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  • Richistan
  • Written by Robert Frank
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A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich

Written by Robert FrankAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert Frank

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On Sale: June 03, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-40926-3
Published by : Crown Business Crown Archetype
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

RICH-I-STAN n. 1. a new country located in the heart of America, populated entirely by millionaires, most of whom acquired their wealth during the new Gilded Age of the past twenty years. 2. a country with a population larger than Belgium and Denmark; typical citizens include “spud king” J. R. Simplot; hair stylist Sydell Miller, the new star of Palm Beach; and assorted oddball entrepreneurs. 3. A country that with a little luck and pluck, you, too, could be a citizen of.

The rich have always been different from you and me, but Robert Frank’s revealing and funny journey through “Richistan” entertainingly shows that they are truly another breed.

Excerpt

1

BUTLER BOOT CAMP

Housetraining the New Rich

Dawn Carmichael stands at attention, holding two plates of almond-crusted sea bass with Moroccan salsa. The blond, ex-Starbucks barista is dressed in a blue suit and white shirt, with a crisply folded napkin draped over her left arm. She’s lined up with three other servers in the cavernous kitchen of the Starkey Mansion, a prim, Georgian home in downtown Denver. When they get the signal—two taps on the kitchen door—the group will march into the dining room, greet their 12 dinner guests and begin their first public performance of the Ballet of Service.

The Ballet of Service is a complex routine where all the waiters must serve the plates to guest in perfect sync. It takes hours of practice. And it is one of the most demanding skills taught here at the Starkey Mansion—better known as Butler Boot Camp.

Ms. Carmichael visualizes the routine: Serve to the left, take two steps to the right, shift the second plate from right hand to left, and serve again. When “addressing” the table, she must lean in far enough for a smooth plate delivery, but not so close as to make the guests uncomfortable. After serving, she’s supposed to take one step back, wait for eye contact with the other servers and exit the room counterclockwise.

Each step must look like a choreographed dance, building to a climax called the “crossover”—a plate-juggling pas de deux in which the butlers slide the second plate from their right to left hand with a quick body pivot, creating the illusion that the plate is suspended in midair while it’s being transferred.

The Ballet of Service is designed to show off all the desired traits of a butler-to-be—discipline, agility, poise and intimacy with tableware. And it’s one of toughest training exercises here at Butler Boot Camp.

Four times a year, aspiring butlers from around the country converge for Boot Camp training at Starkey, officially known as the Starkey International Institute for Household Management. Their aim: to become masters at the care and feeding of the rich. For eight weeks, the students hole up inside the mansion to cook, clean, polish, dust, wash and fold. They learn how to iron a set of French cuffs in seconds flat. They’re taught how to clip a 1926 Pardona cigar, how to dust a de Kooning canvas and how to pair an oaky chardonnay with roasted free-range game hen.

They learn how long it takes to clean a 45,000-square- foot mansion (20 to 30 hours depending on the art and antiques), where to find 1,020-thread-count sheets (Kreiss .com) and how to order Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream at midnight if your employer is on a yacht in the Mediterranean (a British concierge service). They will be able to divide a 30,000-square-foot home into “zones” for cleaning and maintenance. They will design “stationery wardrobes”—envelopes and letterhead specially designed to reflect the owner’s wealth and social standing. They will be taught that sable stoles should never be stored in a cedar closet (it dries them out), and that Bentleys should never, ever be run through the car wash.

Most of the students live in the mansion during Boot Camp, following the strict Starkey rules. Everyone has to wear a uniform of khakis, crisp white shirts, blue blazers and brown shoes. First names are banned; everyone is “Mr.” or “Ms.” to stress the importance of boundaries. The students are required to rise from their seats every time a visitor enters the room. If there’s a coffee cup that needs filling, a spoon that needs polishing or a visitor who needs welcoming, the Starkey students must spring into action. The butlers-to-be are so wired for service that when a class break is announced, they all pounce from their seats to fill each other’s water glasses.

By the end of the course, the aspiring butlers will be masters at pampering the privileged. The rich, they will learn, like their shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes always filled to the top. If their employers have four homes, chances are they’ll want their dresser drawers and bathroom cabinets arranged exactly the same in every house, so they don’t have to go searching for their socks or pills. And they learn that the rich live in constant fear of germs.

“They’re health freaks,” says Raymond Champion, Starkey’s chief instructor, standing at the whiteboard in Starkey’s basement classroom. “These people are very successful and guess what, they want to live forever. These are very germ-oriented people. Get used to it. Germs are huge in this world.”

No butler leaves Starkey without learning about the two other priorities for the wealthy—pets and collections. At Starkey these are known as “BYJ” categories, as in Bet Your Job.

During one class, Champion tells a story of a Southern family that had an entire mansion filled with birdcalls, which the butler had to dust and maintain every day. There was the guy with 500 cars that needed hand-washing and the rich heiress who had a barn full of cats and employed three full-time litter changers and a full-time bird feeder to pour seeds around the barn to attract birds to entertain the cats.

“The guy who fed the birds got paid more than any of us,” he says.

Most of all, the Starkey students learn never to judge their employers, whom they call “principals.” If a princi- pal wants to feed her shih tzu braised beef tenderloin steaks every night, the butler should serve it up with a smile. If a principal is in Palm Beach and wants to send his jet to New York to pick up a Chateau LaTour from his South Hampton cellar, the butler makes it happen, no questions asked.

Starkey students pay more than $13,000 for Boot Camp. While that may sound steep, the payoff is even bigger. Butlering has become one of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States. With so many Richistanis needing so many butlers, demand and pay are soaring. A good Starkey graduate can start at $80,000 to $120,000 a year—not to mention free room and board at the mansion.

