When Washington Post writer Wil Haygood met the late Eugene Allen in 2008, his intent was to write a feature story tied to the country's election of its first black president, then-senator Barack Obama. The result was his feature story "A Butler Well Served By This Election," the story of Allen's work as a butler who for 34 years, served eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
The story sparked the Hollywood movie "The Butler" starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker. In 2013 Haygood also wrote a book, "The Butler: A Witness to History" exploring in more detail Allen's life and the historic events he witnessed including the 1963 March on Washington, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the drafting of Civil Rights legislation.
The award-winning, best-selling author will visit Renbrook School in West Hartford Tuesday, April 1, to speak at a free, public program at 6:30 p.m. Haygood, who served as associate producer on the historical fiction drama, will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film and also do book signings. In anticipation of his visit to Connecticut, Haygood, who has a second book that will be made into a movie, was passionate and intriguing, and reminding this journalist why we write as he "Spilled the Beans" with Java.
Q: When I read the how and why you pursued the original feature story, it reminded me why writing a really good story can be such an unexpected and satisfying surprise, like finding a precious golden nugget. What did you feel like as you began to unravel a story that became so fascinating, fascinating enough to be a book and a movie?
A: You are absolutely right. I spent several hours with Mr. Allen and his wife in their living room but when he took me down to his basement alone and turned on the light switch, I knew I was looking at a story that was going to be something special. He had collected an astonishing treasure of moments from his own epic life. It was like being dropped into a room, a glorious room at the Smithsonian museum. Here was a Stetson hat given to him by President Johnson and a tie worn by President Kennedy. Here were dozens of frames of letters from every First Lady he had ever worked for from Truman to Reagan. Here were wonderful paintings that President Eisenhower had given him. Here were pictures of Mr. Allen with famous visitors to the White House, Sammy Davis Jr., Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Don King. There was a wall of Christmas cards from every president he had served and another wall of photos of him in white tie and tails at state dinners at The White House through the decades. And there were about 15, eight-inch thick photo albums of the most glorious White House dining events.
Q: I can only imagine what you were thinking when it came to the story potential you had come upon. What went through your mind?
A: I got very paranoid wondering if some other big city newspaper had followed me there. I suddenly wanted to rush back to the newsroom and write the story right then and there. Goodness, I travel all over the world as a journalist and I had never stepped into a room where there were so many unknown historical treasures. It was certainly one of those moments a journalist dare not dream of. When I was in his living room, there was just one picture that echoed his career, the one with President and Nancy Reagan and that one meant so much to him because it was taken when he was at a White House dinner as a guest.
Q: How much the world has changed when compared to the time when Eugene Allen began his career. When you interviewed him, was he bitter or disgusted?
A: There was not a trace of bitterness in that man's soul. He absolutely, unequivocally loved his country despite his country not always being on his side. To me he represented the truest definition of a patriot. I was humbled to be in his presence. He lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the most powerful address in the world. Yet on weekends he went to Virginia and couldn't use a public restroom, couldn't drink out of a water fountain and couldn't go into the store and try on a hat. I think he believed the country would turn around, would change and that those laws and bills would be righted.
Q: As a black man who wrote the story, did you feel bitter or angry as he shared his?
A: I am a trained journalist and just wanted to write a good story that might be different from all the other stories that were written in the fever of the 2008 election. When I came up with the idea for the story I wanted to find somebody who would have thought the mere idea of an African American being elected to the highest office in the land would seem impossible. And I just had it in my gut after traveling down south on the Obama campaign. And I knew there was more to the story after running into some young white students in North Carolina, three college students who said their fathers had stopped talking to them because they supported Obama. Those college students were really judging Obama not by the color of his skin but the content of his character. That was powerful. And that night I told myself that Sen. Obama was going to win. Young people were going against some sentiment of the older generation. It was a new day in American politics and there were new mountains to climb and they were.
