Luzanne Otte returns today for the third installment of our six-part series on the impossibly chic Patricia Altschul. Thanks to Bravo’s Southern Charm, Patricia’s fans have also fallen in love with her delightful butler, Michael Kelcourse, and many would like to know more about him personally. During her last visit to Charleston, Luzanne had the opportunity to visit with him, and today Michael is sharing the story of his career path, some tricks of the trade, and what it is really like to be Patricia’s right-hand man and majordomo. Welcome, Luzanne and Michael!
15 Questions in 15 Minutes with Southern Charm’s butler, Michael Kelcourse
By Luzanne Otte
Michael Kelcourse, lovingly referred to as Michael-the-Butler on Bravo’s Southern Charm is a fan favorite. He has served as Patricia Altschul’s (“Mrs. A”) majordomo for 15 years. I sat down with Michael to learn more about the man behind the ever-present Williams-Sonoma apron, and to pick his brain on domestic affairs.
Luzanne: In past discussions pertaining to the service profession, you invoked the biblical aphorism, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” When did you know that you were among the chosen?
Michael: I’ve always known. My relatives are amazed that I always said this is what I wanted to do and I actually did it. When I was 16 years old, I went into career services at my high school and they told me the Nederlander Theater needed a mother’s helper/father’s footman. I loved it and was invited back for every event, but didn’t know that I could make a career of it. At age 23, my Dad arranged for me to be an apprentice at a gourmet restaurant in Ireland. This really planted the seed of being in service. After the apprenticeship, I enrolled in a nursing program but wound up being busy doing what I loved and getting paid so much that I didn’t finish.
Luzanne: What was the impetus for relocating from Michigan to New York and how did you go about making the move?
Michael: There simply weren’t enough wealthy families who employed fulltime domestics in Michigan. In 1990, I contacted the elite Finish Agency in Manhattan. It has since been absorbed by other agencies, but it served the cream of the crop. They scheduled five interviews: 1 in Petersburg, Virginia, 1 in Palm Beach, 3 in New York City. I was hired by Celia Lipton Farris in Palm Beach and worked for other prominent families for short periods of time. I returned to the agency and accepted an offer from Mrs. [Eleanor Purviance] Bostwick, for whom I worked for 13 years.
Luzanne: Bostwick as in the founding partner of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller? I recall reading that the Bostwick household resembled that of an Edwardian era estate based on an upstairs/downstairs model.
[Mrs. A joins the interview]
Michael: Yes, Jabez Bostwick was Mrs.Bostwick’s husband’s paternal grandfather. We had 18 domestics including butlers, 3 cooks and 3 chauffers for morning/evening/weekend, parlor maid downstairs, chambermaid upstairs, personal maid, kitchen maid, staff maid, so on and so forth. The senior butler was kind in taking me under his wing and rounded out my training.
Luzanne: It sounds like being transported in time to the halcyon days of the Gilded Age. You worked for Mrs. Bostwick until her death, at which time you became the most sought after majordomo on the Gold Coast. At this point in your career, you were in a position to be highly discriminating in selecting an employer, so what made you choose Mrs. A of all people? Were you impressed with the admittedly indecent speed by which she pursued your employ?
Mrs. A: When a formidable majordomo is looking for a new position, the socialites begin to —
Luzanne: Descend like vultures.
Mrs. A: I was going to put it more charitably with, “circle the wagon,” but yes. Michael has impeccable credentials, intelligence, refined taste, and a terrific sense of humor. Mario advised me to act with haste.
Michael: I first met Mrs. A while driving Mario [Buatta] and Mrs. [Cynthia] Phipps to her home for lunch a year or so before Mrs. Bostwick died. I knew I liked Mrs. A and the employment package she offered was very desirable. You go where you’re needed and then figure out if it’s a good situation for everyone. I wasn’t sure if I’d like her, Whitney, the pug, or if I could be an asset to them. Fifteen years later, we know we made the right decision.
Mrs. A: By the time he started working for me at Southerly, Michael was already a first-class butler and a quick study on the particulars of the estate. He’s the consummate professional. We get along famously because our relationship is built on mutual trust and respect.
Luzanne: Not to mention, you’re one of the greatest double acts in the history of television. When I consider the portrayal of butlers in literature/television/film, James Stevens, Hobson, Max von Mayerling come to mind. All fictional characters who possess a frigid hauteur with mitteleuropäisch accent. Did you ever consider adopting an accent, and is there a fictional butler with whom you identify?
