HE WAS OUT there somewhere. By now he’d be an old man. He had worked “decades” in the White House. Maybe he had passed away virtually alone, and there had been only a wisp of an obituary notice. But no one could confirm if that were so. Maybe I was looking for a ghost. Actually, I was looking for a butler. I couldn’t stop looking.
Yes, a butler.
It is such an old-fashioned and anachronistic term: the butler. Someone who serves people, who sees but doesn’t see; someone who can read the moods of the people he serves. The figure in the shadows. Movie lovers fell in love with the butler as a cinematic figure in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey, which starred William Powell as the butler of a chaotic household. More recently, the butler figure and other backstage players have been popularized in the beloved television series Downton Abbey. My butler was a gentleman by the name of Eugene Allen. For thirty-four years, he had been a butler at the house located in Washington, DC, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which the world knows as the White House.
Finally, after talking to many, many people, on both coasts of the country, and making dozens and dozens of phone calls, I found him. He was very much alive. He was living with his wife, Helene, on a quiet street in Northwest Washington. Eugene Allen had worked—as a butler—in eight presidential administrations, from Harry Truman’s to Ronald Reagan’s. He was both a witness to history and unknown to it.
“Come right in,” he said, opening the door to his home on that cold November day in 2008. He had already taken his morning medications. He had already served his wife breakfast. He was eighty-nine years old, and he was about to crack history open for me in a whole new way.
This is how the story of a White House butler—who would land in newsprint the world over after a story I had written appeared on the front page of the Washington Post three days after the historic election on November 4, 2008, of Barack Obama—actually unspooled.
IT ALL BEGAN in summery darkness in 2008, down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Midnight had come and gone, and the speech was being summed up and analyzed and written about. Yet another Democratic presidential hopeful had been pleading with a throng of students and voters about why they should vote for him. The rafters of what is known as the Dean Dome on the campus of the University of North Carolina were packed. The candidate, who possessed a smooth and confident disposition, was on his way. The audience was multiracial, young and old. The instantly recognizable guttural voice of Stevie Wonder was jumping from the loudspeakers. Some of the old in attendance were veterans of the movement, as in civil rights movement: the sixties, segregation, those brave souls gunned down and buried all across the South. Now the candidate was before them, shirtsleeves rolled up, holding the microphone. “I’m running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now, because I believe in such a thing as being too late, and that hour, North Carolina, is upon us.” The words had a churchy, movement feel to them, and then–senator Barack Obama was effortlessly lifting the throng up out of their seats. The noise and clapping pointed to believers. But still, it was the South, he was a black man, the White House seemed a bit of a fantastical dream. History and demons were everywhere, though the candidate seemed impervious to all that.
I was one of the writers covering the Obama campaign that night for the Washington Post, flying in and out of a slew of states over a seven-day period. Following the Chapel Hill rally and speech—and after I’d interviewed a few folks inside—it was time to move outside and head for the bus, which would take us journalists back to the hotel. The night air was sweet and rather lovely. Suddenly, I heard the oddest thing: cries, and coming from nearby. I turned my head and squinted through the dark. Just over there, on a bench, sat three young ladies—college students. I stepped toward them and asked if anything was wrong, if there was anything I could do. “Our fathers won’t speak to us,” one of them said through her sobs, “because we support that man in there.” They had all been inside the Dome. The speaker’s cohorts nodded through reddened eyes. She went on: “Our fathers don’t want us supporting a black man, but they can’t stop us.” Their words stilled me. I sat talking with them for a while. Their sobs faded away, and the looks on their faces soon returned to a kind of resplendent defiance. They were staring down their daddies; they were going to be a part of the movement to get this black man to the White House. Maybe I was half-exhausted, maybe I was in a dreamy state of mind, maybe those tears had touched me deeper than I knew. But then and there, in that southern darkness—as if I had been kicked by a mule—I told myself that Barack Obama was indeed going to get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the White House.
Just days after that night in Chapel Hill, I told Steve Reiss, my editor, that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency, and because he was going to win, I needed to find someone from the era of segregation, and find them right now, to write about what this upcoming and momentous event in American history would mean to them. And I wanted the person to have worked in the White House, I told him. My editor’s eyebrows arched. “Hmm.” Reiss sighed. He didn’t believe Obama would win, but he did believe my intentions. He wanted me to finish a couple of other hanging assignments, then I could go in search of this ghostly person. He wondered: how far back would I look for this White House employee? “Are you talking the nineteen sixties?”
“Farther back,” I said.
I wanted to find a black man or woman who had worked and scrubbed inside the White House, who had washed dishes there, who had drunk from those COLORED ONLY water fountains in America during the Jim Crow years. I did not mind that people around me were constantly saying America would not elect a black man as president.
A black employee at the White House in the 1950s? The White House operator told me it was their policy not to give out names of former employees, and she knew of no White House office that would assist me in such an endeavor. There are always walls, roadblocks in a reporter’s work, and I told myself this was nothing to fret about. Besides, I had a source on Capitol Hill, in a congressman’s office, someone who would help. But after much back-and-forth, this source couldn’t gain any guidance from the White House either. Others were soon offering blank stares, or long pauses on the telephone, with no possible names or even leads. Then, with me wondering if such a person could be found, someone told me about a lady in Florida who used to work at the White House, who might know of just such a person.
The woman in Florida, a former White House employee, gave me a name. “If he’d have passed away I would have heard about it,” she said. “The last time I saw Eugene Allen he was standing outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, getting into a taxicab. He was attending a reunion at the White House. He worked there many years as a butler.” She did not know exactly how many years.
If Eugene Allen were still alive, I had to find him. If he had been getting into a taxi when last seen by my Florida contact, that meant he likely lived in the Washington, DC–Maryland–Virginia region. The phone books were full of Eugene Allens. By the time I had made forty calls without tracking down this particular Eugene Allen, I began to wonder if this man still lived in the area. People age and become snowbirds. They move to California, Arizona, Florida. And, of course, they die. The unsuccessful calls kept mounting.
