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The Life of a Modern-Day Butler

What might seem like an antiquated profession is booming in the age of The One Percent

With his French accent and scruffy beard, Frederic Sanz is hardly the model of the stereotypical stuffy British butler. He doesn’t wear a tux-and-tails, instead donning comfortable slacks and a polo shirt. Nor does he lay his head at night in some corner of a billionaire’s manor, choosing instead a minimalist, impeccably clean condo in Montreal’s trendy gay village.

If his appearance and accomodations defy expectations, so too was the 44-year-old Sanz’s entry into the ranks of professional butlers. Whereas most people would think the typical family holding the kind of wealth necessitating a butler would have tastes in the champagne-flute-and-foie-gras range, Sanz found himself scrambling to assemble an ol’ fashioned barbecue for the jet set within days of taking the job.

Sanz, a native of Paris, had previously worked as a waiter and maitre d’ at the Canadian embassy in France. Looking to try something new and put some distance between himself and a family that wasn’t thrilled about his career or sexuality as a gay man, he settled on Montreal for its joie de vivre, progressive attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community and linguistic similarities to his home country.

The Canadian ambassador offered Sanz a few words of advice on living in Quebec (buy a warm coat) and helped set him up with a job butlering for an acquaintance, who happened to be a member of a prominent Canadian family. (Sanz requested the family’s identity be kept anonymous.)

He arrived in Canada just 10 days before one of the family’s epic, multi-day summer parties — a party that Sanz was expected to coordinate. The bash began with a cookout (the rich really are like us, except when they eat grilled red meat, they do it at a country mansion) and continued with elaborate formal nights, complete with live jazz and a multi-course dinner for almost 300 people.

All of which is to say Sanz is living proof that the butler isn’t a relic of a bygone Victorian age. If anything, to hear Robert Wennekes tell it, the butler industry is booming. Wennekes is the CEO and chairman of the International Butler Academy. Located in a mansion in The Netherlands, the academy offers an intensive 10-week course at the cost of 214 Euros (or roughly $250 based on today’s exchange rate) per day. It’s a hefty price, but Wennekes is convinced it’s worth it. In fact, thanks to globalization, he believes a talented butler will have no trouble finding work for the rest of their life. “Never before in history has there been so many wealthy people as today,” he says. “And these people own grand homes, planes, yachts and Lord knows what else — all of which require professional staff to handle, clean and manage.”

To his first point, there were almost 5 million people in the U.S. with a net worth of a million dollars or more in 2016, according to Capgemini’s World Wealth Report, up from just under 2.5 million in 2008. But the increase in wealthy people isn’t just in the West. Wennekes points to emerging economies in China, India and Brazil as opportunities for butlering to expand. According to a recent meeting he had with China’s Minister of Education, he believes there are as many as 100,000 job openings for butlers in China alone. (In 2016, China surpassed the U.S. in number of billionaires for the first time.) “The profession is doing very well,” he says. “The future is very, very bright — not just for butlers, but anyone who is working in private service.”

For those who have never met an actual butler, you’d be forgiven misconceptions bred from watching too much Downton Abbey or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The job, though, has a long history in Europe, starting from humble beginnings as cup bearers. “The word butler comes from the French or Italian word for bottle,” says Steven Ferry, chairman of the board of New York City’s International Institute of Modern Butlers. “One thousand years ago, when the modern butler first started, his job was to make the beer and serve the beer and serve the wine that was grown in the north of England.” Over centuries, those duties gradually expanded to include oversight of all the male staff — there are no records of a female butler until very late in the 19th century — and then, the whole estate.

As Sanz soon learned, modern butlering is less about hovering around in a tuxedo (on an average day, he wore Italian jackets: a green one for daylight, white at night) than about overseeing every facet of a house — from finances to staffing to scheduling. At its core, the job is about making the lives of the uber-wealthy run smoothly. While Wayne Manor often seemed to be a one-man show in the various Batman movies and TV shows, the most realistic portrayal of Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth’s job was probably in the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises. He directs various chefs, servers and housekeepers in such a way that the wealthy never see the effort involved. (The fact that one of those servers turned out to be Catwoman is an indicator that Alfred actually sucked at his job a little.)

