The Real Butler and the Pastry Chef Who Knew Him

By Robin Jay

movie-posterCoveted Best Actor Oscar nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will almost certainly be in store for Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey for their portrayal of Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler.’ The compelling movie was loosely inspired by the life of White House Butler Eugene Allen, who served for 34 years under eight United States presidents, from Truman to Reagan.

“My father was a magnificent human being,” said Charles Allen, the only son of Eugene Allen, in a televised interview. “And now the world knows, too. But I had to be the instigator. Dad was private and reserved. I told him, ‘You need to do this for Mom,’ and so he signed a contract. Left to his own devices, he never would have done it.”

Coveted Best Actor Oscar nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and 
Sciences will almost certainly be in store for Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey for their portrayal of Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler.’ The compelling movie was loosely inspired by the life of White House Butler Eugene Allen, who served for 34 years under eight United States presidents, from Truman to Reagan.

“My father was a magnificent human being,” said Charles Allen, the only son of Eugene 
Allen, in a televised interview. “And now the world knows, too. But I had to be the instigator. Dad was private and reserved. I told him, ‘You need to do this for Mom,’ and so he signed a contract. Left to his own devices, he never would have done it.”

At a cast press conference about Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Oprah referred to director Daniels as a “truth-seeker.” What she was referring to, however, was his passion for a sense of realism as it pertained to events from the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of a black American family – not that he intended to create a documentary-style biography about the life of Eugene Allen.

“The movie is set against historical events…but the title character, Cecil Gaines, and his family are fictionalized,” said the film’s screenwriter Danny Strong in a forward of The Butler: A Witness to History, a book by Wil Haygood, the Washington Post reporter whose brief article about Allen in 2008 struck Strong’s idea for the film.

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Eugene Allen (left) and Chef Roland Mesnier (right)

MEET GENE’S WHITE HOUSE COLLEAGUE: CHEF ROLAND MESNIER
With this in mind, moviegoers who were expecting a biopic about the White House Butler may have left the theater wondering just who is the real Eugene Allen? Others, particularly some kitchen colleagues who actually worked alongside Allen at the White House for decades, left the theater scratching their heads, confused about why the movie didn’t focus more on the real life of the man they had grown to know and admire. South Florida Opulence sat down with Presidential Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who served for five administrations, from the Carters to the Bushes.

“I met Gene Allen at the end of 1979,” he recalled. “But let me tell you, there are many missing and incorrect parts in the movie. Gene started his profession as a butler at the Homestead Hotel in Southern Virginia. And that is where I also started; that is where I took the pastry chef job when I first came to the states. When I came to the White House, Gene greeted me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I worked at the Homestead, too… Did you know so-and-so?’ Of course I knew the people he asked about. Yes! In the movie, there’s no word of The Homestead, even though it’s such an historic place. I had many private conversations with Gene, because we had this in common. The Homestead is where and how he got started in this job. He had to learn the butler profession somewhere, and when he came to the White House, he knew the job already.

“The way they depicted Gene in the movie; I didn’t like them changing his name. Calling him Cecil. His name is Gene.  I see no reason to change his name because he was a fantastic person, a very cool guy. I never saw him getting excited, getting upset, getting angry. The former maitre d’ did that very well,” Chef Mesnier said. “Knowing where Gene worked before the White House would have been a real inspiration to many people; why they took that out and instead replaced it with people fighting on the street and stuff like this, I said to myself, ‘Why?’ Gene didn’t fight on the street. That’s not who he was. Gene would have never gotten involved with anything like that. He was the most gentle person you could ever meet. This is where my disappointment comes in. I went to the movie to see Gene Allen because, in my opinion, he had a lot of things to share with people.”

But there were some parts of the movie Chef Mesnier thought were more accurate – such as the issue regarding proper compensation.

“I remember back when Gene went to see the head usher, the man who ran the White House, to get a raise, to get more money. Gene was denied, and the man he went to see for that, of course, they changed the name. He would have been the same man I went to see for a raise myself. And my raise was also denied.

So when I saw the movie, I thought to myself, ‘things haven’t changed much in that respect.’ I don’t think Gene was denied the raise for racial reasons, because they denied me, too. It’s just that at the time, the person who was managing the White House, the head usher, was very strict. I mean they just didn’t pay any money. They had a certain vision of what the White House should be and everything was very, very tight. It was impossible to make a decent salary. For the first 10 years I was in the White House, I needed to have a second job, as a teacher, to survive. I couldn’t make it on my White House salary. Washington is an extremely expensive city to live in.”

