Meyers (My Mad Russian, 2015, etc.) tells of his time as a servant at a historic mansion in this memoir.
In 1970, 17-year-old Meyers began working as an underbutler at the Caramoor estate near Katonah, New York. Built by the theremin soloist Lucie Bigelow Rosen and her lawyer/banker husband, Walter Tower Rosen, the mansion was a hodgepodge of European high culture populated by a colorful assortment of butlers, maids, gardeners, valets, and their families. The Rosens were deceased by this point; Caramoor was the seat of their Foundation for the Arts and the home of its executive director, Michael Sweeley. Meyers spent his days dusting artifacts and bringing Sweeley his tea, setting it “on the bureau beside his big oaken 16th-century bed, opposite the mantelpiece bearing bronze John Harvard bookends and an inscribed photograph of Gina Bachauer.” In his free time, Meyers had access to the estate’s 100 acres of wooded paths, its extensive library, and some of its art, which he was allowed to hang in the cottage he inhabited on the grounds. The annual Caramoor Summer Music Festival brought musicians, whom Meyers had to discipline when they tried to misuse antique furniture. Meyers was able to meet celebrated artists and performers like Julius Rudel, Maureen Forrester, Andrea Velis, and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. When the house opened as a museum, Meyers gave tours to visitors, pointing out unique features and collections.
Meyers’ prose, ornate and slightly mannered, befits the memoir’s formal and anachronistic setting: “The Rosens’ taste was very good, but didn’t seem to extend past about 1800. I expect that both consciously rebelled against the Victoriana they were raised amidst, but from there their tastes went backwards, not forwards.” This is a slim volume, which works in its favor. Neither a strong narrative nor strong emotions ever arise over the course of the author’s reminiscences. Instead, the account mirrors a leisurely walk through Caramoor’s house and property, with Meyers pausing to acknowledge a particular room or object, a ritual associated with a certain hour of the day, or a person and some brief anecdote associated with him or her. What the book lacks in narrative momentum, it makes up for in the way it successfully summons not just a place, but the energy of that place. This is a work dedicated to an earlier era, during which time the author was employed at an estate dedicated to an even earlier era. It isn’t nostalgia that characterizes Meyers’ words so much as appreciation for a tiny enclave dedicated to finery away from the larger conflicts and trends of the modern world. To read this book is to escape briefly into a mindset where high tea and fine art are all one needs to forget one’s problems. Meyers’ brief time at Caramoor and the shortness of this work are a testament to the unfortunate fleetingness of such sentiment.
A slim, ornate, leisurely memoir of the author’s time at Caramoor.