“Hello, I’m looking for Mr. Eugene Allen, who used to work as a butler at the White House.” It was about the fifty-sixth call.
“You’re speaking to him.”
· · ·
The subway train rumbled under the surface of DC. The butler had given directions to his home. It was a working-class neighborhood through and around which the 1960s riots had once swept. On my way to his street I walked past a fish fry joint, and storefront churches, and small clothing stores. In front of the butler’s home, the front gate had been left noticeably ajar: expecting company.
“Come right in,” Eugene Allen said. His back was slightly bent, and he stepped about with little grimaces. He introduced Helene, his wife, who was reclining in an easy chair with her cane lying across her lap. She was smiling warmly. They lived alone. After he was seated, both were quick to let me know that they’d talk with me, but only after they watched their beloved game show, The Price Is Right. They watched back-to-back episodes, watched them with an intensity that told me not to dare interrupt, so I didn’t.
Splayed on an end table were half a dozen magazines with then–Senator Barack Obama’s picture. It was easy to tell how proud they were of his candidacy. As game show images flickered on the wide-screen television (a gift from their only child, Charles, a Vietnam War vet who worked as an investigator with the State Department), I saw on a wall the only picture that hinted at employment at the White House: the Allens standing with President and Nancy Reagan at what seemed a very formal affair. I still was unsure of exactly how many presidents Eugene Allen had worked for.
“Eight presidents,” he told me.
Eight? He could tell I was surprised.
“That’s right. Eight. Started with Harry Truman and worked all the way up to President Reagan.”
He started telling me about his life. Born in 1919 in Scottsville, Virginia, on a plantation, he grew up working as a “house boy” for a white family. They taught him kitchen skills, and he came of age washing dishes and setting tables for that family. There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing. But like Huck Finn, he wanted to light out for the territory. He got as far as Hot Springs, Virginia, home to the renowned Homestead Resort. With his refined skills, he got a job there as a waiter.
In the 1930s, jobs for Negroes anywhere quickly spread on a grapevine that was stitched together by church members, Pullman porters, bellhops at Negro hotels—the vanguard of what would form the backbone of the black working and middle class. While in Hot Springs, someone told Eugene Allen about a job in Washington, DC, at a country club. He’d heard about the high steppers and good tips at country clubs. He threw his suits in a trunk and soon found himself in the nation’s capital.
The Depression lay like a hard stone across the land, but he had a job in Washington, and he liked it. He wore nice suits, hats with soft brims, and two-toned shoes. (In some photos that survive from the era, there he is, sitting on the hood of a car, in a natty suit and fedora, looking like a million bucks though flat broke.) At a party one night in 1942 he met Helene, also a transplant to DC. She had relatives in Washington who sent letters and magazines to the small town in North Carolina where she was born and raised. Desperate to get out of the Jim Crow South, she begged her father to let her go live in this mecca her relatives described. Though he initially said no, she kept asking until he finally relented. Now in DC, she and Eugene were eyeballing one another across the music and bobbing heads at a nighttime soirée; she thought surely he’d ask for her phone number. It was a wartime city, and moments were precious. Life was so unpredictable. But he was too shy. “So I tracked his number down,” she says. They both chuckle. They married a year after meeting.
By 1947 they had saved enough to purchase their home on Otis Place in the city. Eugene was working at the country club. The job required a certain degree of smoothness, of discretion, and those were traits he possessed, traits that gained him favorable attention from the politicians and bankers who belonged to the country club. Five years later, in 1952, someone at the country club told him they were looking for “pantry workers” over at the White House, and that he should go over there and talk with Alonzo Fields. “I wasn’t even looking for a job,” he told me.
Fields, a black man, had risen from butler to maître d’ at the White House. An Indiana native, he had trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in hopes of teaching someday. When his benefactor died, his music dreams were thwarted, so he had made ends meet by working as a waiter. He joined the White House staff during the Hoover administration and would work there for twenty-one years under four presidents. He had no earthly idea that Eugene Allen, the man sitting before him, would far surpass him in number of presidents worked for and years served.
Fields talked to Allen about the prestige of working at the White House, how discretion was to be valued and practiced. Fields must have picked up on Allen’s air of quiet dignity because he hired him to work in the pantry. The starting salary was twenty-four hundred dollars a year. In 1952, it was decent money. Helene, a vivacious sort, now owned bragging rights: her husband worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a fact she was quick to drop on neighbors and fellow churchgoers. It bestowed a certain importance on the Allen family.
Allen admits he was quite nervous when Fields came looking for him one day shortly after he began work at the White House. He told Allen it was time to meet President Harry Truman. “Just listen to this man,” Truman said to Allen, pointing his finger in the direction of Alonzo Fields, “and you’ll be okay.” The years began to roll by. Allen was promoted to full-fledged butler. To celebrate that and other occasions, he and Helene would throw little dinner parties down in their basement, which was fairly stark save for a noticeable black-and-white portrait of Jackie Robinson, which hung on a wall near the bar. They’d be joined by fellow butlers and their wives, neighbors, and acquaintances from their church. Mixed drinks would be served and folks would start, after a week of being buttoned-up, to relax. Guests would plead around the card table and makeshift bar for any information about what went on at the White House. Eugene was ever tight-lipped.
After having left the White House all these years later, Eugene Allen was more open. He admitted he could hardly have envisioned how history would evolve during his years—thirty-four in all—spent at the White House. He reminisced about shaking the hand of every president he had worked for, and about spending nights in the White House when the weather forbade his getting home. He reminisced about flying on Air Force One, and about all the Easter egg hunts for the children. He talked about all the state dinners and White House luncheons.
“I was there, honey,” Helene pipes in. They both smile: old souls, old love.
During the tense Little Rock school desegregation crisis, he watched President Eisenhower argue with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus over the phone. It made him mighty proud when Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect the black schoolchildren. He was there when President Kennedy had to protect James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi in 1963 as the school, by court order, was forced to allow the first black student to enroll. The stories come more frequently now, but back then, when Helene would ask him about the social and racial strife engulfing the country and what it was doing to the president he was serving, Eugene Allen was mostly silent.
