3rd chamber maid at The Breakers & other houses, 1926-1933
Norah's family was from a small farming village in Ireland. She was educated through the 6th grade in penmanship, mathematics, sewing and cooking. She took part in the daily chores of the family's small farm. Norah's parents attempted to arrange a marriage for her, and to evade the situation she immigrated to the United States in 1926 at age 25. Norah made the passage in steerage. It was an arduous journey but one of her warmest memories was passing the Statue of Liberty, according to her daughter Patricia Coleman. Some of her siblings immigrated long before her and she met them for the first time in the United States. Norah's first job as a domestic was through an employment agency in New York City. She was neat, trim, intelligent, and knew her place. The year she immigrated she was placed in the New York home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III at 640 5th Avenue in New York City. For the summer Norah went to Newport with the Vanderbilts, who summered that year at The Breakers, while Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II visited her daughter in Europe.
Besides her duties as chamber maid she worked parties at The Breakers. She changed jobs frequently seeking better pay. One job was with Countess Széchényi, (youngest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II) in Washington DC. When Norah married in 1933 in New York City, Countess Széchényi gave her a side table and a vase as a wedding gift. Thereafter Norah did not work. "It simply wasn't done," she told her daughter. Her new husband became head gardener at a prominent New York hotel, and later worked in maintenance at Washington DC schools.
As a third chambermaid Norah worked exclusively upstairs. She cleaned the hallways, the bedrooms and bathrooms, supplying them with fresh linens daily. According to Norah's daughter, her mother remarked that the family took two baths a day, bed linens were changed twice a day, and there were several changes of clothing daily; all generating copious amounts of laundry. Housemen took care of heavy upstairs cleaning such as curtains and rugs. Norah assisted the Lady's Maid when necessary helping to lay out clothing and she was particularly impressed with the Lady's Maid's skill in doing the Madam's hair. Norah reported to the Housekeeper who ruled with an iron hand. "No one ever crossed the Housekeeper!"
All of the staff pitched in with the large amount of work involved in opening and closing houses for the summer and winter seasons. Her uniform was a simple black dress with a white apron. The staff wore a fresh uniform every day. A strict rule for domestics was never to speak to an employer unless they spoke to you. Norah remarked to her daughter that staff meals were wonderful, and the house staff stuck together like family. Although employers remained distant they respected their domestics. When someone was ill a doctor was called. On Sundays transportation was provided to the church of their choice. Days off were a full twenty-four hours.
When Norah worked parties at The Breakers she helped the ladies with their finery and took coats. Occasionally she waitressed and witnessed the hustle and bustle of the kitchen as they prepared the dinners and after party breakfasts. Parties at The Breakers required the setting and resetting of tables and the staff was on their feet round the clock. After dinner when the guests danced the maids sneaked to the second floor balcony to watch the dancing, all the while taking care to evade the Housekeeper. The staff was welcome to any leftover food that came back to the kitchen.
Norah never felt that her position as chamber maid was in the least demeaning. She was proud of doing her job well and never sought employment in anything other than domestic service. She expressed a belief that her role was part of an important era in America's development. Norah understood that domestic service was integral to the lifestyles of the wealthy. She had no patience with immigrants who complained about the United States. Here she found opportunity.
Source: Oral history interview with Norah Kavanagh Sarsfield's daughter, Patricia Coleman, August 2, 2001