Books: The Rise Of The Aristocrat

By May 20, 2013Arts/Culture, Books

– You know the economy’s bad when pop culture gets keen on the uber-rich –

By Shannon Rupp. The Butler Speaks: A Guide for Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette, and the Art of Good Housekeeping is sitting on my coffee table prompting a friend to wonder if I’m planning to throw a petite soiree the next time the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge roll into town.

Originally published 17 May 2013, on

“If not then why, exactly, are you reading that?” he asked.

It’s an excellent question and I’d been wondering about it myself as I perused Charles MacPherson’s dreadfully dull book about the banal business of buttling. He runs a school for butlers in Toronto, which has led him to become a minor media celebrity in Hogtown, which presumably led to this astoundingly useless book.

It’s not so much a book as the shallow idea of book. MacPherson offers advice on such straightforward tasks as how to carry a tray (support it from underneath) and how to wrap a gift with a perfect bow. And throughout it all he’s a perfect bore.

Rise of the ersatz elite

In an era when it’s supposedly as difficult to sell a book as to publish one, I had to wonder what Random House’s Appetite imprint was thinking when it launched this handsomely-bound turd into the marketplace. There may be a clue in the book’s repeated references to Downton Abbey: this tome seems to be aimed at people who want to fantasize about being rich aristos.

No doubt some acquisitions editor was half drunk on Downton’s romantic notions of an idyllic yesteryear when she bought it. How else could she have deluded herself into thinking that the five step process for handwashing dishes, written by a real life Mr. Carson, was likely to be a big seller. (Step 1: Dishes can be washed directly in the sink or in a separate washtub… Step 5: Dry thoroughly with a clean cotton towel.)

The book is part of a growing roster of pop culture offerings designed to seduce audiences into imagining they are part of an (imaginary) elite. And it echoes a similar mania from the 1970s, probably for similar reasons.

I call it the broken economy zeitgeist.

Pop culture always gets keen on the invented lives of the uber-rich when the majority of us are hard-hit by recession. Like frogs in that slow-boiling pot of water, we’ve been experiencing the erosion of the middle class since the 1970s when neo-Conservative economic machinations from the likes of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made it obvious we were in trouble. So we embraced elitist symbols like preppy clothing to comfort ourselves that we weren’t becoming an underclass.

Entertainment in the ’70s didn’t just give us the fanciful world of the British gentry and their loyal servants it also introduced us to the scheming of Texas oil barons in Dallas (1978).

Today in addition to Downton, we have Revenge, a campy TV hit in the soapy Dallas tradition (thought dead until 2011). The plot makes no sense whatsoever: an orphan girl whose father was murdered by evil, rich socialites in the Hamptons becomes a billionaire, adopts a false identity, and returns to avenge herself on those who wronged her. All the while dolled up for endless parties.

The show is amusing for the recurring scenes of Madeleine Stowe tottering about in sky-high heels while chewing the scenery. And oh that scenery: there are whole blogs devoted to the fabulously appointed mansions and the gorgeously garbed characters.

The Gatsby Effect

In another nod to the 1970s, we’re revisiting The Great Gatsby on film too. We haven’t done that since Robert Redford and Mia Farrow played Jay and Daisy in a 1974 film that flopped but had a huge impact on fashion. The 1925 novel makes author Scott Fitzgerald look like Cassandra as he outlines the tragedy of the rich and corrupt powerbrokers who are destroying society. But that’s not what we recall of Gatsby. Oh no. We always remember the glamorous clothes and the decadent party scenes.

That’s what Baz Luhrmann’s version is highlighting. The film is a car crash according to reviews – Metacritic gives it a dismal 55. But then we all expected that. The book is widely seen as “unfilmable” so screen versions tend to be little more than a collection of swell costumes and sets calculated to make us sigh over the joys of excessive wealth. And perhaps feel a bit more kindly disposed to it.

The movie was bumped from its original X-mas release date, where the Oscar winners reside, and launched during the summer crapfest with good reason, according to The New Yorker’s David Denby. He calls Luhrmann “a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.”

The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek agrees, but thinks that might actually be the point as Luhrmann tries to film Gatsby the character, rather than the novel: “It’s an expressionist work, a story reinvented to the point of total self-invention, polished to a handsome sheen and possessing no class or taste beyond the kind you can buy.”

In other words, it’s something every Gen Y-er can aspire to. Certainly Denby’s delightfully scathing review argues that Luhrmann’s vulgarity coupled with a soundtrack starring Jay-Z is designed to win over the young.

Baubles, shiny baubles

That makes sense if pop culture is redoing the 1970s. Those rich fantasies distracted and mollified young audiences in the day by giving them enough of a glimpse of the high life to make them feel as if they were part of it. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby was born of a similar era, economically, and the great fraudster offers a weird sort of hope to today’s 20-somethings bombarded by headlines screaming that millennials will be the most disenfranchised generation since the Depression.

Certainly the young of the 1970s were deluded by the Gatsby treatment. Baby boomers went from being idealistic hippies to greed-is-good yuppies. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, the film served as inspiration for how to fantasize about a glamorous life, preferably with servants. Like Dallas, it distracted audiences with shiny baubles while offering a mixed message that the rich were evil and have just as many problems as the poor (therefore you’re better off not being one). Still, it’s comforting to dress like one.

That Gatsby movie also jumpstarted the career of a young clothing designer named Ralph Lauren, who did the costumes and developed an East Coast prep school look of buttoned-down collars, tennis whites, and polo shirts that became all the rage. Of course Lauren is something of a Gatsbyesque figure himself — his real name is Ralph Liftshitz and the son of Polish immigrants hails from the Bronx.

The 1970s enthusiasm for conspicuous consumption (in the face of real economic decline) paved the way for another Gatsbyesque social climber — Martha Kostyra, from New Jersey. She began renovating houses and catering parties while developing a variation on that East Coast preppy design aesthetic that screams WASPy old money. Conveniently enough, she married a guy named Stewart on the way to reinventing herself and went on launch a lifestyle empire based on the notion that one could shop one’s way to an elite background.

And that is what The Butler Speaks is doing sitting on my coffee table. It’s part of the latest round of pop culture fantasies aimed at an audience looking to escape from an increasingly frightening economic reality.

Or it may just be a sign that Random House really needs to get some new editors.

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