Teens in the Rough Become Polished Gems at Anne Oliver's Super Chic Summer Camp
That, in case you've forgotten, is the proper way to eat a napoleon. Or so says Anne Oliver, the 48-year-old founder and directrice of the poshest summer camp this side of Biarritz. When picturing her establishment, known as Ingénues de Taos, banish all images of woodsy cabins and overnight camping trips. Tucked in a remote valley of northern New Mexico, Oliver's camp is the haute-est of the haute. There, during an intensive 11-day session, giggly teenagers learn everything from flower-arranging to napkin-folding—or, in the words of an ex-camper, "things that really aren't commonplace today, like manners and etiquette."
As Oliver puts it, the goals of her cram course in ladylike behavior include "visual poise, personal beauty, social graces and aesthetic awareness—all qualities needed in packaging an attractive and interesting person." As for manners and etiquette, she says, "They simply make the wheel turn more smoothly. You can bring more to a dinner conversation if you're not worrying about which fork to use."
By the time her campers complete their stay, they should have no such worries. They will have been thoroughly drilled in the four basic methods of food service: French (food served from a side cart, plates placed and removed from the diner's right); Russian (food presented and served from silver platters, service left, removal right); English (guests serve themselves from platters, service and removal left); and American (plates filled in the kitchen, service left, removal right). All will have studied the fine art of preparing tea, concert etiquette and even how to make little bags of dried, scented flowers to tuck in clothing drawers.
Training at Ingénues de Taos is neither inexpensive ($1,385, transportation to and from camp not included) nor effortless, and from the moment they embark on la promenade to the final bonne nuit, the campers are on the go. Wake-up is at 6:30 a.m., announced by a clanging cowbell. But the accommodations are first class all the way. The 16 or so girls, ranging in age from 12 to 20, who attend each of five summer sessions are housed two or three to a room in the Alpine-style Hotel Edelweiss. Assisted by French-born owner-chef Dadou Mayer, Oliver provides an hour-by-hour daily schedule filled with lessons (tennis, posture, makeup) and lectures (fashion fundamentals, social graces, self-image). There are excursions to nearby Taos and Santa Fe for concerts, operas, art museums and—but of course—shopping. French phrases are encouraged; gum chewing and TV are emphatically défendu.
Anne protests the notion that hers is an exercise in 19th-century snobbism: "I do not consider myself as a strict disciplinarian and the parole officer of a subdeb obedience school, but as the mentor of manners, beauty and poise of a finishing school devoted to the transformation of anxious, awkward adolescents into polished Tiffany teens." Whew! Her campers have no quarrel with Oliver's lofty-sounding ethos, however. "This camp has style," says Kim Thacker, 14, from Boulder, Colo. "It's not like you're sitting around all day with your hands together." Still, teens will be teens, and another camper is heard mumbling during a scheduled break, "Anything for a Coke."
Oliver came by her own social graces from parents who emphasized manners. The daughter of an oil pipeline executive, James Alton Hatfield, she lived on the Caribbean island of Aruba, where her father was posted, and later attended private schools in the South. She enrolled first at Louisiana State University before transferring to the University of Georgia. Though she graduated with honors in home economics, she says in a soft, refined drawl, her campus career was a "typical college beauty act"—cheer leader, sorority house president, homecoming queen.
She married Annapolis graduate Perry Staton Oliver Jr. in 1956. After his Navy hitch, the Olivers settled in Atlanta, where he started an engineering firm. Anne worked as a secretary and then a model, raised her sons (Staton, now 22, and Lawrence, 19), and for seven years was fashion and PR director of Saks Fifth Avenue in Atlanta.
In response to frequent questions about etiquette from a teen fashion board she created at Saks, Oliver saw a need for a school of manners for young ladies. Thus, in 1980, she opened L'Ecole des Ingénues, of which the camp in Taos is one of three components (the others being a series of Saturday classes in Atlanta and chaperoned tours of Europe). "The school might not have been a marketable product in the early '70s," observes Oliver, "but rebellion is not so much a part of teen life-style now." Though her camp in Taos is still in its infancy, Oliver is expecting to turn a profit for the first time this summer. "I put my idea out to market, and it's been bought hook, line and sinker," she says. "I think the world is ready for a return to elegance."