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Downstairs ready to trash the upstairs

At a butlers convention in Denver last year, Paul Burrell, the former butler to Diana, princess of Wales, got a standing ovation. More than 150 butlers, most of them Americans who serve Americans, were moved by their British colleague's steadfast loyalty to his late employer.

Burrell, whom Diana had called her "rock," had not yet blabbed about the princess or any members of the royal family. He had remained silent despite accusations that he had stolen Diana's belongings after her death.

At the convention, where he delivered the keynote speech, Burrell preached passionately of the button-lipped traditions that he then practiced.

"She knew she was safe with me, and she still is," he said to thunderous applause from his peers.

The royal butler has since talked his head off. He has retailed dirty royal linen to a British tabloid, pushed the House of Windsor into another squalidly delicious scandal and transformed himself into a rich and nearly famous man. He has secured a television game show, What the Butler Saw. An hourlong television interview, Diana's Rock _ The Paul Burrell Story, has been peddled to ABC, as well as to networks in eight other countries.

What, then, of the button-lipped traditions of personal service?

As British royals hire lawyers and run for cover, should wealthy Americans with servants fret that their secrets might go on public display if there is money in it for the nanny, maid or butler?

The answer seems to be yes, especially when employers are cheap, creepy or cruel.

"There is a time for comeuppance, if they are going to take advantage of you and are nasty," said Fraser Brown, a British-born butler who works for a family in Connecticut.

"If I were at retirement age and didn't have any money saved up, then blabbing might be a consideration. It depends on what the story is worth."

Brown hastened to add that his current employer, whom he declined to name, is treating him very well.

The downstairs propensity to dish for dollars is roughly proportional to the upstairs supply of degrading meanness, said Keith Greenhouse, who specializes in finding jobs for butlers and chauffeurs in New York.

"I'm not saying it is right, but it is human nature," said Greenhouse, president of the Pavillion Agency in Manhattan. "When servants are treated well, there is nothing they wouldn't do for their employer or their former employer."

But when they are not, temptation is definitely great, he said. They say, "I gave them so many of years of good service, and I got nothing but abuse in return, so why not blab?'

Greenhouse advises all clients, even those who are not especially rich, famous or badly behaved, to insist that every member of their household staff sign an ironclad confidentiality agreement. Fewer than half his clients take this advice, he said.

In New York, as elsewhere, when an employer is unpleasant to work for, word quickly gets around. One prickly billionaire in Manhattan is known to have a particularly difficult time hiring and keeping qualified staff. Like many rich people with staffing problems, this billionaire insists on confidentiality agreements.

In Burrell's case, the apparent trigger for a lucrative tell-all was the torturing silence of Queen Elizabeth. She kept quiet for nearly two years as Burrell was investigated, humiliated and put on trial, charged with stealing Diana's possessions after her death in a car crash in August 1997. The queen waited 12 days into the trial last month _ until the point where Burrell was scheduled to testify and possibly embarrass the royal family _ before suddenly remembering that no crime could have been committed. Long before robbery charges were filed, the queen said, Burrell had informed her in person that he was holding onto some of Diana's belongings for safekeeping.

The Times of London reported last week that Burrell's lawyers had sought the queen's intervention three times in 2001. Had she spoken sooner, the loyal butler might still be loyal. He might not have given the police a 39-page deposition full of revelations about the royal family, such as Prince Charles' insistence that his valet hold a specimen bottle while he urinated into it.

Not long after what was meant to be a secret court document was leaked to the media (and not by the butler), Burrell unbuttoned his lip, sold his story to the Daily Mirror for a reported $480,000 and became a globe-trotting, for-profit television tattler.

Like all royal servants, Burrell signed a confidentiality agreement. Prince Charles' lawyers, however, have apparently determined that trying to enforce it, with the cat out of the bag, would only draw more attention to what the butler said, according to British news reports.

Being hung out to dry by the royal family, while certainly unpleasant, is still no excuse for betraying the ethics of personal service, said Mary Louise Starkey, the founder of the Starkey International Institute for Household Management. The school, in Denver, markets itself as the Harvard of high-end household help.

Starkey invited Burrell to give the keynote speech at the butler convention she organized. That invitation, she hastened to add, was offered at a time when Burrell was still honoring the standards of his profession. She said she would not invite him now.

"If we are to be a respected profession, a code of ethics must apply, no matter how the relationship between a butler and the family has deteriorated," Starkey said. Her school teaches novice butlers almost everything they need to know, including how to space plates at the dinner table and when to clip their nose hair.

Starkey said there is no gray area when it comes to disclosing the secrets of one's employers, even if they are abusive creeps. Even if they are dead. "Once you have been given access to someone's private life, you cannot capitalize on what you know," she said.

There is one ethical escape route, she said.

"We teach them to say, "If you continue to treat me in this shabby manner, I unfortunately am no longer able to serve you,' " Starkey said, noting that one of the most important skills of a service professional is knowing how and when to quit.

Outside butler school, however, relationships between employer and servant tend to be much muddier.

Jeff Jones, a longtime butler in Manhattan, said that in the real world of household help, loyalty is a two-way street.

"Just because they have money doesn't give them the right to treat the staff like dogs," he said. "The queen was in a position to stop this nonsense up front. When she didn't speak out, Burrell was released from his ethical responsibilities."

Jones hastened to add that his employer, whom he declined to name, treats him very well, indeed.