Eugene Allen: White House butler who worked for eight US presidents

Occupants of the Oval Office might come and go. But some other faces at the White House never seemed to change. Eugene Allen's was one of them. As a butler, he served eight presidents, a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all. From his place in the wings, and occasionally in a tiny supporting role, he witnessed many momentous events. None surely, though, was as momentous as the one he witnessed in retirement as a specially invited guest, barely a year before he died: the inauguration of a fellow black man to the highest office in the land.

On that 20 January 2009, Allen's life came full circle. He had been born in strictly segregated Virginia, in the middle of the second term of Woodrow Wilson. He worked as a waiter in whites-only resorts and country clubs, until he heard one day in 1952 about a vacancy in the White House kitchen staff. He went along for an interview and got the job, as a "pantry man" washing dishes and polishing silverware. It paid $2,400 a year (compared with the national average wage that year of $3,400).

For the next 36 years, Allen was a fixture in the place. By the time he left he had attained the exalted level of "Maitre d'", the highest rank of White House butler. But he never saw himself as anything more than "just a humble butler," in the words of his son Charles; diligent and discreet, proud that he never missed a day's work, and always there when needed – like when Jack Kennedy was killed. Allen was invited to the funeral, but declined. "Someone had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral," he told the Washington Post years later. Afterwards, Jackie Kennedy gave him one of her husband's ties, which he had framed. Two days later, on 27 November 1963, Allen was helping at the sixth birthday party of the Kennedys' daughter Caroline.

In terms of sudden, cataclysmic White House tragedy, nothing, of course, came close to the assassination of JFK. But Allen saw every president close up, in his private as well as public moments, for better and for worse. He could not help, for instance, hearing the often racial profanities of Lyndon Johnson. Yet he rejoiced as Johnson signed the great civil rights bills of the 1960s. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular, he would serve LBJ cups of milk laced with whisky to calm the president's stomach as protesters outside the White House demanded his head.

The more easy-going Gerald Ford would chat to Allen about golf. The two men also shared a birthday, prompting the First Family to serenade the butler with "Happy Birthday to You". In October 1986, Nancy Reagan did make him take a day off – but only because she was inviting Allen and his wife Helene to the state dinner for the West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, at which he would otherwise have been on duty.

Such gestures, however, could never obscure the "Upstairs, Downstairs" nature of the White House. Upstairs was the domain of the President and his entourage, overwhelmingly male and white. The servants, however, the maids, kitchen staff and doormen, were largely black. As Allen watched over the years, the balance began to shift, but only slowly. Not until Colin Powell became Reagan's national security adviser in 1987 did an African-American enter the inner circle of presidential advisers.

But in 2008 everything changed – both for the presidency and Eugene Allen. That 4 November, Barack Obama was elected. Sadly, Helene, to whom he had been married for 65 years, was not there to see it; she had died on the Monday, election eve. Two days afterwards, on 6 November, the Washington Post ran a long story about Allen and the sometimes awkward history of blacks in the White House.

The impact was immediate. That same month, Colombia Pictures bought the film rights to Allen's story. The article was also noticed by the organisers of the inauguration. When the great day came Allen, clad in a black overcoat and fedora hat, was escorted by a Marine guard to a VIP seat on the West Steps of the Capitol building. "That's the man," he said as he watched. "Whew, I'm telling you, it's something to see. Seeing him standing there, it's been worth it all."

Rupert Cornwell

Eugene Allen, butler: born Buckingham, Virginia 14 July 1919; White House domestic staff, 1952-1986; married (one son); died Tacoma Park, Maryland 31 March 2010.

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