There were sweeter moments. He was there, at the White House, in 1963 when President Kennedy hosted an event to honor the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Allen and the other butlers had never seen so many blacks at the White House at one time, upwards of eight hundred floating about, among them Langston Hughes and Sammy Davis Jr. (One of the black guests cracked it was like being inside Uncle Tom’s cabin.) Sometimes, on getting back to the White House kitchen, where he’d pause for a break, he’d shake his head at the wonder of social progress: Allen himself had been born in the former Confederacy and only fifty-four years after the end of slavery.
We know, of course, the Kennedy years would come to a tragic end. When President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Allen and the other crestfallen butlers awaited the arrival back at the White House of those who had traveled with Kennedy. He remembers First Lady Jackie Kennedy being in a near-catatonic state, and there were the low-pitched voices of the Kennedy children that seemed particularly sad. When Allen went home on the night of the Kennedy assassination, he felt strongly that he should get back to the White House; he could not sleep. He prepared to return. Helene cautioned him about going out so late, with so little rest. But he was determined. As he was putting on his coat in the hallway, he collapsed into sobs. Charles, the son, would later tell me that was the first and only time he had seen his father cry. Indeed, Kennedy enjoyed an almost gospel-like devotion from blacks in America.
It pained Eugene Allen to see a White House engulfed in such deep and dark sadness. He saw it everywhere: in the butlers’ quarters, in the White House kitchen, in the West Wing. Kennedy was the president who had begun to take on the intransigent Southern Democrats in his own political party over the issue of civil rights. And he was the president who had hosted gatherings at the White House that included more blacks than ever before. Now a gunman had taken him away.
One of Eugene Allen’s unique gifts as a White House butler—who seemed to gain more respect with each incoming administration—was his ability to improvise. In the days following the assassination, he wanted to bring a bit of cheer to the White House; he was especially worried about the Kennedy children, John and Caroline. It had been a long time since there had been such youth in the White House, and the nation had fawned over the children as they romped into the arms of their father. Eugene Allen told the White House chef to whip up some goodies: he was going to have a party for John and Caroline and some of their little friends. And there they were, all seated around a little table, enjoying themselves, smiling, the butler bending and serving. For a little while at least, there was the cacophony of little voices squealing with delight. Even the butler found reason to smile.
The butler thought President Johnson brave, if somewhat vulgar with his language. Yes, there were times, plenty of times, when Eugene Allen wanted to march right up to President Johnson and tell him about his boy, Charles, who had been sent to Vietnam, who was sweating in jungle darkness, who was trying to stay alive and get his ass back home. But Eugene Allen was caught in the middle, like a figurine bobbing on turbulent waves: he had to balance his concerns about being tossed out of the White House for insubordination on the one hand and his and Helene’s worries about their only son being half a world away, trying to stay alive, on the other. The father, the butler, watching history turn, could not say a word. All he could do was stand there, frozen, as Johnson talked to his so-called brilliant war hawks—Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk—and howled about sending more, more, more troops. Of President Richard Nixon, he’d only say he was shrewd, a little secretive, and a bit distant—the telltale traits, as it were, that would come to doom the Nixon presidency.
On weekends in Washington, the butler sometimes played golf on the Langston Golf Course. That led to chats with President Ford, a golfer himself. Eugene Allen and Ford also shared the same birthdays. “It’s Gene’s birthday, too!” First Lady Betty Ford would call out when they’d bring the cake out to surprise her husband. Soon as Eugene put his key in the door, and she had presented him with his birthday gifts, Helene just had to know what Mrs. Ford had given the president for his birthday.
In 1980, while serving in the Reagan administration, Eugene Allen was promoted to maître d’, a position of power among the butlers and maids at the White House. (He had outlasted so many other butlers, doubling the number of presidents for whom Alonzo Fields—the man who hired him—had worked.) Allen couldn’t help but feel the tension in the Reagan White House over the issue of apartheid in South Africa. Many American blacks from the civil rights movement joined with liberal whites—there were a good number of Republican politicians as well—in assailing the Reagan administration for supporting the apartheid regime. But White House butlers did not dare enter the political fray. They worked to improve the lot of their families by showing up to work every day. In all his years—thirty-four years and eight presidents—Eugene Allen never missed a day of work. Even during the 1960s riots, when it was hard to drive through the streets of Washington, he made it to work, and on foot if he had to.
One afternoon, inside the Reagan White House, Eugene Allen saw Nancy Reagan coming in his direction. There was an upcoming state dinner for West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. He imagined she wanted him to attend to some last-minute details. Instead, Nancy Reagan told Eugene Allen he would not be needed at the state dinner. He was suddenly dumbfounded. Before he could say anything, she told him that he and his wife, Helene, would be attending the state dinner—as guests of the president, in honor of his decades-long service to the White House and the presidents he had served. He was deeply touched, could barely move. He could imagine the look on his wife’s face when she heard they were going to a state dinner together. He was one of the first butlers in the history of the White House to be invited to a state dinner as a guest—a guest just like the ambassadors and business magnates who received invitations to such affairs.
Helene recalled how nervous she was about the pending state dinner, about what clothes and jewelry to wear. She had expressed worry to friends and fretted to her son, Charles, about what in the world she would talk about. She’d never gone to college, after all. Despite her insecurities, on the night of the dinner, she and Eugene looked resplendent leaving the house. Helene’s jewelry gleamed. Neighbors stared at them wide-eyed.
That night, Eugene Allen walked in the front door of the White House—not through the back entrance where service workers entered. Amid the glamour and splendor, they were in awe. “Had champagne that night,” the butler’s wife would remember all these years later. As she said it, Eugene, rocking in his chair, just grinned: for so many years he had stocked the champagne at the White House.
As if out of respect for that very special night, Eugene and Helene Allen had only one picture on the wall in their home that spoke of his White House years. It was the picture of them walking through the receiving line at the White House during the state dinner. The plantation of his boyhood years must have seemed a lifetime ago.
Frankly, from the moment I entered the Allens’ home, I was surprised there were not more visual highlights of his White House career. In Washington, people hang and frame all manner of photographs and documents.
