An abundance of wealth and time are de-facto prerequisites for admission at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu.
By Alice Gregory for the New Yorker magazine
The canton of Vaud was once a capital of finishing schools. Today only one remains.Illustration by Luci Gutiérrez
This past summer, as Austrian glaciers melted and Swedish forests burned, the Swiss Air Force, which exists to protect a nation that hasn’t fought a war in five hundred years, was tasked with supplying tens of thousands of gallons of water to herds of parched cows stranded in Alpine pastures. Meanwhile, in Glion, a tiny village roosting high above the city of Montreux and accessible by funicular, it was already above seventy degrees Fahrenheit by 8:30 a.m., which is when classes begin at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu.
To Viviane Neri, the school’s headmistress, the heat wave engulfing Europe came as a pleasant surprise. “We haven’t had a summer like this in a hundred years,” she told me. “It’s quite lucky.” She smiled and gestured graciously toward Lake Geneva, which, like the sky above it, was an oversaturated blue, as though photographed on expired film. Several women, some as young as eighteen, others in late middle age, could be seen scrambling, chamois-like, up the terraced hillside. An e-mail, sent by the school a few weeks prior to their arrival, advised the women to “dress in good taste,” and they had interpreted the cryptic guidance with remarkable consistency. Their appearance—blow-dried hair, dry-clean-only dresses—suggested an abundance of wealth and time, both of which are de-facto prerequisites of admission at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, where the summer course lasts six weeks and costs an average of thirty thousand dollars.
Housed in a traditional chalet, built in 1911 for a Dutch baroness, the institute bills itself as the last finishing school in Switzerland. The prosperous canton of Vaud, where I.V.P. is located, was at various times home to Charlie Chaplin, Zelda Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, and Vladimir Nabokov; it was also a sort of capital for establishments where, as Muriel Spark wrote in her final novel, “The Finishing School,” “parents dump their teenage children after their schooldays and before their universities or their marriages or careers.” In the nineteen-twenties, Lausanne alone boasted forty-five such schools. Their advertisements in The Swiss Monthly, a long-vanished periodical dedicated to horoscopes and the autobiographies of amateur alpinists, ran amid ones for “dietetic specialties” and “colonial goods.” Some promised pastoral luxury (“large gardens on lake shore”), others a pedagogical focus on domestic science and modern languages. Unaccredited, expensive, and, typically, family run, Swiss finishing schools took the place of men’s university education for many wealthy Western European women with matrimonial ambitions. “It’s the same as the watch industry,” Neri’s son, who tends to the school’s business matters, has said. “If you want the highest quality, you stick with Swiss.”
Institut Alpin Videmanette, whose alumnae include Princess Diana as well as her sons’ nanny, Tiggy Legge-Bourke, closed in 1991, and Château Mont-Choisi, attended by France’s former First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and, reportedly, by Princess Elena of Romania, shut in 1995. Le Manoir, the alma mater of the British spy Vera Atkins, is now the world headquarters of the multinational food-packaging company Tetra Pak. The real estate these schools sat on was valuable, and the feminist movement all but obliterated demand for their offerings, as the domestic talents once suggestive of elegance and good breeding began to look more like instruments of oppression. Why learn how to run one’s home like a corporation if suddenly it was possible to run the corporation itself?
This change was perhaps responsible for the discretion that is a hallmark of I.V.P., where one student told me that she was hiding from her friends the fact that she had come. Students spoke to me on the condition that I use only their first names, in keeping with the policy at I.V.P., which forgoes last names entirely. Like Switzerland’s military and banking strategies, I.V.P.’s devotion to privacy borders on the neurotic. Though invited to spend a week attending classes, I was scolded on more than one occasion for photographing the chalet’s interior, for recording lectures, and for attempting to ascertain basic biographical facts about the school’s students, a group that Neri claims has included the daughters of Presidents and Prime Ministers. For the most élite, true discretion is achievable. Neri will sometimes coach the daughters of sheikhs within their own palace walls.
