|Washington, D.C.||July 3, 2023|
Eugene Allen recalled that he was content with the job he had in 1952; he had no burning desire to switch places of employment. Yet he followed a woman’s advice to apply to work at the building that would one day be carved into his tombstone: the White House. Initially working as a pantry butler with an annual salary of $2,400, Allen retired 34 years later as maître d’ of the executive mansion. His tenure intersected with eight presidencies, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan, and he had a unique vantage point from which to observe these Oval Office occupants and their first ladies.
In 2008, 22 years removed from his job at the executive mansion, Allen used the power of the ballot box to send another African American to the White House to fill a vacancy for a position no Black person had ever held: president of the United States. The retired butler and his wife of 65 years, Helene, both planned to vote for Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama on the November 4th election against Republican John McCain. Come election day, Eugene Allen cast his ballot alone, as Helene had died in her sleep the day before. As Eugene endured his second day of mourning, Obama historically coasted to his victory. On November 7th, Helene was laid to rest in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery, where Eugene joined her 17 months later.
The 2013 theatrical film Lee Daniels’ The Butler was a loose adaptation of Allen’s life story. The stand-in for Allen, protagonist Cecil Gaines, was played by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. The picture topped the domestic box office charts for the first three weeks following its August release and was a financial success for The Weinstein Company, grossing $177.3 million against a $30 million budget. Whitaker received an NAACP Image Award for his performance as Gaines. Barack Obama reacted positively to The Butler and acknowledged viewing it made him outwardly emotional. “I teared up thinking about not just the butlers who worked here in the White House, but an entire generation of people who were talented and skilled. But because of Jim Crow and because of discrimination, there was only so far they could go,” the chief executive stated in an interview. “And yet with dignity and tenacity, they got up and worked every single day and put up with a whole lot of mess because they hoped for something better for their kids.”
Born: July 14, 1919 in Buckingham County, Virginia
Spouse: Helene Lee Allen (m. 1943-2008)
White House Maître d’hôtel: 1981-1986
Died: March 31, 2010 in Takoma Park, Maryland
Cause of Death: Kidney Failure
Interment: Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
"President Ford's birthday and my birthday were on the same day. He'd have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs. Ford would say, 'It's Gene's birthday, too!'"
- Eugene Allen
recalling his relationship with President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford in a 2008 interview with the Washington Post
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Box Office Mojo. “Domestic Box Office Weeklies For 2013.” Accessed July 8, 2023. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekly/by-year/2013/.
Daunt, Tina. “Obama Says ‘The Butler’ Made Him ‘Tear Up.'” Hollywood Reporter. August 27, 2013. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/politics-news/obama-says-butler-made-him-615118/.
Haygood, Wil. “A butler well served by this election.” Washington Post. November 7, 2008. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/a-butler-well-served-by-this-election/2019/01/02/b2a805a6-07b1-11e9-88e3-989a3e456820_story.html.