After hours had passed during my first visit, and we’d exhausted ourselves with talk and their memories, Helene said to her husband, “You can show him now,” while nodding in my direction.
Eugene Allen slowly stood up. He asked me to follow him from the living room to the kitchen, stopping in front of a door—the basement door. His long and bony right arm reached onto his belt loop, where a string of keys jangled. He unlocked the door. I wondered why anyone had to keep their basement door locked. Then I quickly mused it was a gritty neighborhood; they were elderly and lived alone. “Follow me,” he said. “And hold on to my arm. The light switch is in the middle of the basement.”
We descended creaky stairs and walked into pitch blackness at the bottom of the stairwell. He inched his way to the hanging overhead string and pulled it. “Well, here it is,” he said, as I began scanning the now bright room, stunned as my gaze moved from wall to wall at what I was seeing: there were rich, gorgeous pictures on the wall of Eugene Allen with President Kennedy, with President Eisenhower, with President Nixon. He pointed to a picture of him with Sammy Davis Jr. Another with him and Duke Ellington and some other butlers. He pulled me to another corner of the basement. “Ike painted this picture for me,” he said. There were framed letters from the presidents to him on his birthday. It was like being dropped into a museum. There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia.
We heard shuffling feet walking across the kitchen floor. It was Helene.
“Show him the picture of us with Ella Fitzgerald!” she hollered down at us.
“Give me time. I am. Give me time,” the butler called up to her. His eyes were lit; he was smiling as if he suddenly appreciated the gallantry and perseverance of his own life. He shifted things so I could get better views. There were marbled busts of the presidents he had worked for; there were pictures of state dinners with Eugene Allen hovering in the background. On a shelf there were several four-inch photo albums. Inside them were some of the most gorgeous pictures of White House dining I had ever seen. The lit candles in the photos nearly flickered off the pages. There were framed and signed letters from the presidents to him and his wife. There were also several boxes of old Look and Life magazines. Helene, who helped curate the collection, had made especially sure to keep anything with Jackie Kennedy on the cover. It was a visual feast. Of course this basement needed to be locked. These were treasures, likely bound for a museum somewhere, someday. A life lived in the hard shadow of power. A life lived inside the White House during the Korean War, the Cold War, Little Rock, Rosa Parks on the move, the Cuban missile crisis, the moon landing, the integration of Ole Miss, Vietnam, the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the taken-from-us Kennedy brothers. Also, Watergate. (How the teacups must have rattled inside the White House then.) And the rise of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, two men linked to political movements that terrified blacks.
He stepped closer to another picture hanging on the wall and squinted: it was a sepia-toned and nearly faded photograph of him and Ike at Gettysburg—after Ike had left the White House. These had been lasting relationships. It is hard to imagine that some of these presidents didn’t admire the life of Eugene Allen, how he had survived, stayed off the unemployment rolls, navigated the politics of each administration. The children of several presidents still had him on their Christmas card list. He kept turning in the basement, as if on an easel, a world of power and glitter that had spun all around him, with him taking a place inside it.
In time, he pulled the light switch, returning the basement to darkness. Helene was awaiting us at the top of the stairs, leaning on her cane. I told her that what I had seen in the basement—his life, their life—had simply stunned me. “Hmm-mmm,” she said, nodding in agreement.
Back in the living room there were more photographs to look at. More memories that tumbled out: that time the White House had sent a Lincoln Town Car right to their home in the predawn darkness to ferry the butler to Andrews Air Force Base to hop aboard Air Force One; tales about the dexterity it took to serve a first-class meal on a plane zooming through the skies with the leader of the free world on board: Balance the tray with the wineglasses just so! Don’t let the gravy roll from the plate! And Lord have mercy, don’t trip and fall in the aisle of the plane. They both chuckled inside their warm house.
Helene, who had her own special memories, had kept hold of all those pretty dresses and lovely hats she had worn to White House events. They just could never imagine giving the clothing away. Sometimes Helene would implore Eugene to creep down into the basement and retrieve one of those magazines with Jackie on the cover. And she’d get to flipping through it in the lamplight and they’d both share some memories about being eyewitnesses to Camelot.
My visit was coming to an end. The election was looming just days away. It was so easy to feel how eager the Allens, who lived an unassuming life on this ordinary street in Washington, DC, were to vote. Elderly people, from the South, they had once been denied the right to vote. And now all their hopes and memories—of being colored, then Negro, then black, then that epithet hurled from certain corners, now African American—were rolling toward one candidate, Barack Obama. It was as if they were rocking Barack Obama into their very bosoms.
I left and felt, walking away from this modest dwelling, that I certainly had quite a unique story to tell. Actually, I wanted to run back once I reached the corner and plead with them to keep that basement locked, to keep those treasures safe.
Over the weekend, a nation kept wondering, kept asking: Would America elect a black man its president? My own family members back in Ohio weighed in: no, Obama would not win this time; America was not yet ready, maybe two election cycles away.
On Sunday night—thirty-six hours before Election Day—Charles Allen came over to visit his parents. He thought they’d bombard him with questions about the new, flat-screen television he had recently bought them. What did this button do? And what about that one? Instead, Helene couldn’t wait to tell her son that a writer had come to visit two days earlier. “She was so happy,” Charles would tell me. “She felt somebody was finally going to tell Eugene’s story. She said to me, before going to bed, ‘I feel so at peace.’ ” Charles would later tell a reporter in Ohio that it seemed “preordained” for me to come by.
The next morning, Monday, I phoned them. Just to say hello and inquire about the photographer sent to take their picture for my story. “She’s gone,” Eugene said, referring to Helene. His voice sounded strange, hollow even. I asked where she had gone. “I woke up and my wife didn’t,” he explained. I was still confused. Gone to the hospital? No, he said, Helene had passed in the night. I was speechless and suddenly felt woozy. I asked if there was anyone with him. Some church ladies were just then coming through the door.
