As a long-serving White House butler, Eugene Allen observed the kind of intimate moments rarely written about in history books. "He saw the Presidents as regular people at home," says his son Charles Allen, 67. "They became like his family." He liked that Harry Truman "drank bourbon and played the piano," Charles recalls, and that Gerald Ford would eat breakfast in the pantry after his daily swim. Born in Virginia and raised by sharecroppers, Allen was hired in 1952 and rose to become maître d'. Fiercely loyal to the First Families, he rushed to the White House the evening of Nov. 22, 1963 to help Jackie Kennedy prepare for her husband's funeral, served a dieting Lyndon Johnson tuna sandwiches with the edges cut off and helped Nancy Reagan pick fine china for state dinners. Before he died at age 90 in 2010, Allen proudly cast a vote for Barack Obama, the first African-American President. His odyssey inspired the upcoming movie Lee Daniels' The Butler
, a fitting tribute, says Gerald Ford's son Steve Ford. "It is really the home of the White House staff," says Ford. "We were just the occupants."
FIRST FAMILY DINNER, 1974
Allen (with Gerald and Betty Ford) "made us feel so welcome," says their son Steve Ford. His sister Susan adds, "I'll always remember Gene's daily kindnesses and his ever-present smile."
In the movie, out Aug. 16, Forest Whitaker (with Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower) plays a butler based on Allen. "In an unassuming way," says Eugene's son Charles, "he was larger than life."
FOND FAREWELL, 1986
Ronald and Nancy Reagan congratulated Allen after his last day of work. "My husband and I knew him to be humble, dedicated and loyal," says Nancy Reagan. "I am so pleased that a movie has been made to honor his contributions to the country's history. I only wish he were still here to see it himself."
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER, 1955
When Eisenhower (discussing civil rights) discovered Allen (at right) was moonlighting as a cab driver for extra money, he called him in and increased his salary by that amount. "My father said the President was a country boy, just like him," says Charles. "He said he used to barbecue steaks on the patio roof for his Army buddies. He was the last President to cook. And he liked chicken and dumplings too."
JFK JR.'S 3[superscript RD] BIRTHDAY PARTY, 1963
Soon after John F. Kennedy's funeral, Jackie Kennedy held John Jr.'s birthday party, with Allen's help. The day JFK was shot, Allen went home briefly but saw the casket returning to D.C. on the news. He said, "'I better go back to work,'" his son recalls. "As he put on his coat, he fell back against the wall and started crying. I'd never seen my father cry before."
PRESIDENTS NIXON AND JOHNSON, 1971
Allen serving President Richard Nixon, former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Archbishop Humberto Medeiros. Then a Republican, Allen voted for Nixon over JFK in 1960 but later switched parties. "The only thing I know about JFK is that his daddy's got a lot of money," he told his son at the time.
A GRAND SETTING, 1975
"With devotion, skill and sacrifice," says Jimmy Carter, Allen "made life fulfilling and productive for eight Presidents and their families." And a bit easier. "The first night in the White House [in 1974], I invited my best friend over, and we took my stereo up to the roof and played Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven,'" says Steve Ford, who was 18 at the time. "Gene never told my parents."
GREETING THE KING OF POP, CA. 1983
When Michael Jackson visited the Reagan White House, Allen (at rear) said he "was really shy," recalls Charles. If Allen "was impressed by any visitor, it was Frank Sinatra," Charles adds. "He didn't put up barriers between whites and blacks, and he was friends with Sammy Davis Jr. My parents appreciated that."
AN EMOTIONAL VOTE, 2008
The day before the election, Allen woke up to discover his wife of 64 years, Helene, 87, had died in her sleep. "They were going to vote together," says Charles. Allen went to vote for Barack Obama himself. "We didn't believe he'd won until we saw Barack walk out. My dad's eyes misted up. He had seen the world change."