“So much happened in the search for the story that it’s almost like a fable,” Wil Haygood says of his discovery of Washington’s best-kept secret.
As an acclaimed journalist with the Washington Post, Haygood was on the 2008 presidential campaign trail of then-Senator Barack Obama.
Having been present at a number of well-attended rallies, it began to dawn on the reporter that the US would soon have its first African-American president.
“I thought to myself, ‘Obama is going to win’. This moment, this movement, was going to translate from village to village, city to city and state to state. So, I just told myself that Obama was going to win.”
At that stage in the campaign Hillary Clinton was still the favourite, but Haygood had a hunch that Senator Obama would defy expectations. At that moment, Haygood felt he needed to find someone to highlight the situation.
“I said to myself, wouldn’t it be great if I could find someone from that era of brutal segregation in this country, who had worked at the most powerful address in the world, The White House, to tell their story?”
Haygood’s editor was at first reluctant to allow him to pursue what was essentially a “wild-goose chase”. Like many others, he was convinced Obama would not win, but gave Haygood a week. So who was Haygood looking for? “I just hoped to find someone who was there before the Civil Rights bills were passed in 1965. Maybe someone who washed the laundry in the White House, the person who swept the floors, a painter … maybe a butler, maybe a maid. Those were the jobs for the most part that African Americans worked inside the White House, not suit-and-tie jobs. They were service workers. This goes back to slavery so I knew if I was fortunate I would find someone from the 40s or 50s who was still lucid of mind to be able to tell me their life story.”
Of course, at the back of his mind, the journalist knew that for his story to make the news he also needed Obama to win. “I was asking for a hat full of miracles,” he says.
Haygood says he did his research “the old-fashioned way”. Having already been knocked back by The White House and after failing to find a lead from among his own contacts, he was facing mounting pressure from his editor to give up and return to the campaign trail. But Haygood stuck to his guns, determined, as he says, “like every writer to find that person to write about”.
A chance phone call from an anonymous source in Florida gave him a name – Eugene Allen. “I got the phonebook out and called every one by that name in the tri-state area. On the 57th call I found this man, a butler at The White House who had served eight presidents.”
Haygood couldn’t believe his luck. Walking to the Allens’ home on the last Friday of the 2008 election, Haygood was mystified as to what he would find. His first impressions left him crestfallen, as he sat down and looked around the room.
The evidence of Allen’s decades of service, in which he worked for every US president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, was nowhere to be seen. Only a single picture hung on the wall, of the Allens with former US president Reagan and his wife Nancy.
After sitting down with the elderly couple to watch back-to-back episodes of their beloved game show The Price Is Right, they slowly began to tell their story. Luckily, Haygood was a patient man who had been raised by his grandparents. He recognised the need to let the couple take their time.
“She started telling me of her life, he of his own life, of working at the White House for President Truman all the way up to President Reagan, about flying on Air Force One,” says Haygood.
“[It was] this amazing arc of history through the rise of Dr [Martin Luther] King, through segregation, through the marches in the South, through the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Korean War,” he recalls. “It was just an amazing story of one man who had worked so long at The White House and [who] would, in snowstorms, just go upstairs and choose a bed and spend the night there.
“It was like getting a glimpse into the real Washington D.C. and the real White House, it was astonishing.”
But nothing could prepare Haygood for what was to come when Allen took him by the arm and led him down into a dark basement and flipped on a light above his head. “He literally changed my life, it was like being dropped down into a time tunnel,” says Haygood. All manner of photos of first ladies, presidents, pop stars, sports stars, American heroes and idols, in pristine condition, adorned the walls.
“It was like being at the best historical museum in the country and having one wing of that museum dedicated to a man in the White House that no one had ever heard about,” Haygood recalls.
He adds that the room was customised to house the precious artefacts of a lifetime of service that Allen could not share with his neighbours and friends. “He, in a way, felt that he was protecting his service. He was protecting the secrets of the presidents, his life, his service to his country. He was very discreet – that was a requirement of the job, to be very discreet.”
On the outside
“There’s no room for politics in the White House” – Haygood repeats this line from Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the film by Academy Award-nominated director Lee Daniels that was inspired by the true story of Allen.
“Anyone working there had to be very careful of what they said,” Haygood says of the demands that such service placed on these “unknown” men and women who kept the show running in the world’s most important political theatre.
“But just by virtue of Mr Allen being there and living in segregation, President Truman, President Kennedy, President Eisenhower, President Johnson, they had to realise the struggle he was going through every day of his life as he was walking to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“They knew it. The colour of his skin never went away; he was always a black man in a segregated country. So they had to feel for him I have no doubt, and I think that’s very powerful that he could talk to President Kennedy about what it was like to work in a cotton field and what it was like to sit in the back.”
While moments like these were spontaneous, they left an impression on the men of power. “Be it a black maid or a black butler, when they were called on to tell little snippets of their lives, that was very powerful to the first family, they were getting living history,” Haygood argues.
Sadly, Allen’s wife Helene passed away the day before America went to the polls.
“I didn’t think I had a story,” says Haygood. “My editor said, ‘I realise you’re very hurt, but the best way to pay homage to Mr and Mrs Allen is to tell the world their story because no other writer experienced them as you did.’” He forged ahead and started writing.
By the time it was announced that Obama would become America’s first African American president, Haygood’s story had been picked up by news agencies across the world. The story reached the president himself and Allen received a VIP invitation to the swearing-in ceremony.
At the ceremony Allen turned to Haygood and said, “When I worked at the White House you couldn’t even dream, that you could dream of a moment like this.” While Allen never got the chance to meet the one president he admired the most, Haygood says, “it was magical enough that he got to see the first African American sworn in, that was enough magic for him.”
Haygood would visit Allen regularly in the year leading up to his death in 2010. During that time Allen gave him a tie clip that had been given to him by President John F. Kennedy. “He said, ‘I insist you take it, you really changed my life, all these people know about me now’.”
“It was inconceivable if you’ve lived in America for all these years, that we would have a black first family, after slavery and after legal segregation … I think that all of that gave him and his wife inspiration to tell their story. They knew nothing about me, I turned up out of the blue so maybe they just thought it felt right and it was time to tell their story,” says Haygood.
For Haygood, The Butler’s message is that “there is great power in the life of the unknown. That one humble man devoted his life to his country – even though he loved his country more than his country loved him, because his country’s laws were not fair to him. That’s the true definition of a patriot … Now there’s a movie and it’s not about the powerful presidents but about the humble man servant that served them. That to me is the essence of this journey.”
“Aside from being this great drama it’s an epic love story,” Haygood says of the Allens’ tale. It was this that drew Oprah Winfrey (above) to play the role of Gloria Gaines, the character inspired by Helene Allen. Over lunch on the set of The Butler, Winfrey told Haygood that the reason she wanted to do the film was because “there had not been a love story for black Americans that stretched across the decades or the generations like this one”.
Eugene and Helene Allen were married for more than 65 years. For the journalist, and executive producer, who was lucky enough to spend time with the couple in the days before death parted them, it was integral the film captured the essence of their love. This was confirmed when the Allens’ son Charles visited on set.
“Charles came down to the movie set and was very quiet for two days and we all were wondering what he thought of Forest and Oprah reprising the roles of his parents,” Haygood recalls. “He walked over and said, ‘It is uncanny how beautifully they have captured my mum and dad’. Everyone had tears in their eyes and it was a very poignant and touching moment for us all.”