Weeks of research and dozens of phone calls led journalist Wil Haygood to the home of the perfect profile subject: an 89-year-old Washington resident with an unparalleled view of American history. Eugene Allen worked for eight presidents in his 34 years at the White House, starting in 1952 as a dishwasher and retiring as maitre d' in 1986.
Weeks of research and dozens of phone calls led journalist Wil Haygood to the home of the perfect profile subject: an 89-year-old Washington resident with an unparalleled view of American history.
Eugene Allen worked for eight presidents in his 34 years at the White House, starting in 1952 as a dishwasher and retiring as maitre d’ in 1986.
During years of racial unrest in the United States, the black man — born in the segregated South — served the decision-makers whose actions would change his life.
But to Haygood, the Washington Post reporter who arrived at his door in 2008, Allen modestly downplayed his experiences, suggesting that his life was nothing special — that all he had done was his job.
Hours into the interview, Allen’s wife, Helene, apparently decided that the reporter had earned her trust and deserved to know more.
“You can show him now,” she told her husband, who then led Haygood into a locked basement, holding his arm as they walked down the steps and turned on the light.
The two rooms were like a museum, full of memorabilia that revealed the personal relationship between Allen and the presidents he served: signed books, Christmas gifts, an oil painting by Dwight Eisenhower, photos of Allen smiling as he served them at their birthday parties.
“It was a treasure-trove,” Haygood recalled. “It brought tears to my eyes; it genuinely did.
“I turned to him, this frail, elderly man, and I said, ‘Mr. Allen, now, are you sure nobody has ever written a story about you?’??”
Haygood proceeded to write the untold story of Allen, who was born on a Virginia plantation in 1919 and died two years after casting his vote for America’s first black president. “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” featured on the front page of the Post, was published the Friday after the election of Barack Obama.
The story has since become the basis for what looks to be one of next year’s most buzzed-about movies: The Butler, starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as the protagonist and Oprah Winfrey as his wife.
With Lee Daniels (Precious) directing, the cast includes a roster of A-list actors, including Robin Williams and Melissa Leo as the Eisenhowers, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as other butlers.
Behind it all is Haygood, a longtime journalist and author who grew up on the North and Near East sides of Columbus and began his career at the city’s African-American newspaper, the Call & Post.
The Butler, for which he serves as an associate producer, marks a foray into Hollywood for the 58-year-old, who is also involved with three other film projects.
“It’s been, in many ways, a year of magic for me,” said Haygood, who often visits his mother and two sisters here.
A Washington Post reporter since 1991, Haygood was covering a campaign rally in North Carolina when he met young white women who tearfully said that, because they supported then-candidate Obama, their fathers had stopped speaking to them.
Confident that Obama would become president, Haygood began searching for a former White House employee who had worked there in the era of segregation — someone who probably couldn’t have imagined the outcome of the 2008 election.
With the White House refusing to release employee information, Haygood made calls around the country before connecting with a former human-resources employee in Florida who told him about “ Gene” Allen.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would find a figure as unique as he happened to have been,” Haygood said.
Through the years, Allen had been approached about telling his story and, although he took great pride in his job, adamantly refused to participate, said his only child, Charles.
Allen didn’t want to betray the trust of those who had treated him warmly: from the Fords, who sang to him because his birthday was the same as the president’s, to the Reagans, who invited Allen and his wife to be their guests at a state dinner.
But near the end of her life, Helene Allen began to express concern that her husband’s role would be forgotten.
Haygood approached the couple at the right time but also put them at ease, joining them to watch back-to-back episodes of their favorite TV show, The Price Is Right, before asking the first question.
“Sometimes, it seems like it was preordained for him to come by,” said Charles Allen, 66, of Washington. “It could have been anybody else, and Mom and Dad, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have talked to him.
“Wil just had the gift.”
The night before the election, Helene told her son that she felt at peace, knowing Gene’s story would finally be told. She died in her sleep, before getting the chance to vote.
On the day the story was published — resulting in hundreds of emails, phone calls from Hollywood producers and an invitation to Obama’s inauguration — Allen attended the funeral for his wife of 65 years.
Knowing that the film would have been important to Helene, Allen continued to meet for additional interviews with Haygood and The Butler screenwriter Danny Strong before he died of renal failure in 2010.
Strong and director Daniels decided to set The Butler largely in the time of the civil-rights movement, exploring the relationship between the White House’s black employees — the film’s protagonist, Cecil Gaines, is a composite character mostly based on Allen — and the white presidents they served.
“They were dealing with these issues that affected not only millions but these people who worked so unbelievably close with them,” said Strong, who won an Emmy this year for writing HBO’s Sarah Palin movie, Game Change.
The Butler was filmed in New Orleans during the summer, with Haygood serving as an on-set consultant. He was invited to Whitaker’s home and to lunch with Winfrey.
It likely won’t be the last time he visits a movie set: He has recently written two screenplays adapted from his biographies and a third based on a true story of a janitor who, in the 1950s, robbed a government building in Washington.
All three projects are moving forward, with the script for Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson in the hands of producers Strong and Rachael Horovitz, who produced the Oscar-nominated Moneyball.
Meanwhile, the rights to In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. were purchased by singer Ne-Yo, who has long been interested in playing the Rat Pack entertainer.
The developments are gratifying for Haygood, a lifelong fan of the movies who, after graduating from Miami University in 1976, moved to New York with the thought of becoming an actor.
At the same time, he is on leave from the Post as he writes his sixth book, a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that he has researched for the past two years.
Strong calls Haygood multitalented, with his work translating just as well to the big screen as the printed page.
“Wil has an amazing eye for character,” he said. “A great story, whether it’s a news story or a movie, is a universal thing.”
Haygood likes to compare his career to his time on the basketball team at Indianola Junior High School: Cut from the team in eighth grade, he still dressed for practice the next day, promising to work for a second chance.
Colleagues laughed at him when, in an early job as a copy editor, he vowed that he was going to write books. More recently, Denzel Washington read his script for the Sammy Davis Jr. film and, half-jokingly, bought him a Christmas gift: a computer program that could help correct his novice screenwriting mistakes.
All the while, Haygood’s confidence in his goals didn’t change.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” he said. “But wow. With The Butler — it’s something else, isn’t it?”