Eugene Allen was born in 1919 in the town of Scottsville on a Virginia plantation and grew up during the horrific time of Southern segregation. He first worked as a waiter at a Virginia resort and later, in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression, he found a job at a country club. In 1942, he met his future wife, Helen, whom he married the following year and they had a son named Charles.
It was in the early 1950s when Allen was told about a job opening in the White House. At the time he was satisfied with his employment at the Washington country club, however, he decided to give it a try and the interviewer immediately liked him. He got the job and in the beginning worked as a pantry worker, a job that included cleaning silverware, dishwashing, and stocking, but he was eventually promoted to the position of butler.
In the course of his work, for 34 years Allen served under eight U.S. presidents, beginning with Harry S. Truman. Allen, who went by the nickname Gene, had a down to earth, unassuming persona and was respected by many. He was a trustworthy person who, without seeking it out, had intimate knowledge of the inner affairs of the White House. Reportedly, he witnessed first-hand both offensive as well as respectful presidential remarks regarding race, and over time he observed the growing presence of African-Americans among the executive staff.
Moreover, he became highly aware of the changing perspective on race in political arenas. Honoring the people around him with impeccable service, he became entwined in notable moments in history.
During his service, Allen met famous people like the composer Duke Ellington and civil right leader Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the presidents. With some of the presidents, he went on journeys while with others he shared personal occasions, such as a birthday party with Gerald Ford as they were born on the same day. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Allen was invited to the funeral; however, he chose to carry on with his duties, staying at the White House to serve the attendees as they arrived from the funeral service. Nevertheless, he was quite affected by Kennedy’s death. His son recalled, “My father came home late on the day that President Kennedy had been shot. But then he got up and put his coat back on. He said, ‘I’ve got to go back to work.’ But in the hallway, he fell against the wall and started crying. That was the first time in my life I had ever seen my father cry.”
During the Reagan Administration, he was promoted to maître d’hôtel, the most prestigious rank of butlers who serve in the White House. That same year, First Lady Nancy Reagan invited him and his wife to attend a state dinner for the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Helen was quite nervous because she thought that she didn’t know how to make small talk with the invited guests, but her son Charles encouraged her.
Eugene Allen retired as the head butler in 1986. His life story and character were the inspiration for the idea and storyline of Lee Daniels’ film The Butler in 2013. The film is only partly based on the real Allen.
Both Allen and his wife were Obama supporters but Helen died shortly before Obama won the presidential election in 2008. Prior to Obama’s inauguration, Allen received a VIP invitation, which he gladly accepted and later cried when he watched the ceremony.
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Allen died in 2010, due to kidney failure, at the age of 90 in Takoma Park, Maryland.