Toward the end of the nineteen-seventies, Neri said, I.V.P.’s primarily European students were largely replaced by women from Latin America, India, the Middle East, Japan, China, and Russia. (A few years ago, one alumna, the art-collecting daughter of a Moscow oligarch, penned a widely mocked etiquette column for the Russian edition of Tatler, in which she advised her readers against hiring Filipina staff.) Of the twenty-nine students present when I visited, one was a Canadian C.E.O. and another an American mother of five; there were six young Chinese women, a few lawyers from India and Australia, a Nigerian chemical engineer, a marketing manager from Dubai, a Harvard Business School graduate from Honduras, and a handful of university students from countries that included Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. The only three Europeans were an eighteen-year-old aspiring fashion designer from Portugal, a former Emirates flight attendant from Romania, and a Ukrainian cryptocurrency investor currently living in Singapore.
The women, many of whom had attended M.B.A. programs, were there not to learn how to make money but to acquire the gestures of having inherited it. The pursuit of such a goal might strike us as anachronistic, but the archetype of woman as family ambassador is as relevant as ever. During my time at I.V.P., Ivanka Trump’s name was never mentioned, but, in the students’ preëmptive smiles and refusal to talk politics, it was impossible not to feel her presence.
When I arrived at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, a recent thunderstorm had stranded the receptionist in Paris and also disabled the area’s Internet, which enhanced the school’s atmosphere of secluded obsolescence. Neri apologized for the mayhem as she led me into the house, which had parquet floors and a marble staircase. “See?” she said, pointing to a formal dining room, where the table was already set for lunch. “Everywhere is a classroom.”
Neri, who has run I.V.P. for nearly half a century, accessorizes with silk scarves, pearl earrings, and navy pumps. She speaks as fastidiously as she dresses. Averse to extemporaneous talk, she often apologized, more to herself than to me, it seemed, for going “off track.” My entreaties for her to continue along whatever conversational rail she had found herself on were always met with refusal. “No, no,” Neri would say. “I’m off track.”
“Ah!” she cried, as we made our way into the sitting room, which was outfitted with gilded mirrors and Oriental carpets. “I told the girls not to put them this way!” She approached a celadon sofa and rearranged a series of neatly aligned pillows into a more spontaneous configuration. “We’re not in the army, after all.” She proceeded to lead me upstairs, tsk-tsking at a descending student, who, apparently, should have given me the banister.
The idea of I.V.P.’s curriculum is not, necessarily, to train women from developing countries in the mores of Western Europe but to expose students to the oddities and taboos of one another’s nations. In addition to learning how to clean marble, address a dowager duchess, and serve a luncheon, the students attend lectures devoted to the customs of twenty countries. In a ninety-minute class on Nigeria taught by a Cordon Bleu-trained Canadian chef turned etiquette coach, I learned that, at a formal dinner in Lagos, appropriate topics of conversation include Benin bronzes and the local film industry. The Biafran war, it was emphasized, is best avoided. In a class on Mexico, we were warned that marigolds, red roses, and silver all make for inappropriate gifts (marigolds are morbid; red roses are lusty; silver, mined locally in Mexico, would fail to impress). As Neri says, “It’s better to learn from us than from your mother-in-law.”
I.V.P. offers classes throughout the year, but the summer faculty who were there when I visited included an Austrian florist, a Guatemalan etiquette consultant, and a former Nestlé communications director with a self-proclaimed passion for the work of the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, known for his experiments in obedience. A man named Siegfried, who used to supervise mining conglomerates in Burkina Faso but whose business card now bears the name of a Zug-based private-equity company, was also hanging around. Neri casually explained his presence by saying that she was thinking of adding a class the following summer on the manners of Francophone West Africa, and Siegfried, a friend of her son’s, might, she thought, be capable of teaching it.