Q: I love the fact that you did not have a lot of formal training in journalism; it is just what you did best. How did you weigh in to the profession?
A: You're right. I had no training and went to college to study urban studies and be a city planner. Then I got a job as the volunteer coordinator at a senior center and that lasted six months and then with a little weekly newspaper in Ohio. The pay was awful but I got accepted in to the executive training program at Macy's. I got fired from Macy's after about a year and a half but before I got fired, the store manager Janet Moran asked me to write an essay about what I wanted to do in life. I wasn't happy about such a bizarre assignmen,t especially since I was losing my job but I wrote about being raised in the Midwest hoping she would be so impressed that she would give me my job back. She didn't. She looked at it, handed it back to me and said 'whatever you do in life, you should go and be a writer.' So I refocused my career, and wrote a letter to the editor of the West Virginia Gazette on a borrowed typewriter at the New York Public Library and asked him for an interview. I was invited down and hired as a copy editor.
Q: What do you think of journalism today?
A: It has changed obviously but I still think narrative stories are powerful and they can capture the attention of readers unlike anything else can. Newspapers are still very vital to our existence as a civilized society. Were it not for the space in my newspaper, the Allen story would not have been told. It would have been lost. I was the last person to interview the two of them as a couple, before Mrs. Allen and then Mr. Allen died. When the story appeared and Mr. Allen received a VIP invitation from President-elect Obama's transition team to the inauguration, his son and I took him. We were walking and about half way across The Mall and you could tell he was exhausted. He was 89. I was afraid taking him was mistake. I said 'Mr. Allen, We can turn back.' He looked at me and said 'you take one arm and my son take the other. Don't let me drop because I am not turning back.'
Q: Were you satisfied with the movie interpretation of your story?
A: I think director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong did a phenomenal job. The movie showed the world what life was like for butlers and maids in The White House during some of the most racially charged and challenging times in the nation's history. It is an amazing sweep of history that one man saw and heard. The story will live on now and we never see his like again. I think it is a great reminder for students to understand the road that America had to travel, especially African Americans who had many, many white friends, but how all these people with righteousness in their hearts traveled this road and ultimately changed the direction of the country.
Q: It's nearly Oscar time. [This interview was conducted before the March 2 Oscars]. Were you upset there were no nods for the film?
A: Well, it did get a Screen Actors Guild award and that was impressive. It has received eight NAACP Image Awards, more than any movie in the country. It has gotten a good many awards. I am slightly biased and think this movie did deserve Oscar recognition from the directing to the performances. The movie will endure. The American people have spoken by making it a financial success.
Q: I know you were on the movie set each day. Were you star-struck?
A: I looked around my fourth or fifth day on the set and said to myself, 'My goodness. There is an Oscar winner over there and over there. Somebody has to write a book just to capture this moment in cinematic history.' It was astonishing to see so many world class talents in one location. I was given a red leather bound copy of the script with everyone's autograph. It is a keepsake.
Q: Where does the self-satisfaction come from on this project?
A: My grandparents and my mother were all born in Alabama. I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and I remember the relatives coming to visit us there on segregated busses. To have told this story and to have had elderly relatives look me in the eye with tears in their eyes saying 'Thank You' and 'we love you' was extremely gratifying. There is a spiritual sweetness to it.
Q: What happens next for you?
A: I wrote a book called "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson" and a movie "Sweet Thunder" is being made based on the book. It is amazing to have another movie from one of my books.
Q: What is something we may not know about you?
A: I used to work with Kathy Megan (currently the Courant's education writer) at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Hi Kathy!
RJ Julia Book Store owner and "Read To Grow" founder Roxanne Coady will moderate the Tuesday, April 1, night program at Renbrook School, 2865 Albany Ave, West Hartford, which includes wine and light refreshments. Guests are asked to bring a new or gently used children's book to donate to Read to Grow. Register online at www.renbrook.org/thebutler.