Henriette “Etty” Allen, matriarch of a family that reached the pinnacle in Washington football and Virginia politics, died Jan. 2 at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. She was 90.
The Allen family released a statement confirming the death but did not disclose the cause.
Until late in life, Mrs. Allen was best known as the wife of 1970s Washington Redskins coach George H. Allen and mother of the team’s current general manager, Bruce Allen, and Virginia’s former governor and U.S. senator, George F. Allen (R). But her hidden past as a Tunisian Jew became a controversial issue in then-Sen. Allen’s losing campaign for reelection in 2006.
The senator’s heritage became a campaign issue at a debate in Fairfax County, where TV reporter Peggy Fox asked about reports that Mrs. Allen was Jewish.
The senator repeated a formulation he had often used: “My mother’s French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian.”
Allen reacted angrily to the question and told reporters that whatever the truth about his religious background, “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch, and my mother made great pork chops.’’
But he later admitted that he knew at the time of the debate that his response was not true. He said that when he had asked his mother about rumors that she had grown up Jewish in Tunisia, Mrs. Allen wept and agreed to tell him the truth only “if you swear on Pop-op’s head that you won’t tell anybody,” referring to her father.
Mrs. Allen told her son that her father, a wine importer named Felix Lumbroso, was Jewish and had been imprisoned by the Nazis during the German occupation of Tunis. The Jewish newspaper the Forward reported that the Lumbrosos were a noted Sephardic Jewish family that included Itzhak Lumbroso, an 18th-century rabbi whose commentary on the Talmud was the first book printed in Hebrew in Tunisia.
After revealing the secret she’d kept from her children for six decades, Mrs. Allen asked her son, “Do you still love me?”
George Allen said he did. Then his mother asked whether her friends would still like her if they found out.
“Oh, Mom,” the son replied. “Of course they love you. Why wouldn’t they?”
“No,” said his mother, “they tell Jewish jokes.” She shook with fear, her son said.
“I just didn’t want anyone to know,” Mrs. Allen told The Washington Post in 2006. She and her husband had wanted to protect their children from the fear she felt during World War II. “What they put my father through. I didn’t want my children to have to go through that fear all the time.”
Mrs. Allen immigrated to the United States after World War II. She lived initially in Sioux City, Iowa, where she met and married George Allen, then coach at Morningside College.
Mrs. Allen said she first concealed her religion after meeting George Allen, and later he didn’t want her to tell his mother because she might oppose a marriage outside the church. Mr. Allen, a Roman Catholic, died in 1990 at age 72.
Mrs. Allen worried that her faith might hinder his coaching career. “How many Jewish coaches are there?” she said.
George Allen coached for four decades and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Allens raised their children as Christians. All four children — George; Bruce; Gregory, a sports psychologist in Palos Verdes Estates; and Jennifer, a writer and former reporter for the NFL Network who also lives in Palos Verdes — survive their mother.
Jennifer wrote in her memoir, “Fifth Quarter,” that Mrs. Allen was a stabilizing force in her family and that her mother looked like Elizabeth Taylor “on a good day.”