One afternoon, John Robertson, a butler formerly employed by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, who had just arrived in Europe after a seven-day transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, gave a lesson on how to hire and manage staff. He wore monk-strap shoes, creased trousers, a blue-and-white checked shirt with French cuffs, and a hat, which he removed upon entering the classroom and placed upon a coffee-table book about Alnwick Castle. The wall behind him glinted with small reflections cast by the many crystal-faced watches present in the room. Robertson began by outlining the “ten functions of a household,” which include security and groundskeeping. “Believe me,” he said, referring to household administration, which he recommends leaving to the butler, “this is nothing you want to be involved with.”
Robertson’s raised eyebrows and perpetual half smile gave him an ironical appearance. He stressed the importance of having clearly defined domestic preferences that together would add up to something like self-knowledge. “How do you like your bed made up?” he asked. It sounded like a rhetorical question, and nobody answered. “Well, if you don’t know, then your housekeeper is going to do it however she learned how,” he said. Robertson provided the students with sample questions to ask a potential butler (“Where do you place the oyster fork?” “Can you make me a Martini straight up?”). A gardener should be able to tell you his favorite seed catalogue, a housekeeper her preference among vacuum-cleaner brands. It would be wise, he said, to quiz a potential housekeeper on how she might clean, for example, a hardwood floor without stripping it of varnish. “Because it’s not just the cost,” he said with a sigh. “It’s the inconvenience.”
Neri herself teaches a handful of classes. In one, on international titles and forms of address, she expressed outrage that once, at a press conference, President Obama had called the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, by her first name. Students learned that, when in Asia, one should never write on another person’s business card, and that, rather than provide one’s own at the beginning of the meeting, they should offer it at the end. Italy, Libya, and Afghanistan are all examples of countries with pretenders—individual aspirants to a long-toppled monarchy who must be addressed accordingly. Neri then walked the class through the twenty-five levels of peerage in the United Kingdom. “This is the type of thing you need to keep updated on,” she said.
It was difficult to imagine such knowledge being remembered when the time came, if it ever did. But the women scribbled notes furiously, their Cartier bangles clinking. Later, by the pool, Toki, a twenty-three-year-old from Nigeria living in London, insisted, gently, on the curriculum’s utility. “People notice,” she said. “I think most likely they wouldn’t say anything to you, but they’ll leave thinking, Wow, she’s really refined.” The Canadian C.E.O., with whom I spoke the following day, expressed a similar sentiment, though more anxiously. “There are unspoken rules in business and in life,” she said. “Our success is based at least a little bit on how much we violate them.” She paused and then added, “This is a very safe place for me to practice.”
Her attitude was echoed by the instructors at I.V.P., who tended to present the outside world as a place of unrelenting menace, of career-ruining faux pas and ego-bruising mistakes. To believe them is to see life, like the surrounding high-altitude landscape, as precipitous. Pastry is “deadly” for carpets. Lilies, with their impolitely strong fragrance and orange pollen (“worse than saffron”), are to be avoided, as are, at cocktail parties, candles, which Neri described with a pained reverie suggesting personal experience with dozens of Savonnerie carpets disfigured by hot wax. “Unless,” she added, “you’re at the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.” Her students dutifully recorded the comment, failing to recognize it as a joke and interpreting it instead as useful advice for the type of person who might plausibly host drinks at a unesco World Heritage Site.
Neri, who believes orange juice to be an “unimaginative” mixer (she prefers kiwi), explained that cocktail parties are “an efficient and economical way of simultaneously returning multiple favors,” and asked if anyone in the class had ever organized one. Vidhi, a twenty-five-year-old lawyer from Nashik, India, had thrown one for the opening of an art exhibition curated by her sister; so had Christine, the mother of five, for the teachers at her children’s school in Minneapolis. Neri nodded approvingly. Daniella, the Honduran Harvard graduate, said, “Yes, I have. For my birthday!” Neri, aghast, raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” she said, appearing stricken. “I’ve never heard of that.”
