Michael, The Butler, is in a frenzy this summer morning in Georgetown.
The wine must be "up and chilled" and the bar stocked at John Sherman and Lorraine Cooper's for a luncheon. The china, linen and crystal must be properly selected and coordinated at Evangeline Bruce's for dinner. The maids, cooks and waiters must be sternly briefed and supervised at both places.
And most important, they must all remember: Mrs. Cooper does not allow salt on her table.
But Mrs. Bruce does.
With houseguests staying at both the households that share Michael, it has been, he says, "simply a horrible week."
Michael is British.
"I have been doing breakfasts, lunches and dinners at literally both houses. You have no idea what it is like to get ready . . ."
And then there's the silver.
"The silver has to be cleaned properly," says Michael. "You certainly can't put tarnished silver on the table. And you can't clean it beforehand. The heat and humidity get to it, particularly during the summer in Washington, and it tarnishes so quickly . . . it simply has to be polished the day of the party . . . Some days I'm just up to my elbows in silver polish."
Michael, The Butler, as he is known to many of the privileged class throughout Washington, has been holding down two jobs for more than a year now.
He is one of a handful of British butlers here, and among those who know about these things, he is a household name and very well-liked. A woman from New York once desperately tried to convince him to take a job overseeing her 32-room duplex on Park Avenue. But he would have none of it. "She kept going on and on and on about how prestigious they were," he says. "I'd never even heard of them."
Michael, born Michael Mangan, splits his work time equally between the Coopers' and Bruces', "shuttling" daily between their vast brick houses in Georgetown. It is six blocks, a 10-minute walk--unless he brings his two West Highland terriers, Jamie and Robbie. "Then it takes 20 minutes because we have to stop at all the trees," says Michael.
He also lives at both houses, a small room in the Coopers' basement and an apartment at Mrs. Bruce's. He has a private phone line, and the same number rings in both places. He also has embossed calling cards, and says he is "adequately paid" for what he does. It is, he says, a comfortable life.
John Sherman Cooper is a former U.S. senator and ambassador, and Lorraine Cooper and Evangeline Bruce are two of Washington's grande dames. Their prestige goes beyond wealth or power. In many ways, they are as close as Washington will ever get to having its own aristocracy. And they are part of a social clique that abhors publicity. Their parties are almost never covered by the press, and neither woman chose to comment about Michael for this story.
These are households where Nancy Reagan has lunched with "the ladies." Presidents have come and gone. Henry Kissinger, Joseph Alsop and Averell Harriman have sat across the table from each other, ". . . and movie stars, royalty, senators and archbishops--you name it," says Michael, are guests for dinner.
These also are households where the worst mistake Michael says he can recall having made was when he "forgot the finger bowls."
"I see people in stores or restaurants and I think how lucky I am. In a restaurant people are very rude, in stores people are very rude. I never come across anything like that," he says. "I am very fortunate."
Michael, who is 35, elegantly graying and meticulously turned out in a sober black suit (one of five he owns) and sparkling white shirt, has been a butler for nearly 15 years. Unlike many other butlers, a dying breed, he did not go to butler school and states unequivocally that he "would never hire anyone from one of those schools." Although such schools teach one about expensive wines, French poodles and Italian cuisine, "you just don't know what you're going to get," says Michael.
Being a butler is not to be confused with being a servant. Michael does not clean. He does not shop. He does not cook. He supervises. He answers the phone. He plans. He mediates. And sometimes he serves as a valet for Mr. Cooper, which means he presses his suits.
And he's tactful.
"Yes, tact . . . really, that's the essence of my job," he says, legs crossed, as he swirls smoke from the chain of Marlboros he has been smoking in the Coopers' bottom floor, where his tiny orange room is located. Pictures of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth hang on the wall behind him.
"I wouldn't say exercise tact," he explains, "but be tactful in everything you do." Michael's Rules
* "As a rule, a cardinal rule, you don't see anything and you never hear anything. You hear a lot of things but you never, never repeat anything. Absolutely never."
