Sheldon Barr and Tom Gardner have been together for nearly four decades and jointly run the Gardner and the appointment-only Barr Venetian Glass Gallery on the Upper East Side. It was not always thus because in past years they each pursued very different careers. Sheldon amongst other things ran a restaurant called Sybarite (“it was a success but it was slavery”) and also moved back and forth from Paris to New York dealing in antiques, specializing in 19th and 20th century glass. He lectures regularly and has written a book on Venetian glass. Tom went into service when he was 18 and had a career as a butler for a slew of blue-blooded, or just plain rich, employers. He has written a memoir, The Butler Wore Guccis, which he hopes to publish. They live together in what seems like an enlarged cabinet of curiosities—a single room richly and skillfully packed to the rafters with antiques—and cheap glasses from Pier One for their evening glass of wine, also cheap, or so they told us.
You have specialized in 19th century art glass, which used to be dismissed as “tourist glass” – what was it that caught your eye for that kind of glass?
I’ve been a glass dealer my entire life. When I started out, I was selling Tiffany glass and American art glass back in the 1970s when nobody wanted it. Then I discovered French 19th century glass, which was overlooked. It then became very, very, very popular.
Why glass? What draws you to it?
It is its impermanence, its fragility, its translucency. I collected little bits of beach glass when I was a child.
And it’s old. Weren’t glass beads something to do with the byproduct of smelting metals?
Well, that’s Mesopotamian stuff from 3000 years ago. Blown glass was discovered in, I think, Syria in about 50 BC. Syria was part of Rome then.
I read somewhere that glass was “Rome’s plastic”.
It was very common and they learned how to blow it beautifully. They invented a lot of glass-making techniques. Glass is basically very cheap—it’s melted sand with some flux [a compound of flint/sand/red lead/potash or soda] and some coloring in it. And fire. That’s all it is.
Why did Venice become such a famous center of art glass?
Well Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797. He fired one cannon shot into the Piazza San Marco and Venice surrendered just like that. But Venice by that time had lost its trading empire to the Turks and all they had left was glassmaking. The making of glass in the Middle East had declined as well. When glassmakers would try to escape to work in other countries, the Grand Council of Venice would send out assassins to kill them so that they would not take their secrets to other countries—but of course they did escape. And before the 18th century, in order to get a glassmaker to come back, they would imprison his family. They were all confined to Murano—it was like a prison. They forced to the glassmakers to move there in the around 1490 firstly because of the danger of fire from the furnaces, and also because it was a way to control the glassmakers.
Oh! I thought they were devoted craftsman who loved their work.
[Laughs] And oddly enough, the fumes from the glassmaking drove away the mosquitoes and malaria, so the Venetians began to use Murano as a resort during the summer. That’s when the palaces were built on Murano.
Is Venice still important for glassmaking?
The entire art glass industry moved to Seattle a long time ago and Venice got left behind. It was because of people like Dale Chihuly, the Marionis (Dante and Paul) the Pilchuck Glass School and so on.
Have you ever tried to blow glass?
Yeah, I tried once. It was terrifying. And it’s hot!
What sort of person buys the glass that you sell? Not so many people assemble collections of beautiful, interesting objects these days.
But they will. I’ve seen minimalism for ten years, then back to eclectic objects for ten years and then back again to minimalism. 1950s glass, the real thing, not all the knock offs, has become very, very, very collectable. We have seven or eight major collectors and we sell to museums.
So what do you do when something breaks? Do you weep?
Well, we don’t break it.
Of course you do! You can’t have lived a whole life specializing in glass and never broken something!
I have broken four things: a fabulous Tiffany vase on the faucet when I put into the sink to wash it; I dropped a Venetian glass when I was cleaning it—cleaning is very dangerous—you should just leave it dirty. And one or two things just broke themselves from internal stress.
So what do you drink in the evening—and how do you choose which glass to have it in?
We drink cheap white wine in glasses from Pier One.