For the next hour, aided by diagrams and charts projected onto a screen, Neri proceeded to offer a litany of forcefully worded warnings. The table for the buffet should never be near the bar; the two are to be kept “as far away from each other as possible” to facilitate mingling. Hired help might be illiterate, so one should be certain to instruct staff verbally rather than with a printed schedule. A cocktail party for a hundred, hosted at the chalet, in Neri’s estimation would require two coatroom attendants (who, upon receiving a fur coat, should affix the ticket number inside the garment rather than on the fur), at least two valets, an elevator attendant, two people working the kitchen, two for washing up, one maître d’hôtel, and six—“absolute minimum!”—waiters. The host ought also to notify the local police a few days in advance as to the potential for traffic jams, and hire two security-staff members. “Why do we need security here, anyway?” Neri asked, correctly divining the question that had been running through my head. “Isn’t this supposed to be a safe country?” She paused for what seemed like ten full seconds. “Gate-crashers.” Tight security, she added, is especially necessary in the summer—“because people will come through the French windows, as you can imagine.”
Neri added that one should plan to provide, among other things, two “surprise breads” and approximately six hundred hors d’œuvres. As for drinks, thirty bottles of champagne should suffice, but, along with some nonalcoholic options, one must also have on hand four bottles each of whiskey, gin, and vodka “for the men who don’t like champagne.” Neri then accelerated the slide show, presenting a procession of structurally unsound canapés and encouraging a discussion about whether each appeared too large to be eaten in a single bite, as a canapé should be. Most of the tightly cropped photographs did not include forks or wineglasses, so it required some imagination to assess their scale. Before class let out, Neri invited the students to come to the front of the classroom and practice holding, in one hand, a cocktail napkin, an appetizer plate, and a champagne flute. “Come, come,” she beckoned. Mila, a thirty-year-old who grew up in Guinea-Bissau, bravely volunteered. Neri showed her how to pinch the stem, palm up, between her ring finger and pinkie, slide the plate between her thumb, index finger, and middle finger, and then tuck the napkin under the plate and over her middle finger. All this was to be done with the left hand, leaving the right available for introductions. Mila absorbed the demonstration attentively and glanced up at Neri for a nod of encouragement before attempting the feat on her own. She aced it on the first try. “It looks more complicated than it is,” she said.
The question of how we ought to comport ourselves in the public sphere has preoccupied philosophers for millennia. Confucius’ teachings address etiquette, as, arguably, do Plato’s, in “Laws,” when he catalogues how various types of guests from abroad should be treated. And if Jesus walks through our world in disguise, rudeness is un-Christian. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” the New Testament warns. Various theories of etiquette’s purpose have been posited over the centuries. Erasmus had a magnanimous conception when he wrote, in 1530, of the rustic’s duty to “compensate for the malignity of fate with the elegance of good manners,” whereas the Victorians saw the role of etiquette as something closer to a behavioral amulet capable of protecting one from the polluting forces of vulgarity and vice. The social anthropologist, classicist, and etiquette historian Margaret Visser wrote, in her canonical 1991 book, “The Rituals of Dinner,” that manners “do not constitute virtue, but they do set out to imitate virtue’s outward appearance.”
Etiquette can be understood as a codified but unspoken system of culturally specific rules, used across time and continents to contend with our most primal aversions: violence and disease and confusion. That Switzerland, a nation famous for a dearth of all three, would be a place where etiquette is taught makes a certain amount of symbolic sense. “What makes Switzerland special is that we are fairly neutral,” Neri has said. “Other countries would try to push culture down their throats, such as France. Here we don’t have that kind of cultural imperialism.”
