Eugene Allen (1919–2010)

First Lady Nancy Reagan, President Ronald Reagan, and Eugene Allen, 1987
Public Domain Image

Eugene Allen was a waiter who worked at the White House for thirty-four years until he retired in 1986. Employed officially by the United States Government, Allen served eight presidents: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Allen was born on July 14, 1919, in the town of Scottville, Virginia. He worked as a waiter as a teenager, first at The Homestead (now The Omni Homestead Resort), a Virginia resort, and then at a Washington, D.C. country club.

In 1952, Allen got a job at the White House as a pantry worker, eventually working his way up to butler to the president. During his time at the White House, Allen was privy to both public and private conversations there. Going by the nickname “Gene,” Allen became close to some of the presidents. Although he was invited to President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, Allen decided instead to stay at the White House to serve the attendees as they returned from the funeral services.

Because of his place on the White House staff, Allen met famous and prominent people like civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and composer Duke Ellington. Allen flew to Europe with President Richard Nixon and often traveled with President Jimmy Carter to Camp David, Maryland. Because Allen and President Gerald Ford shared the same birthday, Allen was celebrated at the official White House festivities as well. Eventually promoted to “master of hotel” during the Reagan Administration, First Lady Nancy Reagan invited him to attend as a guest for the state dinner for West Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Allen retired from White House service in 1986.

Eugene Allen was married to Helene Allen for sixty-five years. The couple met at a birthday party in 1942 and married the following year. They had one son, Charles Allen. Eugene and Helene Allen looked forward to casting their votes for Illinois Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but Helene died a day before the election on November 8, 2008. Eugene Allen was invited to President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 21, 2009.

Allen’s story came to public attention when an article about him and his wife by journalist Wil Haygood, entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” was published by the Washington Post after the 2008 presidential election. The story put Allen’s life in context of presidential events over more than three decades and led Columbia Pictures to make the 2013 film, The Butler, loosely based on his life story. The film’s cast included Forrest Whitaker as Allen, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, and Robin Williams.

Eugene Allen died at the Washington Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, on March 21, 2010, from kidney failure at the age of ninety.