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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Rise and Fall of the Chauffeur-Driven Limo

From Washington Lawyer, April 2006

By Jacob A. Stein


Dover Publications publishes what it calls a thrift line. Each book is a classic that has stood the test of time, such as Shakespeare’s plays, Emerson’s essays, Twain’s short stories. Included in the thrift line is Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class selling for two dollars. Two dollars for a masterpiece. There is an irony here.

Veblen (1857–1929) was a satirist who amused himself by identifying in an austere, amusing vocabulary the strategies people use to gain entry into the prestigious and highly reputable, pecuniary leisure class. Thrift has nothing to do with it. The applicant must demonstrate pecuniary respectability by being a big spender, not by being thrifty. In a word, if we don’t inherit wealth, we should have the common decency to fake it.

A member of the leisure class must devote himself to conspicuous consumption. “In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.”

Evidence is oversized homes, with teams of paid help. Evidence is travel first class. Evidence is having a chauffeur to drive the limo.

The chauffeur demonstrates his own pecuniary respectability by attribution. His gentleman employer provides the impressive uniform. The gentleman employer will provide in his will a substantial bequest in recognition of years of faithful service and as part of an unspoken employment nondisparagement clause.

There is a distinction between a chauffeur and a driver. Drivers are part-timers from whom one expects no loyalty. Drivers are often retired police officers who know how to park right in front of a No Parking sign. Drivers are paid by the hour and expect to be tipped. Not so with chauffeurs.

A few years ago a story involving limousine drivers made the rounds in New York City. A law firm ran up a substantial unpaid account with its limousine service. Conventional efforts to collect payment were unsuccessful, so the owner of the service decided to pursue unconventional methods. He interviewed his drivers, and he learned from them a number of interesting things overheard by the drivers. He learned that the lawyers believed the law firm would not survive another year. He also learned things concerning the lawyers’ clients, the lawyers’ girlfriends, the lawyers’ candid comments about judges and other lawyers. The owner took this information to his contact at the law firm. The bill was paid. The law firm did, in fact, go under, leaving numerous other creditors unpaid.

I recall, back in the 1950s, overhearing a conversation between two prominent lawyers who were trying to settle on whose chauffeur would pick up the other and take them both to their club for lunch.

In those days the front of the Metropolitan Club, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., was the place to study experienced, top-of-the-line chauffeurs. The black Cadillac or black Lincoln limos created a temporary limo lock along H Street, west of 17th. While the bankers and lawyers were having lunch, the chauffeurs remained close by. A good chauffeur could sit for hours showing no impatience, and then, when the gentleman appeared, the chauffeur brought the limo forward so that the limo and the gentleman intersected at just the right moment.

Ten years ago a chauffeur was the key witness in a case brought against the estate of a wealthy lawyer by distant relatives of the deceased. The chauffeur was the old-fashioned type. He wore a cap and a uniform. He wore white gloves. He was discreet in all respects, observant of the gentleman–chauffeur privilege, a privilege as sanctified as the attorney–client privilege.

He had been remembered handsomely in the will. He was now to give evidence to defend the will. He explained to the jury that the gentleman’s occasional mental lapses were nothing more than what most elderly people experience. The gentleman was thoughtful and kind to those who served him, as proved by the bequest to the chauffeur. He said that his gentleman had said many times that his relatives never earned a penny by hard work. They would file suit to break the will. They would be envious of what the elderly gentleman bequeathed to his faithful chauffeur. The relatives lost, as well they should.

A first-class chauffeur had to have the tact of an English butler combined with the experience of the concierge at the Ritz. Zoltan had these qualities and more. He had been a Hungarian freedom fighter. Zoltan was John Mitchell’s chauffeur. During the Watergate trial, Mitchell, President Nixon’s attorney general, was a defendant. Mitchell and the other defendants, with their lawyers, occupied several rooms in the courthouse. Documents and exhibits were stored in these rooms, which also were used as dining rooms during the luncheon recess.

Zoltan knew who wanted what for lunch, who wanted mustard and who wanted the mayo held.

Zoltan knew Mitchell was sensitive to the wishes of others. Mitchell wished to be the last person served. Zoltan, a man of the world, performed the assignment unobtrusively.

These times are not conducive to the retention of a liveried chauffeur. What would the chauffeur drive? Would he get behind the wheel of a utility vehicle, a muddy Land Rover, or worse yet, a tin-plated Hummer? These are the times when people of standing wish to be downwardly mobile. They wear expensive, preripped, pretorn jeans. You cannot tell a factory second from a top-of-the-line.

Veblen might say that there is a persistent populist workingman strain in American history. That is why the leisure class dress Ralph Lauren rugged as they stroll the corridors of Home Depot, elegant and shabby, and both at the same time.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].