One afternoon in an upstairs classroom, Neri told me, “My mother never liked the term ‘finishing school.’ It just means so many things to so many different people. The British, for example, think it’s a place for women too stupid to go to university.” Neri’s mother, Dorette Faillettaz, who never attended a finishing school, founded what became I.V.P. in 1954 with a loan from her parents, as no Swiss bank at the time would lend to a woman. A translator of the Brothers Grimm and, according to Neri, “one of the first women to dare to ask for a divorce in Zurich,” Faillettaz established a school that was, for its time, a kind of proto-feminist alternative to the tea-party training occurring elsewhere around the canton. Vegetarian cooking was taught, as was family planning, psychology, and car maintenance. Faillettaz devised her pedagogy in response to her own profound hatred of housework. Domestic efficiency, she believed, created more time for higher-order pursuits: reading, playing music, learning languages. Her school’s aim, according to a 1965 brochure, was to teach its charges how to “have a lively and well-run home where there exists a real interest in all that is going on in the world.”
In the early years, the school’s students were mostly from West Germany and the Netherlands. “The French did not come to Switzerland,” Neri said. “They would maybe go to England, because it’s a kingdom, but not to a peasant country.” Every so often, the school received what Neri referred to as “an exotic student”—once, she said, the school hosted a cousin of the Emperor of Japan. “My mother wanted her students to be knowledgeable about other countries and other cultures, which was rather revolutionary at that time. She felt we were too ethnocentric in Europe.” Neri continued, “Everyone looked up to France and Britain, but there are other cultures that are far older, and they also have refinement and beautiful art, and we should not look down on them.”
Neri grew up in Zurich, attended school in England, moved to Montreux after her mother’s divorce, and then to California, where she majored in Latin-American studies at U.C.L.A. She returned to Switzerland after graduation and married the director of a textile-machine company. “I always said that I would never take over a school and I would never marry a Swiss-German, but that’s exactly what I did,” she said, laughing. In 1971, women in Switzerland gained the right to vote, and the following year Neri’s mother retired and Neri assumed leadership of I.V.P. “It was 1972!” she exclaimed. “We really got the brunt of the student revolution. Class size plummeted. Those who did attend didn’t tell their friends. They just said they were going to a language school.” In America, too, many finishing schools closed, and the few that remained open, such as Miss Porter’s, in Connecticut, and the now defunct Finch College, in Manhattan, elected to emphasize rigorous academics.
I.V.P.’s increasingly international clientele makes it tempting to think of the school as a vehicle for cultural assimilation or class mobility, but in practice the school’s exorbitant tuition renders it inaccessible to most. Now, of course, those people have YouTube, with its instructional videos on table setting and the pronunciation of the word “Gstaad.” With the exception of a peculiar lecture on the importance of protecting one’s metadata, I.V.P.’s curriculum does not include online etiquette, arguably the most preoccupying sort, on which a well-researched class might actually be useful.
Over the week, I observed many multiple-course lunches, each one set, hosted, served, and attended by students, all of whom were assigned various parts, as in a play, and graded on their performance. The “servants” wore white gloves and frilly aprons and, when they were not pouring water, stood near a sideboard with their hands folded neatly. The “guests” cocked their heads solicitously and inquired after one another’s make-believe families. Occasionally, the charade would grow too burdensome, and the women would slip up, becoming, for a moment, themselves. Once, between salad and fish, a college-aged girl pretending to be a guest employed as an attorney tired of discussing her invented career and began talking instead about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which she was watching and enjoying immensely. Toward the end of my stay, the students’ general chatter, previously about final exams, turned to weekend plans. A few were going to Geneva; others thought they might like to dine at a nearby restaurant known for a dish called “carrier pigeon,” in which the bird is cooked sous-vide and served in an airmail envelope. Soon they would be alone in a world of gala events attended, if the I.V.P.’s instructors were to be believed, not by friends but by suspicious acquaintances, fault-finding diplomats, and Nigerians eager to talk Benin bronzes.
