Writer who inspired Lee Daniels' film 'The Butler' is coming

Former White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife, Helene (upon whom the character played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie is based), take a picture at a soiree with then-first lady Nancy Reagan (above); Allen takes a photo (left) of Martin Luther King Sr.
Former White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife, Helene (upon whom the character played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie is based), take a picture at a soiree with then-first lady Nancy Reagan (above); Allen takes a photo (left) of Martin Luther King Sr.
Posted: September 17, 2013

HE MAY be unassuming and bookish, but Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood is a rock star.

His 2008 article about a black White House employee who served under eight U.S. presidents inspired the hit movie "The Butler," starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

I'm in awe of Haygood because of what he has accomplished: By telling the story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler at the White House under eight administrations for three decades, Haygood pays homage to all the nameless people in service industries who for decades toiled in obscurity, often enduring the worst kind of racial indignities, while making things happen in the halls of power.

So, yes, I'll be at the African American Museum in Philadelphia early Wednesday evening to get Haygood to autograph my copy of The Butler: A Witness to History. It's a companion book to the movie that tells how Haywood came up with the idea for his now-famous Post article, and also how the movie it inspired came to be.

The Post published Haygood's article three days after President Obama's historic win in 2008.

The very next day, Hollywood called.

"[The late producer] Laura Ziskin read my article and said she was deeply touched by it and that she wanted to option the story and turn it into a movie," Haygood recalled. "She told me, 'You are going to get many phone calls from Hollywood movie producers. I vow to you . . . I will follow through and make the movie. I do not option a lot of material, but what I option, I tend to make.' "

The movie, which had a $30 million budget, was No. 1 at the box office for three weeks after opening Aug. 16. Haygood declined to discuss what he's making from the film. He is on leave from the Post to write a book about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"I am overwhelmingly pleased with the movie," said Haygood, who'd seen it five times when we spoke. "I'm very moved that Lee Daniels took my story and that, as an artistic filmmaker might, he took it down the roads he wanted to along with Danny Strong, who wrote a brilliant script."

The film chronicles the "depth and sweep of the modern civil-rights movement" as no other film has, Haygood told me. It gets personal, too, regarding the main character's relationship with his wife. (Allen and his wife, Helene, were married for 65 years.)

"I think there just hasn't been the emotional stretch of black love on the big screen on this scale since Sidney Poitier's 'For Love of Ivy,' " Haygood said. "It's so rare to see a black love story told across the decades on the big screen."

A striver finds his way

Born to a single mother who moved her family from Alabama to Columbus, Ohio, Haygood was a striver at an early age. After being cut from the basketball team while he was in the 10th grade, Haygood went to the coach's house to ask for another tryout. The coach was flabbergasted, saying that "in all of my years of coaching, nobody has ever come to me and asked for another chance." Haygood got a second shot and wound up a starter.

"My grandmother once told me, 'When you were born, your [twin] sister was much healthier.' My heart wasn't strong enough. I was in the incubator for eight weeks," he told the Miamian, a publication for Miami University, in Ohio, where he studied urban planning. "I kind of think from that, there's always been a sense in me that I'm trying to catch up."

After graduating from college in 1976, Haygood fumbled around a bit before landing in newspapers, but once he did, he got serious. After a stint at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, he spent 16 years at the Boston Globe.

As a foreign correspondent, he traveled to far-flung places, such as Liberia and Somalia, where he was once taken prisoner. Haygood also was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison.

From reporter to superstar

In 2008, sensing that then-Sen. Barack Obama's presidential election was imminent, Haygood set out to tell the story of a black domestic who had worked in the White House during the days of segregation.

He didn't have a specific person in mind.

His editor at the Post was skeptical about Obama's political future and unimpressed with the idea. But he didn't stop Haygood from pursuing the story.

The White House was no help, so Haygood asked around until someone told him about Allen. He had to go through more than a few phone books before he finally got Allen on the phone.

But Allen invited Haygood to his modest home in northwest Washington. After sitting with Allen and Helene as they watched two episodes of "The Price is Right," the interview began in earnest.

Allen at one point ushered Haygood to his basement, where the reporter was stunned to see the walls lined with photo after photo of Allen with various U.S. presidents, dignitaries and entertainers.

It was a reporter's jackpot, and Haygood was thrilled.

He called the Allen home a few days later just to check in and was told the startling news that Helene had died in her sleep.

He was rattled. Had the experience of answering all of his questions been too much? he wondered.

Then the Allens' son, Charles, "sought me out and said, 'Wil, you don't understand. My mother was waiting on you. She wanted somebody so bad to tell my father's story, and you came knocking on the door,' " Haygood recalled.

"That set my mind at ease and somewhat convinced me that this story had served a purpose."

African American Museum in Philadelphia, 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 701 Arch St., 215-574-0380, aampmuseum.org.

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