The Real Story Behind “The Butler”

By Brooke Schultz

It took 57 calls for Wil Haygood to find the Eugene Allen he was looking for — the Eugene Allen who had worked for eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan; the Eugene Allen whom the movie “The Butler” is based on.

At an intimate dinner in Hynson Lounge on Wednesday, Nov. 8, Haygood took the attendees back to 2008, when then Sen. Barack Obama was running for president. He was a writer for The Washington Post and he wanted to tell a unique story no other news organization would cover during the campaign season.

The dinner was the first of a three-part series developed by Haygood, the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience’s 2017-18 Patrick Henry Fellow, and sponsored by the Black Student Union, the Starr Center, Office of Intercultural Affairs, the Intercultural Ambassadors, the departments of English and history, and the Black Studies and Communication and Media Studies programs.

When he flew back after covering a rally in Chicago, he said he told his editor, “I want to find somebody, an African-American who worked in the White House during the era of segregation before the Civil Rights bill had passed.”

His editor gave him five days.

After a lead from a former White House employee about a man who worked through two presidencies before the Civil Rights Act, Haygood called over 50 residents in the D.C. area who went by Eugene Allen. On his 57th call, he had found him — sort of.

“The gentleman said, ‘I am Mr. Allen, I did work at the White House. But you have your facts wrong. I didn’t work for two presidents. I worked for eight,’” he said.

Days later, Haygood was in the home of Eugene Allen and his wife, Helene Allen, learning about the 35 years he served in the White House. He said he filled seven notebooks during that interview.

Eugene Allen led him down the stairs to his basement, which had gifts, letters, and his three tuxedos he wore during his tenure.

“I spun from wall to wall to wall,” Haygood said. “I said, ‘My God, Mr. Allen, you mean to tell me that nobody has ever written about all this? About your life?’ He looked at me very sad like and said, ‘Well if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.'”

Haygood was. But he was not the last. After the story was published on the front page of The Washington Post, the movie rights to Eugene Allen’s life story were purchased. “The Butler,” which starred Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker and was directed by Lee Daniels, opened at number one at the box office.

“Someone asked me my most memorable moment from the whole movie experience,” Haygood said. “I had to think long and hard about that question. I said, ‘Actually if you want to know the truth: My most memorable experience was when the movie came out and did so well, I heard from both of the ladies that turned me down from the high school prom.’ What was that about?”

Most incredible to Haygood, though, was the timing. Just 30 hours after he had knocked on the Allens’s door and just before the historic election of Obama, Helene Allen had passed away in her sleep. Thirteen months later, Eugene Allen passed away, too, at 90 years old.

“I like to think of Mr. Allen up in heaven, maybe looking at all the other people, all the powerful people, all the good people up there with him,” he said. “I like to think of him walking over there to them and saying, ‘Hey would you like to watch a movie tonight?’ and that movie being ‘The Butler,’ because it says in the Bible, ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’”

Haygood said that Eugene Allen had lived long enough to see his story published. Every eight or nine days, Haygood said he would return to Allen’s home and read him the letters that had poured in from around the world from those who were moved by his story. And Haygood escorted Eugene Allen with his son, Charles Allen, to the inauguration of Obama.

“When he was sworn in, Mr. Allen leaned over to me and he had a tear in his eye and he said, ‘All my years working in the White House, I was never invited to an inauguration,’” Haygood said, quoting him. “‘This is my first.’”

It is Haygood’s stories such as this, said Patrick Nugent, deputy director of the Starr Center, during his introduction, that make Haygood’s writing so unique.

“You wouldn’t suspect his real knack is to raise unsung heroes into the tapestry of American history,” he said.

To Haygood, he said he was just doing his job as a reporter.

“You can forget me,” he said in closing, “but remember him and his wife.”

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