First, they have to get through the Ballet. Tonight, Dawn Carmichael and the butlers are nervous. It’s their first Ballet and they haven’t had much practice. Dawn gets her signal and leads the other three servers into the dining room. Under a crystal chandelier, the dinner guests are arrayed at the table with perfectly spaced sets of flatware, finger bowls and assorted glasses.

The first plates go down smoothly. But on the crossover, Dawn moves before the other three servers. She freezes, trying to get back in sync. The other three also freeze. The guests glance up at the four panicked butlers standing motionless with their plates of sea bass.

Finally, the butlers nod, serve the plates and quickly march out of the room.

“I lost the rhythm,” Dawn says to the other butlers in the kitchen. “Oh man, was that bad.”

James Hopkins, a fresh-faced college grad from Maine, is equally disappointed. “It felt awkward,” he said. “We looked like robots.”

The next morning, Raymond Champion takes the class to task. A former marine, whose specialties include martial arts, weapons training and decorative baking, Champion has little patience for sloppiness. He served as an enlisted aide to several generals and served in combat during the first Gulf War. With his six-foot-two frame, square jaw and impeccable manners, Champion makes for the perfect drill sergeant for Butler Boot Camp.

“I was disappointed,” he tells the students the next morning, standing in front of his whiteboard. “Very dis- appointed.”

Champion says that aside from the crossover, there were other foul-ups. He looks at John Leech, a flamboyant bed-and-breakfast owner from upstate New York. Leech was in charge of wine during the dinner and his job was to keep all the glasses exactly half full. Yet he allowed some glasses to drop to a quarter full before refilling. Champion also says Leech paid too much attention to the guests’ conversation, rather than maintaining the detached attentiveness required of a butler.

“What can I say, I’m a very social person,” Leech tells me later. “The guests were all telling interesting stories so it was hard not to listen. And I didn’t keep the glasses full because I felt like I was being compulsive. But Champion was right.”

The next night the class hosts another formal dinner. It goes perfectly. Dawn leads an expertly choreographed Ballet of Service. Leech keeps the wineglasses exactly half full. And he successfully ignores the guests’ stories.

Champion greets them the next morning with a broad smile.

“Congratulations,” he says. “Now that was service.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Robert Frank

About Robert Frank

Robert Frank - Richistan

Photo © Jake Chessum/trunkarchive.com

ROBERT FRANK is a senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal, where he writes a weekly column and daily blog called The Wealth Report. He has been with The Journal for 13 years, with postings in Atlanta, London, Singapore and New York. He was part of a team of reporters that won an Overseas Press Club award in 1998 for its coverage of developing economies. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.
Praise

Praise

"Let's face it: we all want to know about the Rich. We know they're different than us, but how? We want to pry, but we're too polite or inhibited to ask, even if we get the chance, which is increasingly rare since they're walling themselves off in gated estates, floating around on mega-yachts or hiding behind the telephones at Christies auctions. Thank goodness the Wall Street Journal has unleashed Robert Frank as its "wealth reporter," a title which hardly does him justice. His inexhaustible curiosity, piercing eye for detail, and understated wit reminds me of Tom Wolfe, which is about the highest praise I can bestow. I can't remember the last time I've had so much fun with a work of non-fiction as I did reading Richistan."
—James B. Stewart, author of Den of Thieves and DisneyWar

“Like an anthropologist in the Amazon basin, Frank goes native . . . instead of a loincloth, he dons a white tuxedo.”    
New York Times Book Review

“Robert Frank charts the surprisingly volatile power of the burgeoning American multimillionaires, blue-collar workers turned fur-collared swells who increasingly and often uneasily wield their newfound influence like a club.”    
Vanity Fair

“Frank explores the new world of wealth in America and hands it to us on a silver platter. . . . His sharply drawn portraits of life in Richistan give us new insight into how America really works.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“[Robert Frank] takes us on a whiz-bang tour of the lives of the new rich.”
Portfolio

"Robert Frank truly understands the lives of today's wealthy. His entertaining profiles and fresh analysis make this a great read and a definitive portrait of the current boom."
—Ronald O. Perelman, billionaire financier, philanthropist.

"I couldn't put it down. Frank's field guide to the new rich is as funny as it is fascinating."
—Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail

"There's no group in society that fascinates me more than the new rich, or the nouveau riche, as they used to be called, especially the ones with social ambitions. The great 19th century English novelist Anthony Trollope created one of literature's greatest new rich characters in Augustus Melmott, who gave a ball for the emperor of China and everybody of social importance, who had sworn they'd never speak to him or his common wife, came and danced the night away. In Robert Frank's riveting book, Richistan, the same sort of attention-getting extravagance continues. Frank understands how great fortunes are made and how great fortunes are spent. I had a wonderful time reading this book."
—Dominick Dunne

"When Frank, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, began noticing that the ranks of America's wealthy had more than doubled in the last decade, and that they were beginning to cluster together in enclaves, he decided to investigate this new society, where "$1 million barely gets you in the door." The "Richistanis" like to consider themselves ordinary people who just happen to have tons of money, but they live in a world where people buy boats just to carry their cars and helicopters behind their primary yachts, and ordering an alligator-skin toilet seat won't make even your interior designer blink. But Frank doesn't just focus on conspicuous consumption. He talks to philanthropists who apply investment principles to their charitable contributions and political fund-raisers who have used their millions to transform the Colorado state legislature. He also meets people for whom sudden wealth is an emotional burden, whose investment club meetings can feel like group therapy sessions. It's only in the final pages that Frank contemplates the widening gap between Richistan and the rest of the world-for the most part, his grand tour approach never loses its light touch."
Publisher's Weekly


From the Hardcover edition.

  • Richistan by Robert Frank
  • June 24, 2008
  • Business & Economics
  • Three Rivers Press
  • $13.95
  • 9780307341457

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