At Your Disservice

These student butlers got served.

The students at the Starkey International Institute for Household Management knew something was wrong that day in February: Mary Louise Starkey, founder and president of the Denver-based school, the 57-year-old "First Lady of Service" who'd transformed the lowly world of butlers into the booming and respectable "household management" industry, was coming downstairs to speak formally to the class, something she'd done only a handful of times before.

The ten students in attendance that afternoon were told to convene in the school's classroom, a wood-paneled former billiards parlor in the basement of the Starkey Mansion, the old red-brick manor on Logan Street two blocks from the state Capitol. After they were assembled, Starkey, flanked by several of her top administrators, marched in. "So, I heard you guys were all upset," she said. "I would like to talk about it."

"We are pretty shaky about what's been happening," said a student. That day, several of them had reported seeing Starkey yell at one of their classmates, take hold of her by the neck and then push her face close to a hallway mirror. The student, Lisa Kirkpatrick, had since left for the hospital and would eventually file a police report noting that Mary Starkey "grabbed her and screamed at her because the defendant didn't like the way the victim would appear in a school picture."

Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.
Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.

Details

Listen

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to hear excerpts of the February 7 school meeting in which Mary Louise Starkey explained some of the finer point of the service industry and shed some light on the alleged incident between her and student Lisa Kirkpatrick that day.

"Is it okay to put your hands on anyone, under any circumstances?" a student now asked.

"Well, maybe not, but I turned her around to look in the mirror," said Starkey, her petite figure, clothed as usual in a black velour jumpsuit, alternating between sitting and pacing at the front of the classroom. "I wasn't pushing her, I wasn't angry. I turned her around and said, 'Look in the mirror.' I was in a hurry, frankly. I didn't mean anything."

Another student, Skip Muller, spoke up. "Mrs. Starkey, we all paid a lot of money to come here," he said, referring to the $13,000 cost of the eight-week household-management program. "And we expected the highest standards of a professional environment. And we as a class have talked about it and we don't feel that is the environment here. And not just because of today. From day one." Muller had become the class's unofficial leader and mouthpiece — and now, clandestine chronicler. He had a recording device running on his desk.

Over the next hour, Muller and his classmates detailed the concerns they'd amassed over the program's first five weeks. Starkey and faculty members belittling and yelling at students and employees. An inconsistent and limited curriculum. Substandard meals and class trips, despite the large amount of tuition supposedly allotted to them. Fears that some students had been admitted and strung along for purely financial reasons, with no real hope of job placement. Anxiety that the pin each successful graduate would receive — a pin symbolizing that they were all official Starkey Certified Household Managers and ready to supervise the upkeep and administration of some of the most glamorous homes in the world — had little real-world value.

Starkey became defensive, her tone ranging from even-tempered cordiality to emotional shouting. "I am not your enemy. I am here to get you placed, period. And pulling out of you what's best for you — whatever that is," she said, her hands aflutter. "Some households are pretty drama-centered, and I am not excusing anything. This, by state board standards, has to simulate a private home. We are not a black-and-white educational environment. If we did not do whatever happens in a home, we would not be licensed to be doing what we are doing.

"I don't think anyone, after 25 years, is feeling like my credibility is an error. I've had way too much success," Starkey concluded with finality. "You could be upset about [the school], you can be angry with me about it, but in the end, after 25 years of doing this, I've never had anybody say, 'You didn't do what you said you were going to do.'"


Skip Muller was halfway around the world when he first learned of the Denver mansion where he could learn how to care for the world's rich. "Inside the Billionaire Service Industry," an Atlantic Monthly story he came across last October while vacationing at a swank hotel in Hanoi, described the current "Gilded Age" in the United States, swept in by a burgeoning population of newly wealthy Wall Street mavens and tech wunderkinds. Over the last twenty years, the number of U.S. millionaires had tripled to eight million, and the number of billionaires skyrocketed from thirteen to 374, the article reported. But the unseasoned ultra-rich didn't have things easy. Having grown up leading normal-sized lives in normal-sized homes, they now found themselves overwhelmed by their 30,000 square-foot homes that required a small army of housecleaners, security guards, gardeners, personal chefs, nannies and personal assistants — operations that seemed to demand almost as much management and administration as the businesses that had earned them their fortunes. In response to such demands, a new breed of butler had evolved. Gone were the days of subservient manservants standing at attention; now there were household managers overseeing estate personnel with spreadsheets and organizational charts, up-to-the-minute budgets and digitized itineraries (See "The Butler Did It," Page 22).

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