Amid the sadness, as the hours passed, some visitors—among them current and former White House butlers and maids and dishwashers—began to share stories about the beautiful Helene Allen: how she loved to dance; how she just loved champagne; the way she looked in her dresses when heading off for some grand function at the White House. Meanwhile, amid this sudden pain, they’d have to constantly shove Eugene out of the kitchen; he kept wanting to serve everyone. After half a century of butlerlike duties, he could not step back and leave the work to others.
· · ·
Twenty-four hours later Eugene Allen, retired White House butler, rose in the darkness, got dressed in a semi-blur of confusion—his wife of sixty-five years gone, her Jet, Ebony, and Newsweek magazines with covers picturing presidential candidate Barack Obama still on the living room coffee table—to go vote. It must have taken an iron will, yet he knew, as the world knew, that history was in the balance.
Following his vote he returned home. He’d grimace as he walked without complaining about the pain. Church ladies and relatives kept him company during the rest of the day as sadness gripped his heart and pain racked his body, so much so that sometimes he walked around his house as loose as a straw puppet held upright by strings.
When the drama of election night began to crest, and tears had gushed—and a nation, seemingly against the odds of history, had miraculously leapt over a piece of the mountaintop and elected the first black man president of the United States—Eugene Allen was sitting in his favorite chair, inches from where Helene used to sit. He had a lovely little smile upon his cinnamon-colored face.
My story, about the history of blacks in the White House, from the kitchen to the West Wing, and about Eugene and Helene Allen, and about the civil rights movement and all those prayers for Barack Obama, was titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” It appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on November 7, 2008, three days after the election—and on the very day that Helene Allen was buried.
The election had, indeed, well served all those who had endured brutal segregation and were still alive: those who had been beaten during the sit-ins in North Carolina, who had marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, who had started off on civil rights marches and been thrown inside the notorious Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. All those alive who remembered the signs WHITE, COLORED. Even in a world of speed, of gadgetry gone amok, of impersonal machinery, this was epic. This was history that welcomed every other historic milestone into this moment. People everywhere reached for comparisons, but because this was America, once a land rife with Klansmen and lynchings and second-class citizenship emblazoned in the laws, there really were no comparisons. And yet, an old man who had fulfilled his civic responsibilities that morning sat alone in an easy chair in Northwest Washington, and the leap in his life felt epic as well. From plantation to ballot slip and a vote for Barack Obama.
After publication of the story, the letters written to me and Eugene Allen came from all corners of America as well as from around the world. The story had been picked up and reprinted in a great many newspapers. We both were surprised and touched. Some evenings, after work, I’d tote a bagful of the letters through the winter darkness over to his home. Here he is at the door, a little stooped, the arms at a perpetual crooked angle, offering a little smile. Not long after my arrival this evening, and after our unfolding chitchat—about the extreme cold outside, about the letter that had arrived from outgoing president George W. Bush and Laura Bush about the loss of Helene—he puts on his bifocals as I hand him some of the letters I’ve pulled from my shoulder bag. He delicately opens and starts reading one after the other.
From Diana Glenn:
What a touching story. Although I don’t have contacts, I am sure you do. I certainly hope that Eugene Allen is invited to dinner in the White House with President Obama. Your story was picked up by the Bend Bulletin in Bend, Oregon.
From Jason Whitely:
My best to Mr. Allen and his family who struggle with great loss at such a proud and fascinating turning point in history.
From Kimberly Randolph:
Haven’t I cried every day this week, and here I am wiping my eyes again . . . Who’s going to take care of Gene now that Helene’s gone? Gene definitely should be there at the White House on Jan. 20, 2009.
From Phyllis C. McLaughlin:
How sad that his wife died before she could vote in this historic election . . . What a wonderful couple. My heart really goes out to him.
From Martin Cain:
Thank you for your story about Mr. Allen and his amazing career . . . I am a 58 [year old] white male . . . My vote was going to be cast for McCain. On my drive to the polling place, I started thinking about America’s history and the moment that was quite possibly at hand for the American people—not just black Americans, but all Americans. I walked in and voted for Obama. I think that on an intellectual level I can understand the excitement over the significance of the Obama election. I know that I can never understand it on an emotional level . . . I cried when I realized that Helene had died before the election. Please extend my sincere condolences to Mr. Allen and his family.
There were more letters—from Australia, from Japan—and far too many to read in one sitting. “My goodness,” the butler said, letting out a little whoop of laughter. “They’re awfully nice.”
“Would you like some tea? Some coffee?” Maybe he’d never get over the urge to serve. But I said no because I couldn’t bear to see him rise, grimacing, and amble off into the kitchen. Sometimes we’d just sit, in silence, The Price Is Right droning on the television, the episodes playing back to back yet again. I know he missed Helene. I wondered, that night, and even on other nights, if I were somewhat to blame for Helene’s leaving this earth, if my questions during the interview had exhausted her, stressed her, had caused a slowing of her heart until it just stopped. Then I’d remind myself that her son had told me how she had expressed to him how happy she was feeling before she ascended the stairs for what would be her last night of life on earth—happy that the story of Eugene Allen would finally be written.
Standing outside, on the porch, in the winter darkness, I’d wait until I heard the deadbolt lock click from inside. Then the butler would pull back the curtain and wave good-bye.
My man Godfrey.
My man Eugene.
Allen once spoke of Nixon pacing the corridors of the White House, deliberating inner office turmoil and his distrust of the press. In a public setting, an American president always appears confident, bold, and assured. The public sees them surrounded by the trappings of power. Didn’t Kennedy himself look vibrant at Cape Canaveral, in those cool sunglasses and surrounded by his space dreams? There was the ageless Ronald Reagan seen chopping wood with an axe in that rustic California setting, an image that seemed to speak of virility and power. If a man’s home, however, is his castle, what is the White House in which he dwells? The front door hardly keeps nightmares or bad tidings away. Is it also, at times, a bewildering chamber where the imagination can drift and wander? It is quite easy to imagine Eugene Allen bidding me farewell, turning from the door, and descending into his basement, where it is all gathered, where his world remains frozen in time, like a newsreel stopped two floors beneath his Helene-less bedroom. The pictures of him and Ike, of him and boxing champs inside the White House, of him and Mamie Eisenhower, of him snapping that picture of Daddy King, daddy to the civil rights leader. Ruminating, like some of the presidents he served, walking in the quiet dreamscape of a late night to fortify himself for the days ahead, to remember some of the glory of what had gone on before. At home, the president of his own life.
