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
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.
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As book lovers, we tend to be skeptical about film adaptations, but we are fans of both the thirteen books on this list and their cinematic counterparts. Read the book, then stream the movie. Netflix is a marvelous thing.