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Tableside Manners

Former royal butler Paul Burrell on Princess Diana, Tom Hanks, name-dropping—and whether you get better service in New York or London.

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In the addendum to the new paperback edition of A Royal Duty, his dishy book about serving Princess Diana, former butler Paul Burrell complains of his newfound celebrity: “For a onetime servant who had decided to go against the grain in telling the truth, then being judged for it, there could be no hiding from exposure.” Seemingly resigned to fame, Burrell is now starring in a one-man show at Town Hall June 24–26. Boris Kachka spoke to him at his favorite New York hotel, the Four Seasons.

How did you wind up doing this show?
I never expected that I would be on Broadway—or, well, just off. The producers said, “We’ve seen you do after-dinner speeches, and we know you’ve done the QE2.” Town Hall is just a different venue. People can ask me any question, and if it’s appropriate, I’ll answer. Someone asked, “Do you plan to go into acting?” I said no, because that’s a talent I know I haven’t got. My hero is Tom Hanks, by the way. He’s a wonderful actor.

You look a little like him.
It’s not the first time someone said that! I have known Tom and Rita, because they were personal friends of the princess. But I’ll try not to name-drop. It’s very difficult, attached to a modern-day icon, not to. I always thought I’d spend my life in the wings, I never thought I’d be on center stage.

Do you have housekeepers?
No. My wife’s very house-proud. She was the princess’s dresser.

No staff in your new Florida summer house?
We have a pool man. I don’t know anything about chemicals. I don’t want my family dipping in and finding they’re a layer of skin short.

Do you make waiters nervous?
I never get invited to people’s houses for dinner. They’re just too intimidated. We were in Madrid during the book tour, and this butler’s tin was shaking. I said, “Listen, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” He said, “But I’ve never served a world-famous butler before.”

How does service in New York compare to London?
I always get very quick, good service here. Even in Diesel in Union Square, taking six pairs of pants into the dressing room is no problem. Whereas in England, they’ll think you’re trying to lift them. And the waiters are far more attentive. Right in this hotel, they will know exactly how far I am down this Caesar salad, and as soon as I’m finished, it will be gone. It’s an art form in America, but it’s considered to be a lowly, servile trade in Britain.

Anything about service here that’s worse?
Generally, taxi drivers in London are far more friendly. On the way from the airport, I want to chat. What’s going on? Who’s in town? It doesn’t happen here. In London, they never stop talking.

Do you miss being a butler?
Some parts of it, yes. And I miss the princess, of course. People sometimes say, “Paul, move on. The princess is dead now.” Yes, she is, but her memory is still alive within me.

To what lengths would you go for Diana?
One day, the princess said, “Paul, I’d like you to deliver this letter by hand.” I looked at the address, and it was in New York. I said you’re joking. She said, “No.” So I got in an airplane. Now, if you were to ask who that note was delivered to, I couldn’t tell you. There was someone special in New York. Is that enough of a titillation for you?

Sure, but isn’t a butler supposed to be ultra-discreet?
But I wasn’t a butler. Towards the end of the princess’s life, I was her private secretary, her go-between, her friend, her confidant, her runner. Adviser, for want of a better word. She educated me. You see, I’ve been to the University of Diana, and I’ve got the diploma. What do I do with it? Sit on it? [The waitress asks if he’s done with his salad.] I’m finished, thank you.


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