· · ·
Some weeks later I returned to share news: the transition team of President-elect Obama would be sending a VIP invitation for Eugene Allen to attend the inauguration. There was more news: Hollywood movie producers had begun calling. There was talk of a desire to do a movie about his life. “Well, I’ll be doggone,” he said. He smiled through pain. All his life he had worked on his feet. Now the ailments seemed to be everywhere inside his body—shoulders, hips, calves. A VIP invitation and Hollywood calling: I wondered how much any of it really meant to him. There was no one in the house to remind him to take his pills. There was no one—on those evenings he was in the mood—for whom to set out the fine china and light a candle. The way he used to do in the White House. The way he used to do for Helene. I could have shared the news over the phone, but I had grown fond of him by then. As I walked away from the home of Eugene Allen on that evening, I was reminded of my own neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The neighborhoods shared similarities: tidy streets, solidly built homes, yards with fences and rows of hedges. Working-class neighborhoods. When I finished college, I had returned to reside with my grandparents and not my mother. Old people charm me. Maybe the distance from this street in Washington to my own neighborhood in Columbus was not that great at all.
DURING THE HISTORIC campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, stories of America’s racial history were constantly unspooling in daily and weekly publications: Michelle Obama’s enslaved forebears had been traced to a plantation in South Carolina. The White House—the residence to which Barack Obama was trying to gain entrance—had actually been physically built with the labor of slaves. How black was Obama? Many denizens of the urban hair salons would point to his father’s being from Africa itself—the motherland. His story was so mesmerizing, so bewilderingly fascinating, that it was beyond irony. But the world of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had always been pulled into the nation’s racial agonies.
Throughout history blacks have looked to the White House for help and leadership in the march toward equality.
In 1863 President Lincoln, utilizing his ferocious political acumen, had ingeniously forced Congress into adopting the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Chains fell from both ankles and wrists. But he paid with his life. (The momentous legislative victory to abolish slavery was the subject of Lincoln, a 2012 Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg, incidentally, had been one of the directors initially interested in telling the Eugene Allen story.) Reconstruction, in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, sought to expand black aspirations. In 1866 Frederick Douglass—onetime slave and among the most famous abolitionists of his time—made it to the White House to plead with President Andrew Johnson about black voting rights. Johnson allowed that he had no political capital to gain from fighting for blacks to have the right to vote. Douglass secured another White House invitation in 1877. On this occasion there wasn’t even the pretense of politics: President Rutherford B. Hayes had engaged Douglass to serve as master of ceremonies for a festive evening of entertainment.
On October 16, 1901, a Negro butler at the White House was told that President Theodore Roosevelt would be having an evening guest. Just before the appointed time, the butler dutifully set the table. The guest, alone, arrived under the cover of darkness—and in secret. It was Booker T. Washington, the famed educator, also born into slavery. A Negro had never before dined at the White House. His mere presence made the butler both curious and nervous. Lynchings were still common in the Maryland countryside, a scant distance from the White House itself. According to later accounts, Washington and Roosevelt primarily talked about southern politics and strife in that region. The next morning a smallish item about the dinner appeared on newswires. In short order, all hell, indeed, broke loose. Southerners excoriated Roosevelt for having invited Washington to dine at the White House. The Memphis Scimitar was among the first to unleash its invective: “The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House.” It went on: “It is only recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half Southern by reason of that fact. By inviting a nigger to his table he pays his mother small duty . . .”
There were, to be sure, shards of light amid the darkness that sometimes flowed from the White House when it came to black Americans. In 1939—the year a natty-dressing Eugene Allen was plotting to get out of rural Virginia for better job opportunities—the Daughters of the American Revolution, who controlled bookings to Constitution Hall, refused to allow opera singer Marian Anderson to sing on that stage because of their segregation policy. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the DAR, abruptly quit. Her stance gained wide and appreciative coverage in the Negro press. More significant, she arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.
By contrast, First Lady Bess Truman, who hailed from the border state of Missouri, was a devoted member of the DAR. When the DAR refused to allow Hazel Scott—a noted pianist and wife of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—an engagement in 1945 at Constitution Hall, another war of words erupted. Powell pleaded with President Truman to do something. Truman said he could not, offering that the DAR was a private organization and he intended to stay out of its business. Bess Truman steadfastly refused to quit the DAR. Powell—who could be dangerously quick with a quip—referred to First Lady Bess Truman as “the last lady of the land.” President Truman, inside the White House, erupted over Powell’s disparaging remark and referred to Powell as “that damn nigger preacher.” The public weighed in; letters poured into the White House. One missive addressed to Bess Truman spotlighted the plight of blacks in battle: “In light of their sacrifice it is a shocking fact to realize that you refused yesterday to give up a cup of tea and a box of cookies to support the thesis for which they died.” There were those who thought Powell had embarrassed the White House. “On the other hand, Powell has certainly seized a dramatic way to strike at prejudice,” a Missouri newspaper noted, “and like Cato (who had warned of the cracking of the Roman empire) is serving the nation by calling attention to danger.”
Among the first tasks Eugene Allen was given inside the White House kitchen when he was hired as a pantry man was washing the cups and saucers from which President Truman and Bess Truman drank their daily tea.
THE WHITE HOUSE butlers who happened to be Negro operated in a private world inside the White House. It must have been a great responsibility—perhaps somewhat of a burden—for them to carry all those secrets with them through the years. Wives and relatives constantly needled them about what went on inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Were there secret escape tunnels in the White House? Was Jackie Kennedy nice—or snobbish? Did LBJ use the word “niggers” ? (By all accounts, the greatest president on civil rights since Lincoln did use that word.)
