over the fireplace, I had a brief conversation with her butler Lodge, who had only recently come to work for Madam. Just chatting, I asked him how he liked living in Southern California – having come to the US after working in the Royal Household in London. “Oh very much sir,” Lodge answered. We chatted about the newness of living in Southern California and its culture, compared to the UK. Lodge was originally a Yorkshireman although I'm tp;d his accent was not deep Yorkshire. A very nice man, kind and an efficient executive as well.

Then I asked him a question that I knew was not “proper” but I was curious to know what he thought of his new glamorous employer: how did he like working for Madam?

“Oh very much, sir; very much,” he replied; then adding, “She’s very much like the Queen.”

“The Queen?” “Queen Elizabeth?”

“No, not the Queen Elizabeth, but the Queen Mother.”

Very curious, I could tell he was being entirely sincere. Knowing Edie, a very American, very Hollywood persona, royal in a way, in her own serious attitude, I didn’t grasp the similarity.

“How is she like the Queen Mother?”

“The way she treats her staff, sir. The staff comes first.”
Edie with her beloved staff except for Lodge.
Ah, I see. I learned something that made sense. Common sense. He told me the Queen Mother, whom he worked for, served, loved the company of her staff and it wasn’t unlike her to spend time with them at the end of an evening or on weekends in Windsor.

On our way over to the Wagner birthday dinner, I told Edie about my conversation with Lodge, and how he liked his job and WHY.

“Gee!” she gasped, in the same manner as a movie fan being warmly acknowledged by a major movie star. Edie was very impressed, and highly flattered. That was the ultimate compliment in her book.

In the years following I’ve come to know or be familiar with a lot of people who work in domestic service for friends, including very much the housekeepers and cleaning ladies who are ubiquitous in neighborhoods all over New York.

In talking about the subject with Steve Candland whose business services is not only finding the right person for the right job for a client, but also the how-to’s and what-to in managing  the business of having a staff.

He told me someone had asked him if it was only Trump’s Cabinet Appointments who get vetted about legal employ and tax practices of their household staff.

That’s a touchy subject but, he added, the world around us of high profile and/or wealthy persons are not the only ones targeted by the IRS and Department of Labor for illegal employment practices.

The wealthy, Steve said, and their employees are routinely examined for compliance. “Why? Because there are fewer of them, that’s where the money is, and the wealthy are most likely to have staff. That means you have to pay the majority of wages “on the books.”

That includes housekeepers and childcare.  Evidently there are many who are paid off-the-books. All of this could potentially increase the amount the IRS can collect federal income taxes from the employed. Evidently they estimate the federal government is missing several billion in unpaid income tax as well as Social Security and Medicare contributions.

Aren’t you glad I told you this? Now I wonder how Edie handled it. If you’re going down that road, ask Angela Mortimer first.

Contact DPC here.