One afternoon, Andreea, a thirty-year-old Romanian woman, arranged a perfectly symmetrical bouquet under the tutelage of the Austrian florist, and then went out onto the chalet’s flagstone terrace. Unlike most of the other women at I.V.P., many of whom have never made a bed, Andreea, who has amber eyes and a doll-like mouth, does not come from family money. Originally from Târgoviște—“the town where Ceaușescu was killed”—she now lives in Dubai. She moved there not knowing anyone, five weeks after winning a bet with a co-worker that she could get a job as an Emirates flight attendant. She has worked in private aviation—often for royal families in the Middle East—for almost seven years.
The daughter of an Orthodox priest and a nurse, Andreea paid her I.V.P. tuition with the earnings she made working on private jets during Ramadan. She appreciates etiquette the way a hostess does a successful Saturday-night dinner service—as a choreography worthy of both aesthetic and moral attention. For this, she credits her royal employers, who looked her in the eye and thanked her genuinely for the smallest services. In her years working in aviation, Andreea said, she had tried to learn, in advance of each flight, at least a few words—hello, please, thank you—in the languages of her passengers. “You cannot believe how people’s faces light up when you greet them as they’re accustomed to at home,” she said. When she first moved to Dubai, Andreea realized that she suddenly represented not only herself, but also Romania. “You’re not just you,” she told me. “We’re all so cosmopolitan now, but we’re separated by ignorance, not diversity.” Andreea recounted the apocryphal story of Queen Victoria, who, upon noticing her foreign guests drinking from their finger bowls, drank from hers as well. “It’s a question of empathy,” Andreea said. “You can’t have etiquette if you can’t open your heart and mind and listen to other people—and truly listen, truly want to know who they are and who they come from, and want to make them feel comfortable.”
As we spoke, a blue butterfly fluttered between us and landed on Andreea’s arm. She admired it quietly and explained that she would like to start her own finishing school, perhaps in Ethiopia. Andreea maintains an Instagram account on which she occasionally posts photographs of political figures: Barack Obama offering Michelle his umbrella, President Trump hoarding his; Vladimir Putin not helping Queen Elizabeth down a flight of stairs. Seeing that I was no longer in the shade, Andreea urged me to reposition myself, and, as I did, I noticed that her eyes were wet with tears. “Etiquette is not something you learn for yourself,” she continued. “It’s something you do for others, and I think that’s beautiful.”
When Andreea finally excused herself, it was to study. With the exception of some of the older and wealthier students, who elect to stay down the hill at an opulent and airless family-run hotel, most of the women at I.V.P. stay on the grounds of the chalet. Andreea’s roommate was from China; their suite, like all the others, was named after a flower. There is a summer-camp-like camaraderie among the students, who repeatedly expressed surprise that they felt so intimate with one another after only a few weeks. But why shouldn’t they have bonded? Attending the school at all was a kind of radical act of admission, of social ambition and insecurity, of having identified one’s current station and found it wanting.
By Friday, after having spent six hours every day at I.V.P., smiling and nodding and sitting always very upright, I was exhausted and bored, although by what, exactly, I couldn’t say. I hadn’t had occasion to play truant in close to a decade, and ditching class elicited a familiar thrill. I made my way down a winding road, past apple trees and timber-framed houses, to the funicular. When I arrived, the station was deserted, and a display screen said the waiting tram would depart in five minutes. Sitting inside the car, which was about the size of a Manhattan restaurant’s bathroom, was a man in grass-covered work boots. It was a conspicuously small space to share. I felt my heart rate quicken, and with it the tedious compulsion to pretend otherwise.
The man looked up and smiled. “Bonjour,” I said. “Bonjour,” he replied, before retracting eye contact. I got in and sat down. He adjusted his body away from mine, crossing his legs in the opposite direction. He did so subtly, in a way he must have hoped I would sense but perhaps not consciously notice. The slight pivot of his torso was meant to increase the distance between us; the crossing of his legs was to make himself small. It was for me that he was doing these things, and I was grateful. ♦
Source: Published in the print edition of the October 8, 2018, issue, with the headline “Finished.”
Alice Gregory, a writer living in New York City, is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing editor at T Magazine.
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