Once outside the White House, there was another private world that awaited these butlers. That world was the one populated by ambassadors, famous actors, publishing tycoons, and the moneyed gentry who lived up and down the East Coast. They were families in Washington, New York City, in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Newport, Rhode Island; they were the swells who summered out on Long Island. They held soirees and lavish parties for their friends flying in from the West Coast, and they often turned to White House butlers to work those parties.
These Negro butlers—and a good many of them had been trained by Eugene Allen himself—were in such demand during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that they formed the Private Butler Membership Club. They were known for their punctiliousness and their professionalism, which made them prized recruits for these social affairs. “Those men were jazz and bebop cats who had their own swagger and suited up at night to serve world leaders as the invisible ones,” recalls Daphne Muse, whose father, Fletcher Muse Sr., and uncle, George Allen Muse, were members of the Private Butler Membership Club. Both men had been hired as contract butlers at the White House, where they first met Eugene Allen. “It was a tight circle of men,” adds Muse. When they ventured to out-of-town assignments, the butlers would often arrive back home laden with bags of delicacies. “A twenty-five-pound bag of blue crab meat would be considered leftovers,” says Muse. But it was their discretion that some prized above all else. Muse chuckles at one particular memory of a certain butler who told her, late in his life, what went on at an out-of-town private function: sex, and plenty of it. The affair turned out to be an orgy, and the butler was forced to tiptoe—tray in hand—around the gyrating bodies.
IN LOOKING BACK over my own writing life, it seems now that Eugene Allen was a kind of capstone to all those fascinating figures I had interviewed in years past who had a link to turmoil inside the White House.
Scenes from this writer’s life:
It’s 1986 and I’m sitting in a motel room on the edge of Little Rock, Arkansas, with a frail man launching a campaign for Arkansas governor. He is not just any man; he is Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas during the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. He’s another old pol who can’t let go. He has been talking about redemption of late, but the blacks in the state—and many whites, it must be stated—just rolled their eyes at him. He’s the very governor who had forced the Eisenhower administration to call out federal troops to ensure the safety of the nine Negro students back in 1957. He seems so courteous, and he does not wish to really talk about the past, though he does offer that, in 1957, he was only trying to uphold states’ rights.
It’s 1991 and I’m in a Harlem apartment with E. Frederick Morrow. He was the first black hired—in 1955—in an executive position at the White House. He is seated on a sofa, a proud man, a Bowdoin College graduate. He operated in a society before there was any modern civil rights legislation. The epithets he heard! There were even blacks who made fun of him for working in a Republican administration.
It’s 1992 and I’m sitting in the home of Louis Martin, the Democratic operative whose work on behalf of black hopes and ambitions stretches back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. It was Martin who had been the principal organizer of the one-hundredth-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963 at the White House during the Kennedy administration. The more he talks about those times—fighting for civil rights, getting Negroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph into the White House for visits—the more he dabs at his tears with the white handkerchief in his hand. The memories of the battles still overwhelm him.
I’m sitting—it’s 1993—with an old wheezing man, George Wallace, who’s in a wheelchair in his office in Montgomery, Alabama. At one point in American history Alabama’s Governor Wallace represented the reason blacks had fled the South: he was the governor who stood in the door at the University of Alabama and said blacks would never be admitted to the school. His choice of words—“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”—would become a rallying cry for segregationists and Klansmen. In 1972 a deranged man shot George Wallace while he was on the campaign trail. That day in Montgomery he tells me stories of all the black friends he now has, of all those who have forgiven him.
Another day—it’s 2002—the sun is starting to set, and I’m leaning on a car outside a broken-down auto body shop in Jackson, Mississippi. James Meredith, who integrated Ole Miss in 1962, is talking about poverty, and black folk and white folk, and Mississippi, and being fearless, and history. He’s forty years removed from that day that riveted a nation and sparked riots on the campus. He tells me how much he loves the state of Mississippi, where mobs once thought him the embodiment of every black person trying to strive ahead.
I’d come to spend time with all these men as a writer, a journalist and biographer chasing stories throughout America’s main roads and back roads. At certain moments in history, all of them caused some kind of emotion, or tumult, to engulf the White House over the issue of blacks and equal rights. And during all those moments, through years and years—bullets and fires and assassinations upon the land—an unknown butler by the name of Eugene Allen was inside the White House. He saw and heard the now historic names, all the images. He certainly would have heard some of the phone calls, eyed some of the men arriving at the White House to see the president to talk about Little Rock, or Oxford, Mississippi. Or Birmingham. He had to take it in, decipher it, process it emotionally. He was, yes, the man with the tray, the medicine, the tea, the bowl of soup; he was the butler who fetched the president’s straw hat, the president’s wingtips. But he was also a black man. And he saw the ground shifting from up close.
Some nights, when he arrived home from the White House, alighting from his car on Otis Place, after yet another cataclysmic event revolving around black Americans and their epochal struggle for freedom that had overtaken the television screens, Eugene Allen’s neighbors would want to rush from their porches and plead with him for information. Anything, dammit, just any tidbit, any morsel of information. But Helene had trained these neighbors well over the years—a perceptible nod, a few pointed words in the grocery store aisle: Eugene couldn’t talk; he had to be discreet; he was no one’s gossip. Of course that didn’t necessarily stop Helene herself from asking questions. Little Charles would hear them whispering at the kitchen table. He’d be playing with his toys in the living room. He’d hear low-pitched talk about his father’s workday at the White House. Then, soon as he’d amble into the kitchen, such talk ceased. And the conversation turned to ho-hum things rather than the doings at the White House, where the leader of the free world lived.
How does a man, a butler, a Negro butler in the era of segregation, keep it all inside? Keep gliding about the premises when so much happening around him affects his own life and that of his family? Discretion plays an important role for sure, as does a love of country.
I’m reminded of the line uttered in The Butler by Martin Luther King Jr. himself: “Young brother, the black domestic plays an important role in our history.” He seems to be talking about pride, and honor of job, and their contribution to the slow march forward.
