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The Backstairs Contingent

March 2023
4min read

None of that incessant entertaining, party giving, feasting, and feting would have been possible, of course, without a large and industrious servant corps. It’s a pity that the recorded history of Newport contains so little information on the backstage crew that supported the efforts of all the social stars on the brightly lighted stage. A scholarly monograph could be written on the suave butlers and major-domos, the long-schooled chefs who made many of the more dazzling social careers possible, the nannies who relieved society ladies of their maternal duties and responsibilities, the social secretaries who tactfully saved their employers from error, the real sailors who prevented the yachtsmen from going aground.

The backstairs world was as rigidly compartmented, as snobbishly systematized as the structure of the society it served. Between the butler and the most junior of the upstairs maids, between the chief cook and an apprentice gardener, there was a social and professional gulf as wide as that between the currently reigning hostess and the latest mining-camp hoyden coming to try her luck at crashing the Four Hundred. Each servant knew his place, each guarded the area of his responsibilities. No butler would think of soiling his gloves on emptying an ashtray, and no lady’s personal maid would consider making a bed.

One young Vanderbilt observed the pecking order of the servants’ hall with a knowing eye. Stanley Hudson had been the Cornelius Vanderbilts’ butler for more than twenty years, and next to Grace Wilson Vanderbilt herself was the most awesome personage in the household at Beaulieu. He changed his costume three times daily until at dinner only the fact that his vest was black rather than white distinguished his attire from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s own garb. “Our butler never opened the front door or answered the telephone, relegating such tasks to the footmen. However, he did greet guests in the foyer, always speaking in the third person, such as ‘If Madame will please be seated, I shall see if Madame is in.’ He supervised the six footmen, clad in maroon breeches, white stockings, and buckled shoes, who set the table for luncheon and dinner, served meals, poured wine, and later washed the dishes.…”

Keeping those great houses on Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue in operating condition called for the services of hundreds of well-drilled servitors. Preparing and serving dinner for a hundred guests, invited on the spur of the moment by a hostess incapable of boiling an egg, necessitated a heroic effort backstairs. But it was the lady of the house, of course, who took the bows and was credited with being a magnificent household manager while the servant corps remained a faceless underground known by their Christian names, unchronicled and largely unsung. Mostly they were also grossly underpaid, a circumstance noted by their employers only when they found that Herbert the butler and Maggie the cook were getting a rake-off from the provisioners or that Aggie the upstairs maid—the ungrateful little sneak—was on the payroll of Colonel Mann’s scurrilous gossip sheet Town Topics .

A few of the servants, thanks mostly to their masters’ indulgence, became characters in their own right, picturesque personalities whom one catered to if one wished to stay in their employers’ good graces. One establishment pet was Azar, O. H. P. Belmont’s man. Until Belmont married Alva Vanderbilt, Azar was his valet. Dressed in a Zouave jacket and wearing a red fez, he always stood behind Belmont’s huge thronelike armchair when guests were welcomed to the hall of Belcourt. After his marriage Belmont promoted Azar to major-domo. “In a costume glittering with gold and eclipsing in grandeur any of his previous ones,” as one Belmont guest would write, “he would stand in the entrance between two English footmen in their court liveries and powdered hair and welcome the guests with all the pomp and ceremony of a Grand Vizier. His air of conscious superiority was unrivalled. He rose to every occasion with superb complacency.”

Once, however, he was thrown desperately off-balance. His employers were about to board a train when Mrs. Belmont asked him to take custody of her large, slavering French bulldog. “Madame,” he protested, with tears in his eyes, “do not ask such a thing of me. Sooner I would leave my master’s service for ever. Never in my life has such an insult been put upon me. In my own land, Madame, I was a chief of camel drivers. I would rather die than lead a dog on a string.” Mr. Belmont, never having been a chief camel driver, had to take charge of the bulldog.

Another commanding personality was Mamie Fish’s butler of many years. Morton was English and possibly even a little haughtier than Mrs. Fish in her grander moods. “Everyone acquainted with the Fish household (including his employers) was more or less in awe of his superb impassivity,” one of her intimates wrote.

Morton had one little failing, as attested by the network of blown capillaries on his bladelike nose and cheekbones. He did like a touch of the sauce now and then, or, as he put it, “I have a fine taste in wines through much service with the aristocracy.” His tastes also ran to whiskey, brandy, gin, and rum. And when he had overserved himself, he was inclined to grow testy of temper.

One day, severely hung over, he was outraged because Mrs. Fish had invited an unusual number of guests for lunch. Just after the last guest arrived, he confronted his employer and loudly informed her, “I suppose that because you happen to be Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish you think you can drive up and down the Avenue inviting whoever you like to the house. Well, let me tell you you can’t. Sixteen is my limit for lunch. If you ask more, they go hungry.”

Mrs. Fish discharged him, unfortunately, on the eve of one of her larger dinner parties. Next chapter: The Butler’s Revenge. Morton dismantled every piece of her gold dinner service, unscrewing the various parts and leaving the floor littered with three hundred bits of metal that looked like a jigsaw puzzle devised for King Midas. A telegram had to be sent to Tiffany’s, which dispatched two experts to reassemble the service just in time for the dinner.

Almost as disgraceful, by Newport standards, was the innocent error of a nameless footman who was announcing the guests at a costume ball. He was taken aback, naturally enough, when Mr. and Mrs. Henry Carter of Philadelphia approached. The diminutive Mr. Carter was impersonating Henry iv, which was easy enough to proclaim when Mr. Carter whispered his secret to the footman. But Mrs. Carter was the size of a Yale fullback, and her assumed identity confused the footman, though she told him distinctly enough, “A Norman peasant.”

“Henry the Fourth,” bawled the footman to their fellow guests, “and an enormous pheasant!”

—R. O’C.

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