Michael: I’ve always identified with the faithful butler, Henry, in Dead Ringer.
Mrs. A: You’re more like Hobson in Arthur.
Luzanne: “Thank you for a wonderful afternoon. Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.”
Michael: Many of my lines come from that movie. When Mrs. A informs me she’s ready for her bath to be drawn, “I’ll alert the media.”
Luzanne: Henry and Hobson are fictional butlers. Can you name a nonfiction butler portrayed on television? If you’re an anomaly, we’ve significantly elevated the historical import of this interview. The word “butler” conjures up a variety of images in the minds of different people. As the preeminent butler in contemporary society, please describe your view of the archetypal butler.
Michael: The archetypal butler must have a willing spirit. You must have a willingness to put the job ahead of all else and a willingness to adapt.
Mrs. A: The International Butler Academy compares the modern butler to a Swiss Army knife and I think it’s an apt comparison. First and foremost, they must be problem solvers. They must have a wide-knowledgebase, be organized, and be an efficient multi-tasker.
Luzanne: Speaking of the International Butler Academy, they note a surge in the profession over the past decade. What do you think of academies like this one churning out newfangled butlers?
Michael: You’ve got to be careful when you sign up for butler training courses. Be sure it’s a reputable and practical program. “For 2 days in Manhattan and $10,000, we’ll sell you on the dream. Learn things you’ll never use like appropriate behavior on a private aircraft and how to buy a limousine with armored plating.” A lot of the things they teach don’t come into play unless you’re working for someone like Muammar Gaddafi. For example, ironing newspapers. Iron them if you want but this day in age everyone has an electronic tablet. It’s more important to teach young butlers to be thoughtful. Make sure the tablet is charged and its screen cleaned before presenting it.
Luzanne: Perhaps the increased interest in butlers is reflective of a societal desire to return to a more elegant way of living, a resuscitation of noblesse oblige. What advice would you give someone who seeks to emulate Mrs. A’s lifestyle on a budget?
Mrs. A: What’s a budget?
[pause for laughter]
Michael: Whatever it is you want, get the finest that you can afford. Make self-care, whatever that entails, part of your routine. No matter the size or value of my home, I’ve always surrounded myself with beautiful things. I’ve always had pride of ownership by taking care of those beautiful things. If I had a visitor to my home, I tried to make it look like I was anticipating somebody coming and treating them wonderfully. It takes a certain mindset to see beauty on a budget like one flower in a simple vase or Chick-Fil-A lovingly placed on a pretty plate. Even when I didn’t have the funds, I’ve always lived elegantly and anyone who wants to can, too.
Luzanne: For some, elegance is a state of mind that transcends limitations of a budget and then there’s Mrs. A. On my inaugural visit to the Mikell House, I was surprised to discover that the elegant mise-en-scène portrayed on Southern Charm was reflective of the way in which Mrs. A actually lives. Any request I could conjure magically appeared before me without request or notice. Do you have an innate gift for anticipating needs?
Michael: I approach everything with logic. When a guest is by the pool, I use it as an opportunity to empty the rubbish bin, refresh towels, check the comfort paper [toilet paper] and tend to whatever the need particular to that guest. How I prepare the room for you is different from how I prepare it for Georgette [Mosbacher]. She likes to use the whole desk to display her own reading material so we edit it, but you enjoy new reading material so we add to it. I keep a log of each guest’s preferences so that they always have everything they need.
Luzanne: Mrs. A’s book, The Art of Southern Charm, details how to be the ideal host and guest. Would you kindly provide a couple hosting pet-peeves?
Michael: Leaving a wet towel on the bed or floor. Soiled towels should be folded and placed on the tub. When you break or spill something, don’t hide it. Tell us so that we can fix it.
Luzanne: I’d like to clarify that’s an indefinite “you” and that I have not, in fact, left any breaks or spills unreported while luxuriating at the Mikell House. Moving on. Hypothetically, a houseguest wants to visit 3 times a year for life. What, if any, recommendations do you have to ensure her welcome return? Or his welcome return, it could be a he. It’s a hypothetical after all.
Michael: Respectful guests are welcome for many returns. To quote Mrs. Roosevelt, “The tip is the world’s greatest investment.”
