One morning last week a limousine stopped by Anthony P. Browne's shop in a small corner house in Georgetown to take Browne to Mrs. Jock Whitney's Long Island estate.
Anthony P. Browne is a cleaner.
Not your ordinary corner variety. For one thing, he only does curtains and household furnishings, restoring the fabric as he goes. But he's a cleaner just the same. "I can't think of another phrase," he says. "I can't make it sound smart. It doesn't bother me anymore because we treat it as a profession and we are so rare. We are the only ones who reglaze chintz on hung curtains after cleaning, for example."
His clients aren't ordinary either. There is Buckingham Palace and the houses of the royals, though he won't talk about their chintz or anything else about them. And the Jock Whitneys. And the houses of Washington's elite: Evangeline Bruce, Pamela Harriman, Ethel Garrett, Deeda Blair and many more.
In fact, Browne has been in the most extraordinary houses around the world, and in the last few years his clients have consulted him on decoration as well as cleaning. He's doing some work for Jennifer Phillips for her new Georgetown house and has just finished Evangeline Bruce's bedroom, including the four-poster bed which was refitted Marie Antoinette style. He calls himself a consultant rather than a decorator so as not to frighten off other decorators on whom he relies for cleaning referrals.
Browne, 40, started coming to Washington four years ago from his native London to take care of such clients as Bruce whose homes he had cleaned in Europe. He would arrive by plane, mix chemicals from ingredients bought here in a drugstore and herbs brought with him and return home a few days later. The business got so big here he opened the Georgetown shop about a month ago. He already has bought a second location in Georgetown and is starting a small factory in Virginia.
Browne's mother, Paula Miller, had always done cleaning for friends for fun, and she started taking it seriously when her husband died during World War I. Fifty years ago she opened a business called Starcroft, cleaning and restoring fine household furnishings. "I think we are probably the snootiest firm in England. Anybody who is anybody comes to us," says Browne.
They have cleaned the curtains at the Royal Opera House in London. For the Victoria and Albert Museum, they have taken the spots out of the Lord Chancellor's red velvet satchel with gold crest, the one used to carry the Queen's speech the day Parliament opens; Pavlova's slippers; and Georgian-period jackets. Browne flies to Paris and the south of France for clients, and in Britain is chauffeured about in a silver Rolls-Royce. "I'm a spoiled brat, aren't I?" he laughs.
When he opened the place in Georgetown he decided not to use the name from the London establishment but his own, which is announced outside the shop along with the family coat of arms. "It is so much more personal that way," he says.
The front of the shop is chock-full of items that would brighten any living room. "It isn't necessary for a dry cleaning shop to have just a counter and a machine that goes around, and that awful smell. That's awfully boring and, besides, these are things that in five or six years might come back to you for cleaning."
So he's put up festooned blinds and other unusual window treatments as suggestions to clients, and has displayed antiques and silver and some embroidered pillows from Nina Campbell in London, like the ones Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, reportedly has bought for her home. Browne expects Lady Diana, with her penchant for feminine, ruffled decor, to have as great an influence in this area as she is having in fashion. Two of the fabric lines he carries in the shop service Queen Elizabeth, and soon he will be putting royal warrants outside his door.
Browne, who is tall, slim and dark-haired, dresses like a barrister in dark, Savile Row suits. "I hate getting dressed up and I do it in a temper every morning," he says. "What I'd really like to do is go to a person's house in dirty jeans with my sleeves rolled up, but I can't. I have to keep the image up."
He has a secret fear of arriving at the residence of a client and the butler sticking his head out the window and saying, "Round the back, please." He insists always on walking "bang in the front." In fact, he was once ordered to use the service elevator by a doorman in New York. "I said, 'Look, I don't go in the back door of Buckingham Palace, and I'm certainly not going in the back door here.' " He then walked directly to the front elevator. For the duration of that job, he made everyone who worked for him enter through the back door (he says they laughed as they did) after dropping him off at the front door. "I'm terribly stubborn, and the way I look at it, the fortune my family spent on my education, they're the clients lucky to have someone . . ." His voice trails off, still sounding just a tiny bit piqued.
Once in the front door, Browne is often invited back as a guest. He will always fluff up the curtains to make them look their best "which everyone loves since it doesn't cost them anything." The hazard is that he notices any fault in the room. Three years ago he did Evangeline Bruce's drawing room; the other night he was there for drinks and in 30 seconds his eye caught one of the ropes on the very top of a valance that was just a bit crooked. It is so high up it would be a big deal to adjust, he says, and yet, "No one would ever notice it, but I noticed it, and she noticed it, and now it is driving her mad."
Browne has a set price for cleaning a room: $15 a square yard, or about $500 a room "whether you are rich or poor. Sometimes people choke when they hear an estimate of $3,500, but I know I'm saving them $35,000 on something new. And, in any case, a lot of these people don't want something new."
Most of his cleaning methods are old-fashioned ones, very few of them mechanical. Tapestries, for example, are washed in the herb saponaria, which restores the vegetable dyes to near their original brilliance. "If a silk is like shredded Kleenex, we can wash it and make it resilient again," says Browne. "It sounds like an old-wives' tale, but it is straight from Mother Nature."
Mother Nature is not so kind other times. Water marks are the most difficult stain to remove -- they make a strong edge that eats like acid into the fabric. Red wine stains can be wiped out with white wine. Salt is the worst thing you can put on a spill; it actually helps set a dye. Suede is one of the hardest things to clean, though it can be done; he cleaned some suede armchairs for Pamela Harriman last week. He says that Scotchguard and similar products are best for new things, including suede.
Browne resists doing clothes cleaning, but he will for his best customers, like Mrs. John Sherman Cooper, who asked him to clean her Dior ball gown. "If you know you can help, there is no way to turn a good customer down," he says.
And, to hear him tell it, his customers heed his appeals. "It is quite common for me to be invited and come to do an estimate for one room and on the way out I see something and say, 'My God, you've got to have that cleaned. Look at it.' And they get terribly embarrassed. I can't help it, it comes out before I realize what I am saying. I'm not doing a hard sell, it is just that I notice everything."
Browne is refurbishing a house in Georgetown -- for the moment, he is living by candlelight, which he thinks is the most flattering light anyway. Shortly, his Rolls-Royce will be delivered, and he will be able to call on his clients in the style to which he is accustomed. "The best thing for me is that I don't have to pay cleaning bills," he says, laughing. "If I had to pay these prices, I think I'd just go and buy everything at Sears and throw it in the washing machine."