Now Tom, do you want to give us your story?
Um … my story? Well, what happened was that I was “staff” – I really don’t like the word servant. There’s a book [manuscript] called The Butler Wore Guccis, which is about me and I wrote it. It hasn’t been published yet. I’m giving a talk at the 92nd Street Y and telling anecdotes from the book.
So how did you end up becoming a butler?
Well for a variety of reasons I didn’t go to college [until later]. A friend of a friend put me on to a domestic agency for a summer job. I was taken on as a houseman for Mrs. Robert R. Young whose sister is Georgia O’Keefe. It was a summer job in an incredible mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. She was like a marine. She was as severe and as driven and as focused as her sister, Georgia.
Is “houseman” American for “butler”?
No Waldemar, the Polish butler was the butler but Mrs. Young took me on because she knew Waldemar was ready to pop. A houseman polishes everything … there’s a list so long. No human being could do it all. Halfway through the summer I became the butler. The house was so big—nobody wants to live in those houses anymore because they’re too big and because of the taxes.
You need staff!
That’s the bottom line. Anyway Mrs. Young and I had a parting of the ways. I got another job for Ambassador Gardiner in Palm Beach. I came on as the Under Butler or the Junior Butler, which wasn’t a bad package at nineteen or twenty. I was then offered a job with Mrs. Merriweather Post as Footman of the Pantry. She had 45 people on staff and with that reference I could go anywhere.
That sounds like something out of Downton Abbey! What have you learned about the master-servant relationship?
I learned how background and money come together and yet how human all of them were when they weren’t on stage. The last person I worked for was Mrs. Ogden Phipps, [the mother of Lily Pulitzer] in Saratoga. She was one of the few people who called me “Tom”. She asked me if I would drive her, even though I was the butler, to a birthday party in Greenwich in her Mercedes. We took the Taconic, which is a dangerous road. There were rainstorms and squalls—this fabulous new Mercedes started hydro-planing down a hill. She said, “Tom, what should we do?”
I said, “Sit back, close your eyes and just breathe easily.” The car went off the road and caught in the gravel. We might have gone over the bank. She opened her eyes and said, “Well done, Tom, well done.” But at the end of the birthday party, somebody had broken into a car—there was [a confusion] about luggage locked in the car. Mrs. Phipps kind of lost it and said, “Tom, how could you have been so stupid?” There was a whole entourage of people on the porch watching. So I looked at her and said, “Goodbye, Mrs. Phipps.” She said, “You can’t leave! I won’t give you a reference!” And I said, “Goodbye, Mrs. Phipps.” That was my last job.
Sheldon interjects: But before that he had had one interview and he went into this woman’s office and she was sitting behind this gigantic Louis XVI desk—a real one—and Tom showed her his references. And then she said, “Let me be your Jewish mother. This is not for you. You’re going to come to my house and you’re going to organize it beautifully and you’re going to get bored. Then I’m going to have to do this all over again. Why don’t you find something you really love, apply yourself to it and make yourself the best in the world at it. And then you’ll have a happy life.” And Estée Lauder was right! In six months we were in Europe.
What was satisfying about the work and what was frustrating?
Sheldon: I think he was fascinated by all the beautiful interiors!
Tom: I really had a ball a lot of the time. I would never take on a position where the interviewer ever, either indirectly or directly, implied that she was interviewing for a servant.
What did you think of yourself as then?
I was a staff member.
What do you think of Downton Abbey?
Well if you compare Upstairs, Downstairs with Downton Abbey, in Upstairs, Downstairs, they’re the servants but in Downton Abbey, especially the chauffeur and even the girls, they’re seen [by their employers] as real people.
Weren’t you a bit wary of becoming friends with your employers because at the end of the day they are who they are and you are who you are—and in their eyes, you’re disposable?
Tom: I never looked at it that way. Sheldon: And actually, they often don’t even consider themselves rich or different.