You’d think technology and the gig economy would have made minor household tasks so easy that butlering would be an anachronistic calling, along the lines of sword forgers, beaver trappers or newspaper journalists. But barring an overthrow of the One Percent, there’s still enough exorbitant wealth in the world to make sure those with means can still rely on the human touch that only a butler can provide, all at the low, low cost of $50,000 per year starting salary (experienced butlers can make as much as $150,000).

Of course, the average super-wealthy household has changed significantly. Technology has infiltrated even the most rustic of country estates, and as the person responsible for ensuring no nuisances arise for their boss, the butler is expected to add technological trouble-shooter to their long list of more traditional duties. “The butler must almost be a computer technician in order to run many houses today,” says Wennekes. “Accounting is done on the computer; the houses run from a computer; and the heating and the lighting system is all run by computers. From that point, it’s very technical, and the butlers need to know ins and outs of how things run.”

If anyone was born to buttle, it’s Wennekes. Coming from a family that worked in hospitality, he was pressured to enter the business from a young age. After a brief detour as a restauranteur, he found himself in Seattle, where he worked in “one of the finest homes in North America” for seven years. Eventually, he landed a job as the butler of the American embassy in Germany before moving into job-placing butlers, and finally, opening the Academy nearly 20 years ago. In that capacity, he’s developed a strong sense for what makes a good butler: a solid work ethic, an eye for detail and the ability to put another person’s interest ahead of their own at all times. (While butlers do get days off, Sanz notes that other than his two weeks of annual vacation, he was always on call.)

The proximity to wealth and luxury, however, does draw in some people hoping to enjoy the good life by proxy. “There’s a lot of goldseekers, unfortunately,” Wennekes says. “There’s a lot of people who believe they can enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous by attending our school. Those people are getting into it for the wrong reasons. It’s still a job where you have to perform and work very hard.”

What, though, of the reverse? In an era when populism is on the rise on both the left and right, where resentment toward the wealthy has informed movements as wildly different as Trumpism and Occupy Wall Street, does class resentment ever come up for butlers?

Sanz acknowledges the occasional pang of jealousy, but he says it’s never curdled into bitterness. There’s a certain type of willing political blindness or apathy required to do the job, an underlying assumption that the people you’re serving aren’t undeserving of their station in life. Butlering is inherently conservative, not just in the throwback optics of the job, but in the political stance needed to willingly engage in it.

Still, there are signs of social progress. Ferry, for example, estimates that roughly 30 to 35 percent of butlers are now women. “When I did my training in London in 1988, there were 15 people in the class and one — an American — was a lady,” he says. “But you come up to the 1990s and start introducing butlers in hotels, and more ladies start to come into the profession for a very good reason: Male guests don’t mind having male butlers or lady butlers. But some lady guests aren’t happy about having a male butler in their room.”

For his part, after five years with his employer’s family, Sanz burned out. His salary had topped out at $85,000 per year, but money aside, he says he was left with almost no time for a social life. And after that kind of devotion and being privy to a family’s intimate moments, he had hoped there would be at least a sense of friendliness, if not fraternity. But: “They don’t want to be bothered. You talk to them the minimum,” he says. “All the times I wanted to talk to the missus, it was, ‘Not now, later…’ It’s not easy.”

Today, Sanz is back to being a maitre d’ and waitering at one of Montreal’s ritziest restaurants. He says he misses the challenge of butlering and is looking to return to the field — if the right family comes along. So far, finding that perfect fit has been elusive. It’s not for a lack of opportunities: He estimates that any given time, there’s two or three families looking for a butler in the city. But after some time in the industry, he has a few basic demands: a little gratitude, and ideally, weekends off.

In a way, the tough job search is understandable. The lines between classes, between employer and employee, are hard to cross. There’s an armor that can come from privilege and no amount of familiarity can pierce it. No matter how much time spent together, a butler will never be family, just a means for which the wealthy can get what they want, no matter how outlandish. “They were very busy. They were in another world, another planet,” says Sanz of his old employers. “You can’t say no, even if you say ‘maybe’ it’s a big drama.”

Workplace drama is the last thing a butler needs. When they’re doing the job well, it looks like they’re doing nothing at all. They’re the invisible helpers, the cogs that keep things running in the most powerful, influential households on Earth. Because when it comes to keeping the personal lives of the world’s most powerful people moving along, the old line turns out to be true: the butler did it.