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The Butler: A Witness to History

The Butler: A Witness to History

2.7 203
by Wil Haygood

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From Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Wil Haygood comes a mesmerizing inquiry into the life of Eugene Allen, the butler who ignited a nation's imagination and inspired a major motion picture: Lee Daniels' The Butler, the highly anticipated film that stars six Oscar winners, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey (honorary and


From Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Wil Haygood comes a mesmerizing inquiry into the life of Eugene Allen, the butler who ignited a nation's imagination and inspired a major motion picture: Lee Daniels' The Butler, the highly anticipated film that stars six Oscar winners, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey (honorary and nominee), Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, and Robin Williams; as well as Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Rickman, and Liev Schreiber.

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 2008, journalist Haygood pitched a feature to The Washington Post following his hunch that Barack Obama would be elected president. Seeking an African-American who had worked in the White House during the Civil Rights era, Haygood found Eugene Al-len, a butler during eight presidential administrations. In this expansion of his original essay, Haygood chronicles Allen's eventful life: from his humble beginnings on a Virginia plantation, through his time comforting John F. Kennedy, and into old age, when he cast his vote for the first black president. In the essay "Moving Image," Haygood traces the history of blacks in cinema beginning with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation to the career of Sidney Poitier and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. He also reports from the set of The Butler—the film inspired by his article—interviewing a range of cast and crew members. Haygood notes major events that occurred during Allen's career, including Brown v Board of Education and the 1986 passing of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Upon Allen's death, the London Independent recalled him as "a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all." Haygood has done well to preserve Allen's memory. Photos. (Sept.)
The Christian Science Monitor
"Wil Haygood blends the political with the personal in this portrait of White House butler Eugene Allen. Allen, an African-American, served eight US presidents (from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan) for 34 years – a span of time that included remarkable gains in civil rights."
"The Butler: A Witness to History should get just as much, if not more, attention than the film which uses its story for thematic foundation. Wil Haygood adds Eugene Allen’s chronicle to his impressive list of essential works on great figures in black and American history."
Kirkus Reviews
A distinguished Washington Post journalist's account of the black White House butler who bore witness to eight presidential administrations. When Haygood (Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, 2009, etc.) was covering the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, he knew beyond any doubt that the former Illinois senator "was indeed going to get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the White House." It was then that the author decided to see whether he could locate a black person "from the era of segregation" who had been a presidential servant. His investigations led him to an unassuming man named Eugene Allen. Born on a Virginia plantation, Allen grew up working as a houseboy for a white family. Possessed of refinement, discretion and a desire to make good in the world, he took a job as a waiter in a country club and then as pantry worker in the Truman White House, eventually rising to the rank of butler. From his unique vantage point "in the hard shadow of power," Allen witnessed history unfurl before him. He watched as President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on federal troops to protect black high school students in Arkansas, and he witnessed a nation mourn the death of JFK and become embittered over Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War and Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal. Allen's story, which began as a front-page article in the Post, would become the subject of a much-anticipated film, The Butler, which Haygood also discusses in context of the fraught and elided history of African-Americans in Hollywood. The book is brief, but the two sections and many images of Allen's quietly extraordinary life speak volumes about a nation struggling, and succeeding by degrees, to come to terms with an ignominious history of racial inequality. Poignant and powerful.

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Read an Excerpt

The Butler’s


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.

Meet the Author

A Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow and a writer for the Washington Post, Wil Haygood has been described as a cultural historian. He is the author of a trio of iconic biographies. His King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., told the story of the enigmatic New York congressman and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. That was followed—after publication of a family memoir—by In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., which was awarded the ASCAP Deems Taylor Music Biography Award, the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Legacy Award, and the Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. In 2009, he wrote Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, which told the story of the famed New York pugilist known as much for his prowess in the ring as his elegant style outside of it. Haygood is an associate producer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

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Butler: A Witness to History 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 203 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where is the book?? 85 pages of the movie promotion. Mr. Eugene Allen was neglected. I wanted to read about Mr. Allen and the 34 years he worked in the White House. NOT!!! Very little story about Mr. Allen. The photographs were nice, but I thought I bought a book. Please don't buy this book you will be greatly disappointed. I think we could get a better story about Mr. Allen on Google and reading the net.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Totally disappointing.  I should have read the reviews,but then who to believe - the 5 star or the 1 star?  I would give no stars for not delivering anything more than an advertisement for a movie.  There is nothing about Eugene Allen except some photos - he is virtually a side line to a book that is supposed to be his story.  This is all about how a movie got made and the back story, not about a man's experiences in the White House.  I expected much more from a journalist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's no story here. I was very disappointed. Way too much money for such little substance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Will never buy another book without reading the reviews. Was in no way what I was expecting. Not a book at all. Just a glorified add for the movie. Don't waste your money or time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a waste of money. This book wasnothing but an infomercial for the movie.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nice advertisment for the upcoming film. Not much content otherwise. I expected a history lesson and was so let down I gave up on page 62.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not about Mr Allen.  Potentially a great story biography or fictionalize.  They really missed the boat!  DO NOT waste your time or money.  Very disappointed.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a waste of money. Nothing but a few pages about the treat Mr. Allen. Most of the pictures were in my wife's People magazine this week! Don't waste your money on this shell of a book.
AprilGobbLR More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book, but it just read as a long advertisement for the movie. I was definitely disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was going to buy this book, but thanks for all the reviews, I saved my money
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a waste of money. Is this a paper trailer for the movie? Should have read the reviews first. Shame on B&N charging 8.99 for a poorly written short story. Cancel that one star!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too bad I bought this before most other reviews were out. It is indeed a long, expensive advertisement for the movie. How disappointing, and a disservice to Mr. Allen. Just a convoluted and lengthened version of the author's original magazine article to hype the movie. Very unsatisfying. I, too, would expect more from a journalist with Mr. Haygood's credentials.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not really what you think you are buying
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with the other reviews. This was a few pages of a movie promo. I was looking in my emails from B&N to see if this was just a introduction to the actual book. Very disappointed. This should have been offered with the sale $1.99.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cannot tell you how disappointed I was in this book.  Complete waste of time and money.  I was really looking forward to a good read.
Gracereadstoomuch More than 1 year ago
Very disappointed that this is not what it seems advertised to be. I agree with others that it seems to be an advertisement for the movie - however we never find out the "script" for the movie.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
No book, what a ripoff. Don't waste your time or money. I was excited to read this wonderful man'story about working at the White House.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this was the worst rip off I expected a story and their was none very disappointing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What happened? I was expecting to hear Mr. Allen's story. Instead, I got tedious info about the making of the movie. I was disappointed with this purchase. Buyer beware!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not the memoir nor novel that I was expecting! I feel like I was ripped off and I would like a refund!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A total rip-off. One clearly expects the screenplay. One gets brag and boast from the newspaperman who simply wrote the original article about the butler. Much of the book is completely extraneous to the wonderful movie. Save your money on this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where is the story?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Agree with all the reviews questioning "where is the book?" Learned my lesson about reading the reviews prior to my purchase!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I kept waiting for the promo portion to go away; this isn't the biography I thought it was. I'm very disappointed, as I thought that it would be the actual story of Eugene Allen and his family throughout. I wasted my money on this one.....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very disappointed with the book.It was 86 pages long and only half of that about The Butler. I did enjoy the movie very much.