Acclaimed Washington Postreporter, Guggenheim fellow and prize-winning biographer Wil Haygood had an early hunch that Barack Obama would win the 2008 election, and when he did, he wanted to publish an article about a Black person who had worked in the White House as a servant, someone who had come of age in the midst of segregation, so embedded in the culture as to make the very thought of a Black president inconceivable.
He struck gold when he tracked down Eugene Allen, a butler who had served eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, and, in so doing, became “a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all.”
Haygood recalled that his initial search for Allen was a stealth undertaking — from his first clue coming a shadowy call from an unidentified woman to scouring reams of phone books in search of a fairly common name.
On the 57th phone call, Allen answered the phone, and within minutes corrected the journalist. “I told him that I wanted to write a story about him and his life, and that he worked for three presidents in the ’60s, and he said: ‘Sir, you are mistaken — I started in 1952 with Harry Truman and I worked all the way and for Ronald Reagan, so that’s eight presidents. You count them; that’s eight.’ And, I near about dropped the phone.”
Allen, then 89, called to his wife, Helene, and the couple agreed to Haywood’s visit two days later. The Allens were not up for a one-sided interview. They posed their own interrogation to the journalist.
“They asked me questions like, ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Who are your people?’ It was very Southern; very beautiful, it really was. And, they wanted me to watch ‘The Price Is Right’ — that’s one of those game shows that they watch every morning — and I was very patient. My grandparents raised me, and so I sat there very quietly and watched it with them.”
In their modest home, the reporter saw only one picture in their living room showing the couple smiling with Ronald and Nancy Reagan during a state dinner, and worried if indeed he’d landed a story. “I didn’t know if at that point if I had a story of not, because in Washington, D.C.
People who have worked near power hang every photo up that they can … but this couple only had one or two pictures of him and Reagan. And then we started talking and the stories just flooded out — stories about him listening to Ike talk about Little Rock; him and Mrs. Kennedy when her husband was killed; stories about how it broke Mr. Allen’s heart when his son was sent to Vietnam and he had to serve Lyndon Johnson his food or his medicines — and this was the very man who had sent his only son to war; stories about meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and meeting the widow of Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers; photographs of him and Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn — and it was an amazing narrative tour of history in this country through eight administrations.”
As Haygood was processing Allen’s story, Helene granted permission for a deeper look.
“He stood up, and his wife said four words: ‘You can show him.’ He asked me to take his arm and lead me to the kitchen and to a door that was locked. He unlocked this big lock and said, ‘Hold on, I’m taking you down in the basement and it’s dark and the ceiling light is in the middle.’ He was very fragile, but he led me down and we got to the center, he turned on a light. It was like being transported to the land of Oz — there were all of these photographs, memorabilia, photo albums, scrap books, sculptures, gifts that he’d received from Mrs. Kennedy, when on the day he went back to the White House to make sure she was alright she gave him one of her husband’s ties [which he framed], or LBJ came back from his Texas ranch and gave Mr. Allen one of his Stetson hats, which was still looking beautiful in its box.”
Perhaps hitting closest to home was the civil rights legislation that was developed, often with passions flaring, right in front of his eyes even as his own community of neighbors, friends and family were contending with Jim Crow America. Thus just blocks away from the White House lived an anonymous living witness to a remarkable span of history.
“It was astonishing,” marveled Haygood. “It was history up close from this Black man whose story was unknown. He was inside the White House from 1952-86, and the world did not know who he was … I, at one point had tears in my eyes, and I said to him, Mr. Allen, are you sure no one has written a story about you? And, he said to me: ‘If you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.’”
Helene Allen died just days before Haygood’s Washington Post’s profile of the Allens appeared, and Allen went to vote alone. The couple had been married for 65 years.
Allen was thrilled to see the election of the first African-American president, and with his son and Haygood, was seated in the VIP section during the 2009 Inauguration. Allen passed away in 2010 at the age of 90 after Barack Obama’s historical election — and today his life is the basis for the upcoming major motion film, and it’s companion book, “The Butler: A Witness to History” (Atria Books, $18).