LIFE AS A CHILD OF THE VANDERBILT’S BUTLER
By Jana Soeldner Danger
What’s it like to live a life like the one depicted in “Downton Abbey”? A world where butlers and housekeepers run households and take care of every detail of their wealthy employers’ needs? June Kingan, now 83, knows firsthand. Her father, Walter Jordan, served as head butler for Emily Thorn Vanderbilt White, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad mogul who amassed the fortune that made the Vanderbilts one of the richest families in the history of the United States.
During the winter, Walter presided over the staff at Mrs. White’s posh stone townhouse on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park in New York City. There she entertained the creme de la creme of New York society with lavish galas, dominating the social scene during the city’s gilded age. It was Walter’s job to make sure the house ran smoothly and that servants performed their jobs flawlessly. “It was quite a large staff,” June recalled.
In the summer, Walter and his family traveled with Mrs. White to Elm Court in Lennox, Mass., a 55,000 square-foot mansion with 106 rooms set on 44 acres of land. Greenhouses on the property that supplied flowers to adorn the rooms and fresh fruits and vegetables for the kitchen covered two acres. Mrs. White was a master of understatement: “She called it their summer cottage,” June said.
Walter loved his job and going to work every morning, June recalled. “My father was very attractive, a typical English gentleman. He was very nice to people and had a great sense of humor. Mrs. White was very fond of him.”
Romance in a Castle
June’s mother, Ina, met Walter at Edinburg Castle in Scotland, where Ina was working as a ladies’ maid for the Maitland family, whose history goes back at least to the 12th century. Walter, who was English, held a butler’s position with a someone who visited the castle. The two quickly fell in love, but Ina, who had traveled to the United States and was eager to return, refused to marry Walter unless he found work in America.
In those days, wealthy American families were eager to hire English butlers. But how did butlers on one side of the ocean connect with employers on the other side? “He probably went through an agency,” June said.
Eventually, Walter landed a job with the Vanderbilts, one of the most prestigious families in America at the time. “They brought him over from England,” June said. “I was born five years later, and my sister was born two years after that.”
Good butlers are skilled at anticipating their employers’ needs and meticulous about their responsibilities. Walter must have been good at both, because although he began as an assistant, he was quickly promoted. ”When the head butler retired, my father took over the job,” June recalled.
Walter was not required to live at the White home, so during the winters the Jordan family had an apartment several blocks away from the townhouse. June and her sister attended a school for gifted children, and Ina stayed home to care for her daughters, working from the Jordans’ apartment as a seamstress for some of New York City’s wealthiest socialites, although June cannot recall her ever making a dress for Mrs. White. While her father was easygoing, her mother was less so. “She was on the feisty side,” June said. “She could be a little bit bossy.”
Walter had to be on his toes keeping the White household running smoothly during work hours, but with his own family he could relax. “My mother was the manager at home,” June said.
It was the 1930s, and America and the rest of the world were suffering in the midst of the Great Depression. Rumors of approaching war in Europe were flying, causing distress on both sides of the ocean. June’s parents worried about their families in Europe and also realized how fortunate they were. “Many other people were out of jobs, and my parents knew they were lucky,” June said.
Walter rarely spoke about his work. “He was quite formal even at home,” June said. “He didn’t talk about what he did, because a good butler doesn’t talk about the family he works for. But if you’ve seen “Downton Abbey,” you know what a butler does.”
Idyllic Summers at Elm Court
Summers at Elm Court were idyllic. June’s family lived in a cozy cottage on the grounds, although the girls spent much of the time at summer camps, where they learned skills like swimming and archery. “Most children in New York City played in the hydrants during the summer,” June said. “I was very lucky. I got to go to the country. Mrs. White was very aware that children needed things to do.”
Elm Court was near Tanglewood Music Center and Jacob’s Pillow, a dance school and performance center, and when the girls weren’t at camp, June’s parents encouraged their daughters to take advantage of the
culture they offered. “We’d go to the concerts and sit on the lawn,” June said.
Elm Court was magnificent, June recalled. Mrs. White built the original home with her first husband, William Douglas Sloane, president of the W.&J. Sloane company, a furniture and decorating firm, in 1886. Over the years there were many additions and renovations, and in 1919, the mansion was the site of a series of meetings known as the Elm Court Talks, which led to the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.
Understandably, the furnishings in the mansion were extremely elegant. “There was also a lot of artwork,” June said. “It was very beautiful. To me it seemed like a museum, but it was still comfortable.”
Elm Court was only one of the magnificent residences owned by the Vanderbilts. During their heydays, they were known for their love of lavish homes. Mrs. White’s brother George constructed the Biltmore in Asheville, NC; her brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, summered at The Breakers in Newport, RI; and her sister Eliza built Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, VA. All were sprawling estates.
Elegant Tea Parties
Once each summer, Mrs. White invited the children of the help to tea at the Elm Court mansion. June and her sister would walk up the long, winding driveway and enter the beautifully appointed house, where Mrs. White would have cookies and tea served. “She’d ask us about how our summer had gone, and about school,” June said. “She was very lovely to all the children on the estate.”
At Christmas, the staff children would travel to the magnificent Fifth Avenue townhouse, where they would enjoy another tea party in surroundings beautifully decorated for the holidays. “Mrs. White always gave us a Christmas gift,” June recalled. “We would each get a very nice new coat every year.”
As the children of the Whites’ head butler, Doris and June were well trained in proper etiquette, so they were comfortable during the visits. “We were always very careful to say please and thank you,” June said. “Our mother and father reminded us of that.”
A More Formal Era
June’s family attended the same church as Mrs. White both in summer and winter. Whenever June encountered her father’s employer, she was dressed formally. “She always wore a lovely dress and beautiful shoes,” June recalled. “She never wore shorts and a T-shirt. The era was much more formal.”
When Mrs. White passed away, her family helped Walter find a job as head of food services for a large financial institution. “Our lives didn’t change when she died,” June said.
After Mrs. White’s death, Elm Court briefly became an inn. But eventually it closed and fell into disrepair. Then in 1999, members of the Vanderbilt family began to renovate it. June remembers visiting the place with her husband soon after the process began. Many of the fine furnishings were gone and the place was badly in need of remodeling. But the memories remained. “I was very lucky,” June said, “that my father had that job.”