It took Wil Haygood three weeks, 57 phone calls and two episodes of The Price is Right to discover Eugene Allen, the real-life inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Sensing in 2008 that Barack Obama would win the election, Haygood wanted to write a story about an African-American White House employee who had lived through segregation. The Washington Post reporter searched for someone who had waited on presidents while being denied the right to vote. After many dead ends, he finally reached the 89-year-old Allen by phone.
“Sir, I understand you worked for three presidents,” Haygood said.
“Young man, it was eight presidents,” said the frail voice on the line.
Haygood arranged to visit the man who was a White House butler from 1952 to 1986, serving presidents Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan. But before he could whip out his notebook, Allen’s wife Helene said, “Now, now. We watch The Price is Right every day at 11:30 a.m. So you have to watch it with us.”
The reporter patiently watched back-to-back episodes of the game show. After the credits rolled, Helene Allen told her husband, “Honey, you can show him now.”
Haygood had no idea what awaited him as he followed Allen down the steps to the basement. Then he saw them — photos of Allen with Harry Truman, the green tie that Jackie Kennedy had given him after her husband’s assassination and a big Stetson from LBJ, to name just a few. “It was like I was transported to Oz,” Haygood said. The room was so beautifully decorated, it could have been plucked from the Smithsonian. Then Allen talked about his unlikely journey from sharecropper on a Virginia cotton farm to White House butler in tux and tails.
This week, the story of the butler plucked from obscurity will hit the big screen in a movie featuring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines (a character inspired by Allen’s life) and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria. Haywood is the associate producer of the movie, and he wrote a book called “The Butler: A Witness to History.” The screenplay was written by Danny Strong.
Haywood built a rapport with an intensely private man during that interview a week before the election. Allen had turned down a dozen interview requests over the years, according to his son Charles Allen, a retired State Department investigator. “My father was a very humble, very shy man and he didn’t want to be asked compromising questions about the First Family,” Charles said. “But Wil sat there and watched the game show. He won over my parents’confidence.”
If Haygood had visited Allen even a week later, there would have been no story or movie, Charles said. Helene, Allen’s beloved wife of 65 years, died the day before the election. Allen went to the polls alone. Three days later, on Nov. 7, 2008, Helene was buried on the day Haygood’s story appeared in the Post. Shrouded in a fog of grief, Allen shut down, declining further interviews.
Haygood feels privileged to have met Allen before his death on March 31, 2010 — before his precious history was lost. “This is the genuine tragedy, that so many black people have their personal histories washed away,” he said.
Allen’s personal history was a front-row seat on the changes rolling through America. “He was there while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations,” Haygood wrote in his Post article. When the White House butler and his family took road trips back to Virginia in the 50s, they could not use the public bathrooms or eat in most restaurants.
Haygood, an African-American writer, has authored biographies of larger-than-life personalities such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson. “The reason Eugene Allen is so fascinating to me is he was the one who was completely without ego. He did not want to be famous,” Haygood said. “He was secure in the shadows. It takes a special person to be that way. At the same time, he knew his life was worthy. He kept all of these letters and mementos from the presidents.”
His personal narrative intersected with the national one. Allen served LBJ, the president who escalated the Vietnam War while his son Charles fought in that war. The president didn’t know it until another butler told him, Charles said.
Haygood’s story was picked up internationally, and readers wrote him. Haygood would carry letters by the sack load to Allen’s house. The butler and the writer would read them together.
The highlight of their friendship was the inauguration of President Barack Obama. VIP invitations were sent to Allen, his son Charles and Haygood, who attended together. Always a dapper dresser, Allen wore a grey suit with the green tie Jackie Kennedy had given him and a Sinatra fedora he bought for the occasion. Allen teared up, Haygood recalled.
“When I worked in the White House, you couldn’t dream of a moment like this,” he told the writer.
At Allen’s funeral, a statement by Obama was read. “Eugene Allen witnessed great milestones in our nation’s history and his life represents an important part of the American story.”
During the filming of The Butler in New Orleans, Haygood was on the set. It was a giddy experience, chatting with Oprah and accepting an invitation to spend the evening with Forest Whitaker. The actor told Haygood it was the most challenging and complex role of his career — a strong statement from an actor who played the dictator Idi Amin. Whitaker wanted to capture the complex emotions of a man who kept the White House running, yet had to be the man of his own house in an era of sweeping change.
Charles Allen visited the movie set too. He knew what he was seeing wasn’t real life. Some events had been fictionalized — Forest Whitaker's character only served five presidents, and he had a son who was a Black Panther. It was Hollywood, and the discrepancies didn’t bother Charles. “Come on, you know it is not going to be a documentary,” he said.
But what felt so utterly real to Charles Allen was Whitaker’s portrayal of his father, especially in his later years. The actor had picked his brain about Allen, and it showed.
“He was so much like my father, it was eerie,” Charles said. “The movie was bittersweet and surreal. Without Wil, it would have never happened.”