Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue, Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank will read from Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, a economic deconstruction, travelogue and tell-all on the wealth boom currently hitting the country. It makes sense Frank is stopping in Denver during his book tour; according to his book, Denver is essentially the epicenter of Richistan, U.S.A.
To get to the bottom of what it’s like to serve the new rich, Frank devotes much of his first chapter to Starkey International Institute of Household Management, the Denver-based school known as the “Harvard of butler schools.” He describes the operation as a high-pressure and somewhat eccentric institution, but he apparently didn’t catch wind of any allegations of mismanagement, abuse and assault associated with the school and its owner, Mary Louise Starkey -- claims were later detailed in the Westword story, “At Your Disservice.”
“I did try to highlight the high pressure and perhaps excessive pressure on these students. But the main reason I wrote about [Starkey International] is that there is so much wealth in America and such a huge demand for household managers that Starkey is at this perfect spot in the economy of supplying and training this household help. The fact that there is strong demand for Starkey graduates and record salaries for butlers and the fact that the job of the butler has completely changed in the past decade is a symptom of the American wealth boom, of a much broader change in our economy,” says Frank. “And I had a lot of private conversations with the students. When some of them did tell me the pressure in the class is bordering on the excessive, I was sure to include that in the book, but no one raised these other issues. If they had, I certainly would have looked into them.”
One reason Starkey International may have escaped media scrutiny in the past, suggests Frank, is that because it’s such such an evocative representation of the world of the rich and famous, reporters may have failed to judge the institution on its own merits. “There is this romance about the butler. It’s sort of this mysterious, little-understood profession that seems very glamorous,” he says. “And Starkey offers journalists a way to tell the story of the modern butler in a way that’s more comprehensive than just finding a rich guy and his butler and profiling what that butler does everyday. Starkey gives us a window into this gilded world that, let’s face it, is very hard for the public to see most of the time.”
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Frank was also able to delve into another little-known local gilded world: the inner sanctum of the “Gang of Four,” the four liberal-minded Colorado mega-millionaires – Jared Polis (who was profiled in a 2004 Westword story, Tim Gill, Rutt Bridges and Pat Stryker – whose backroom politicking and bankrolls had a major behind-the-scenes role in the Democrats taking control of the legislature in 2004. Thanks to extensive access with the power players themselves, Richistan describes how the four “Learjet liberals” came together for lunch in the spring of 2003 and decided to create a political movement not through grassroots activism, but through well-spent dollars. The strategy worked; up-and-coming Democrats were steered into the right political races, Republican opponents were out-spent two to one, and pointed attack ads swayed the populace to vote blue come election day. Frank even scored a sit-down with reclusive multi-millionaire Gill, a journalistic coupe only accomplished a handful of times in recent history.
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Frank has a second engagement in town: This weekend he’s speaking at the Restoring the Art conference, the annual household management conference sponsored by Starkey International. Frank will host discussions on how to handle the media – considering the allegations against her, Mrs. Starkey may want to sit in. – Joel Warner