A Butler Well Served by This Election
Before he landed his job at the White House, Gene Allen worked as a waiter at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and then at a country club in Washington.
He and wife Helene, 86, are sitting in the living room of their home off Georgia Avenue NW. A cane rests across her lap. Her voice is musical, in a Lena Horne kind of way. She calls him “honey.” They met in Washington at a birthday party in 1942. He was too shy to ask for her number, so she tracked his down. They married a year later.
In 1952, a lady told him of a job opening in the White House. “I wasn’t even looking for a job,” he says. “I was happy where I was working, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields.”
Fields was a maitre d’, and he immediately liked Allen.
Allen was offered a job as a “pantry man.” He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. He started at $2,400 a year.
There was, in time, a promotion to butler. “Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for,” he says.
“I was there, honey,” Helene reminds. “In the back, maybe. But I shook their hands, too.” She’s referring to White House holiday parties, Easter egg hunts. They have one son, Charles. He works as an investigator with the State Department.
“President Ford’s birthday and my birthday were on the same day,” he says. “He’d have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs. Ford would say, ‘It’s Gene’s birthday, too!’ “
And so they’d sing a little ditty to the butler. And the butler, who wore a tuxedo to work every day, would blush.
“Jack Kennedy was very nice,” he goes on. “And so was Mrs. Kennedy.”
“Hmm-mmm,” she says, rocking.
He was in the White House kitchen the day JFK was slain. He got a personal invitation to the funeral. But he volunteered for other duty: “Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral.”
The whole family of President Jimmy Carter made her chuckle: “They were country. And I’m talking Lillian and Rosalynn both.” It comes out sounding like the highest compliment.
First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night.
“She said, ‘You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.’ I’m telling you! I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner.”
Husbands and wives don’t sit together at these events, and Helene was nervous about trying to make small talk with world leaders. “And my son says, ‘Mama, just talk about your high school. They won’t know the difference.’
“The senators were all talking about the colleges and universities that they went to,” she says.” I was doing as much talking as they were.
“Had champagne that night,” she says, looking over at her husband.
He just grins: He was the man who stacked the champagne at the White House.