Last night the Washington Post writer who struck gold with his book “The Butler” spoke to a packed house about his experience telling the story of a man who worked as a White House butler through eight presidencies. Wil Haygood was looking for the perfect story when an acquaintance pointed him to Eugene Allen nearly ten years ago, a man Allen’s son described as “humble to a fault”. At the Van Ness neighborhood book store Politics and Prose last night, Haygood described his first meetings with Eugene Allen.
He cold called Allen and his wife Sarah, explaining that he wanted to talk to them about Eugene’s experience working as a White House butler for every president from Truman through Reagan. Haygood described visiting to the couple’s small house for the first time and being surprised that a man who had a front row seat to power here in Washington D.C. only had one small photograph, of him and Ronald Reagan, on display. “In Washington, someone comes in third place, they frame it and put it in the living room,” Haygood laughed. After several hours of talking to the couple, Haygood was led to the basement, which had been transformed into a museum of photographs of Eugene Allen with everyone from Dwight Eisenhower, to Jackie Kennedy, to Elvis Presley. He described his awe at the evidence of “this black man’s life gathered through 34 years of White House history.”
Haygood was shocked that no one had ever written about Eugene Allen’s remarkable like before. When he asked Allen why no one had ever approached him about his story, Allen only quietly responded, “if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.”
Throughout the decades Eugene spent working at the White House for presidents across the political spectrum, the one constant in his life was his unwavering love for his wife, Sarah. Charles Allen, the couple’s only son, who was present at the event, explained, “my parents were very traditional. My father was the head of the household, but my mom…she held sway.” Sadly, Sarah Allen passed away the day before the 2008 presidential election, while Haywood was in the middle of writing their story. The next day, Eugene Allen cast his historic vote for Barack Obama to be the first African American president alone.
Due to the success of “The Butler”, Eugene’s story has now been turned into a movie, scheduled to be released August 16th, that will star Forest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey as Eugene and Sarah Allen. While the Allen’s inspirational story seems meant for film, it was a long road to getting made. After most major studios turned down the story, Haywood decided to approach several African American investors. Shelia Johnson, who was at last night’s event, ended up being the film’s saving grace. The founder of BET and owner of a number of Washington sports franchises, Johnson gave Heygood the seed money necessary to create what she called “a new day for black film.”
Before Eugene Allen died in 2010, he signed over the movie rights to his life. His son Charles recalled how Eugene didn’t initially want to sign them, asking his son, “why are they so interested in me?” Charles recounted that he convinced his father it was the right thing to do, and that it was what Sarah Allen would have wanted.
Hearing Wil Haygood’s personal recounting of his experience in writing about Eugene Allen’s now legendary life was positively captivating. I left Politics and Prose feeling optimistic that life is good. The story of Eugene Allen, a kind, humble, and patriotic man, who lived in this city for so long with such a close relationship to power, and yet never sought the spotlight for himself, reminded me that at the end of the day it’s the human factor that matters. Presidents and policies come and go, love and relationships, are what makes life worthwhile.
[Image via The Telegraph]