IT WAS BITTERLY cold—temperatures would hover throughout the day between ten and twenty degrees—on the morning of January 20, 2009, in Washington. At 6:30 a.m. I stood inside the home of Eugene Allen. We would be going together to the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. Watching the onetime butler descend the stairs—those tiny grimaces creasing his face again—I wondered if we had made a mistake. I now wasn’t so sure he could make it; I thought the long day ahead would be too much. During my recent visits, Eugene Allen had started wrapping his arm around me, giving a tight hug. It touched me. He did so upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, even as I could hear the air coming up through his lungs. When I expressed concern about how he felt, he told me not to worry. “I’ll be okay,” he said, standing near the framed picture of President and Nancy Reagan and Helene that hung in the living room. I helped him into his long gray wool overcoat. He donned a Sinatra fedora. His son, Charles, was outside revving up the engine, letting the heat ooze throughout the insides of the Cadillac. We rode the car to a subway station and boarded the train. We knew there’d be a lengthy walk once we reached the final train stop. The train was packed but amazingly orderly. No one wished—not on this day—to cause any kind of disruption or disturbance. Charles held one arm of his father, I held the other.
When we emerged from the train station, it was a scene reminiscent of The Day of the Locust, with people far as the eye could see. The crowd would surge to more than two million people. Almost immediately, Eugene Allen needed to sit down. He was exhausted. We found a cement barrier and he caught his breath. His son rewrapped the scarf, tighter, around his father’s neck. We started making our way to our seating area, up streets crowded with police officers on horseback and thousands upon thousands of pedestrians. A third of a mile into the walk, I strongly suggested we turn back and find a taxi. We needed to get Eugene Allen home; he was breathing heavily. And I felt like a fool for having him out in this brutally cold weather. But then Eugene Allen turned to me and said, “Just get me out of the cold for a spell. I need to get someplace warm. Then we’ll keep going.” We found a police substation. I was freezing. Charles was freezing. And the butler was freezing. We all sat sipping hot chocolate. After twenty minutes, with Eugene Allen again saying he had no intention of turning back, we continued on our way.
We finally reached the VIP section. A Marine guard greeted Eugene Allen and escorted us to our cold, metallic seats, a cold wind whipping all around us. We could see the area in the distance where the president would take the oath of office. We could see Aretha Franklin’s huge and colorful hat atop her head. Eugene Allen sat looking around, taking it all in. He said he knew how much Helene would have loved being here. A parade of figures started strolling and taking their seats in an area above us on the Capitol rotunda steps. Many were figures the butler had served over the years. “There’s Jimmy Carter,” he said. “He’s looking good, too. Took me with him over to Camp David once. When he came into the dining room there—they had given me the day off when I went with them there—he pointed to an empty seat and said to me, ‘Who sitting here, Gene?’ And I said, ‘No one, Mr. President.’ And he said, ‘Good, I’ll sit right here by Gene.’ ”
President-elect Barack Obama strolled into view. Clearly overjoyed, the butler said, “I’m telling you, it’s something to see. Seeing him standing there—well, it’s been worth it all.”
WORTH IT ALL? Maybe he was talking about the long trek from a Virginia plantation, the verbal abuse he was subjected to while working in a country club; maybe he was talking about all the dishes he had washed in his life, all the moonless nights he had alighted from the White House on his trek home, bone weary. Maybe he was talking about the 1960s, when the kids with the afros in his neighborhood, the ones wearing those “Black Power” buttons, wondered why in the world he was still working over at the White House—as a butler.
At ceremony’s end—with history washing over everyone in attendance—Eugene Allen rose, he tightened his gloves, and we all headed back home. More than a few people recognized him from the story that had been written about him just after the election. They shook his hand.
That afternoon, back home, sitting in his easy chair, Eugene Allen fell asleep. The television had been playing The Price Is Right.
In the second week of March 2010 I hopped aboard a city bus in Washington, DC, and rode over to Providence Hospital. Charles had phoned and told me his father had been admitted two days earlier with some respiratory and hip problems. He was lying in bed, though wide awake, when I arrived. “The nurses take good care of me,” he said. “They think I’m famous.” One of the nurses had remembered the articles written about him; soon word got around the hospital, and doctors and nurses dropped by to meet him. They’d mention how amazing it was he had worked all those years at the White House. When Allen fell asleep that day, Charles and I strolled the hallways, worried. The old man appeared to be weakening. Still, he rallied in the days ahead and was released. The return home didn’t last long. He told Charles one day he was feeling terrible. He was admitted to Washington Adventist Hospital, where, on March 31, 2010, Eugene Allen, butler to eight presidents, took his last labored breath.
It had been a mere sixteen months earlier that I had first met Eugene Allen and his wife, Helene, that he had first escorted me down into a darkened basement that held such treasures from a life inside the White House. A day after he died, his obituary appeared in newspapers all around America. He received lovely tributes on the national news telecasts. “Eugene Allen has died,” Brian Williams said on NBC Nightly News, as pictures of Allen revolved on a screen. “Few Americans will ever get to see as much history as he did, and only a handful have ever been this close to power.” There was swelling music. Williams continued, “He served the most powerful and most famous people in the world. And after hours a lot of presidents treated him as their friend.” His death was noted around the world as well. The Independent of London described Eugene Allen as “a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all.” The obituaries all made mention that he had voted for Barack Obama amid the sadness of losing his wife on Election Eve.
SEVERAL HUNDRED PEOPLE strolled into the Greater First Baptist Church in Washington on April 8, 2010, to bid Eugene Allen farewell. The long line of men along the back row of the church were Secret Service agents. A few had gotten to know Allen during gatherings at the White House after he retired. Most had just come out of respect. There were rows of flowers near his casket. There were aging butlers and maids seated in the pews. Delores Moaney, who had worked at the White House during the Eisenhower years, recalled: “He was such
A Witness to History
A Witness to History
With a foreword by the Academy Award nominated director Lee Daniels, The Butler not only explores Allen's life and service to eight American Presidents, from Truman to Reagan, but also includes an essay, in the vein of James Baldwin’s jewel The Devil Finds Work, that explores the history of black images on celluloid and in Hollywood, and fifty-seven pictures of Eugene Allen, his family, the presidents he served, and the remarkable cast of the movie.