Luzanne: Many people leave tips for hotel housekeeping, so it makes perfect sense to do the same when the beneficiary of your host’s household staff. Do you have a suggestion for the appropriate amount per day?
Michael: A tip is by no means a requirement, but it’s never a bad idea. The amount would depend on what you can afford and what the domestic did during your stay. A thoughtful note from someone who doesn’t have the money means just as much. One hundred dollars a day from you could have the same impact as $5 a day on another guest’s budget. If you’re accustomed to domestic help and don’t travel with them, then your host’s domestics take on a lot of extra work. We’re compensated entirely either way and take pleasure in being of service, but an acknowledgment of a job well done never hurts.
Luzanne: Southern Charm has provided you entré to great fame and fortune. On the show, you are portrayed as an Edwardian butler in function, not form. Your sartorial style is very much your own. In reality, you are the steward of a massive estate who manages both macro and micro tasks of the interior and exterior. What’s the most irksome viewer misconception about you? Please help set the record straight.
Michael: We do so much behind the scenes. Few understand what’s involved. I take care of Mrs. A and all of the animals, and I also act as a manager for all domestic affairs. I must be familiar with every aspect or I would not be able to run the house properly. Even though I’m not always the one getting my hands dirty, the support staff needs to be shown how we want it done and manage every undertaking. I oversee interior and exterior affairs. We’ve got a cook, electrician, plumber, dog groomers, housekeeper, laundress, gardeners, pool person, pond person, irrigation specialist, electrician for landscape lighting, preservationists, et al.
Luzanne: People often conflate buttling and housekeeping, so I’m going to ask a question that reinforces the confusion. You are not a housekeeper, but you do tend to Mrs. A’s silver. Is this customary for butlers or simply a consequence of your particular circumstance? What products do you use for the proper care and maintenance of valuables?
Michael: The value of Mrs. A’s silver makes me reluctant to delegate. I use Goddard’s Silver Care Cloth and Wright’s Silver Cream. To polish silver frames, JW Hagerty Silversmith’s Spray. For waxing, we use a product developed by the British Museum, Renaissance Micro-Crystalline Wax Polish.
Luzanne: Any butler worth their salt knows where all of the bodies are buried. Do people try to extract information out of you?
Michael: All of the time. People try to get me to say terrible things. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked for a colorful cast of characters. I don’t think any of their stories should be published. Down the road people hear that you tell tales and they don’t want to hire you.
Luzanne: Employers, past and present, surely appreciate your discretion and strong sense of propriety. Montaigne wrote, “Few [wo]men have been admired by their own domestics.” True or false?
Michael: He also wrote, “I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can. I want death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.”
Interviewer’s Note: Michael’s response seems more like a morbid life mantra than an answer to my question. Circumventing a question is the functional equivalent of depositing a token that opens the analytical floodgates in my brain: Is Michael, like Montaigne, invoking a satirical reference to conceal his discomfort of the topic under discussion? Or is he practicing free association? Are cabbages are a metaphor for Mrs. A? Perhaps he misread the question?
Inquiring if Michael admires Mrs. A challenges the supposition that there are no stupid questions. Michael’s admiration for Mrs. A is evident and all-encompassing.
Thank you Luzanne, Michael and Patricia! Wouldn’t we all love to have a Michael? He could not be more dear! If you missed weeks one and two of The Glam Pad’s six-part series of guest posts from Luzanne, links to get caught up are below:
- WEEK ONE: INSIDER SECRETS FROM PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOUSEGUEST
- WEEK TWO: THE HISTORY OF SILHOUETTES AND AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL ABOUT HER COLLECTION
You might also enjoy Luzanne’s guest post for Town & Country – “A Day in the Life of Southern Charm’s Patricia Altschul” – along with past features on Patricia from The Glam Pad:
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S TIPS FOR CREATING A TIMELESS HOME
- 10 OF PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S FAVORITE THINGS
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOME IN CHARLESTON HOME + DESIGN
- MARIO BUATTA AND PATRICIA ALTSCHUL EXUDE SOUTHERN CHARM IN CHARLESTON
- SOUTHERN CHARM WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S DERBY PARTY IS FULL OF SOUTHERN CHARM
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S MANHATTAN MAISONETTE: DESIGNED BY MARIO BUATTA
Stay tuned! Next week Luzanne will be sharing Patricia’s favorite way to dress a table and a lesson on linens by Léron‘s President, David Forster.