Hear From the Real Butler of the White House, Eugene Allen

Smithsonian Folkways interviewed the man who inspired the new film starring Forest Whitaker

Eugene Allen
Eugene Allen, inspiration behind The Butler, poses for a portrait by Roland Freeman. Image courtesy of © 2013 Roland L. Freeman

The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.

It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.

The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.