* "Never show any expression of surprise." Once, a lady guest arrived a day early for lunch with Mrs. Cooper. He opened the door stoned-faced, plopped a drink in her hand, notified Mrs. Cooper and raced down to the kitchen to order a lunch prepared. "You pretend you expected them all the time," he said.
Yet, for a pro, there are those moments when even Michael must admit he has been horrified. "When President Ford was over for dinner one night, the chair he was sitting in gave way. I must say that frightened me for the moment."
But did he show his shock? "Oh no! I just grabbed another chair quickly."
* "As a rule of thumb, you don't smoke in front of the guests . . . or in the public rooms. It's not good manners."
* "I always eat the same meal as the guests in case the boss wants to discuss it the next day . . . in case the sauce needs a little more of this or a little more of that."
* "I read all the newspapers thoroughly every day . . . particularly Women's Wear Daily and W . . . It helps an awful lot to learn the faces. I consider it work in a way . . . If you're somehow stuck with someone before they leave for the airport, it helps to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation." A Day in the Life
The doorbell rings. Michael is on his feet in a flash, buttoning his jacket and sprinting up the Coopers' stairs to the airy living room where the late morning sun is starting to reflect off the reddish couch and sparkling silver artifacts. False alarm. Only a delivery. "He should have come around the back," Michael says.
In one hour, eight women will be arriving for lunch. There is not an ashtray out of place or a speck of dust in sight. Michael starts fluffing throw pillows.
"You know," he says, "I can't walk through a room without plumping pillows. It's embarrassing. I find it hard to restrain myself. Even at friends' houses, I start cleaning ashtrays."
Michael never really intended to be a butler. In fact, he started out as a librarian. But then again, what better way for a young college graduate from Nottingham, England, to be exposed to money, fame, power and prestige?
Born to a middle-class family, he worked his way through school waiting tables at a fancy carriage house. While working as a librarian, Michael decided to answer an ad for a "footman" at the governor's residence in Bermuda.
"A friend of mine had come back from Bermuda with a fabulous tan . . . and then I saw the ad so I applied--not thinking I'd really get it," he says.
A footman is lower than a butler. One answers doors a lot more. One also gets to serve on mammoth yachts, but Michael got seasick the first time he went out on the governor's yacht. So he was given another assignment. "I rode in the carriage instead," he says. "It wasn't as much fun. But I didn't mind the horses.
"Bermuda taught me how to address people," says Michael. "And that's a very important thing to remember. You have to remember people's titles."
Bermuda also enabled him to meet his best friend, also named Michael. The other Michael is also a butler in Washington today. In any case, both Michaels eventually returned to England, where they were contacted by the British Embassy here and offered jobs.
"We're both the same height," offers Michael Mangan by way of explanation. "It looks good. They like people to be the same height. It looks better . . . I don't know how to describe it . . . supposing you're all standing up and the president is leaving . . . It's just neatness . . . It's like laying a table--you balance the candlesticks." The Loyal and Proper Way
The Coopers hired Michael from the British Embassy about 11 years ago and he has been a loyal butler ever since, even traveling with them to East Berlin for a while when Mr. Cooper served as first U.S. ambassador there. It has only been one year that the Coopers have allowed his services to be shared by their friend Mrs. Bruce. Normally, it works out that he is three days at one place and two at the other, depending on the week. During the frenetic social season, he does split his days between the houses and the women coordinate their schedules with him.
And through it all, Michael says, he never tires of waiting on people.
"Well, there is a way of telling someone what to do," he says. "I can freeze people. Very coldly, very quickly. Sometimes people are rude . . . If they are, I give them a look, and if anyone, for instance, clicks their fingers, I just ignore them. I look them straight in the eye and walk away. That's the way you call a dog."
But that would never happen in the Bruce and Cooper households. Propriety is in greater abundance than their combined silver, crystal and china patterns, and rudeness is as uncommon as cheap wines.
"I'm afraid that I tend to think that all people do things the way we do," sighs Michael. "And they don't, do they?"