Another aspect Chef Mesnier could relate to in the movie was the impact the job at the White House had on his own wife and family.

“We had to work very long hours. I remember in the movie Gene’s wife complaining that he was never home. My wife was with me at the movie when I said, “Do you recollect anything like it? Of course, she did!  My wife Martha lived it – for 26 years

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December 7, 1983 – Eugene Allen with dessert served at state dinner for King and Queen of Nepal .

“It was stressful worrying about doing the job right, worrying about when a new election would come up. Are they going to keep me, are they going to let me go? There were many things to worry about. At the White House, you never knew from one day to the next what the politics of the day would be. They showed some of that in the movie with Gene and the maître d.’  But, again, I wish they would have shown more about his real life.
“When they were talking about making the movie, I got a phone call from a reporter who lived close to the Homestead Hotel and the reporter asked for my opinion, what I thought about doing a movie on Gene Allen. And the newspaper did a wonderful writeup. Before they started making a movie about Gene Allen, The Butler, I thought they would be talking to other people who really worked with him. But I don’t know of anybody, none of my friends were contacted…and some are very old. I mean, we have the former executive of the White House, Mr. Henry Haller, who worked with Gene for 22 years. He’s still alive; he’s going on 91 years old.

“Of course they talked to Gene’s son, they talked to the family, but this is not like somebody in the White House, you know? I tell you that if they had done that, I believe they would have had so many interesting things that happened between the butler and the presidential family – which was absent really, there was very little of that. For example, Mrs. Reagan highly loved Gene. She had full confidence in him, trusted him fully in his judgment, and this is why she promoted him to maitre d.’ Gene did an excellent job balancing his job working with the kitchen and other places to make sure everybody was happy. Gene and I would coordinate everything from tea service to whether dinner platters should be china or metal. The butlers who worked under him loved to work for him because he was a gentleman, and he treated them so. Compared to the previous maitre d,’ who was very rough with the staff, Gene did not do that. He was friendly.

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Maitre d’ Eugene Allen serving Chef Mesnier’s petit fours decorated with a sugar basket filled with sugar violettes and a sugar ribbon to Queen Noor of Jordan and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

“Like Mrs. Reagan, everyone loved Gene at the White House. He didn’t talk about politics, he didn’t talk about the first family. He was always business, business, business. The White House does not operate like a hotel or restaurant; there’s not an employee lounge. So there was very little socializing going on among staff outside the workplace. You have to understand, staff at the White House spent so many hours on the job; the last thing they wanted to do after work was to meet again somewhere socially. Nobody lived very close to the White House. I don’t believe Gene even had a car; he used public transportation to come to work, so he wanted to head straight home to his family because it was going to take awhile to get there. And speaking of his family, the movie was incorrect about the timing of Gene’s invitation to attend a state dinner with his wife. Some felt the movie made it seem like he and his wife were uncomfortable being guests at the state dinner and that it may have impacted his reason for leaving his job. But the truth is that Mrs. Reagan invited him to the state dinner after Gene had retired. He and Helene had a nice time at the dinner. [He said so himself in interviews]. I remember it vividly. The tradition is to be invited to a state dinner after you retire – that is how it happened with Mr. Haller, and that’s when Laura Bush invited me. My wife and 
I enjoyed it very much. You realize how nice things are on the other side because you never had a chance to live it when you were working. The butler who served our table knew me well; he kept my wine glass full all evening long. And that was a nice addition!

“I don’t think the movie reflected really, fully, who Gene was. And it’s a shame because this man was a very special human being and did a very special job at the White House, a very superior job.”

The Butler: What’s Fact, What’s Fiction?

For confused moviegoers who thought “inspired by a true story” meant they would be seeing a biography about the life of butler Eugene Allen, here’s a look, in part, on what’s fiction and what’s not in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Fiction: Eugene Allen, the real life butler portrayed as the movie character Cecil Gaines, didn’t grow up in the cotton fields of Georgia; he didn’t witness the gruesome lynching shown in the movie; his mother wasn’t raped by a slave owner; and his father wasn’t murdered. Allen never broke into a hotel to steal food and he didn’t work at a Country Club. He didn’t have a rebellious son who joined the Black Panthers; and the son that he did have didn’t die at war. Allen’s wife wasn’t an alcoholic or a philanderer. He didn’t quit his job after overhearing President Reagan say that he’d veto sanctions against Apartheid, or because he felt uncomfortable as a guest at a state dinner hosted by the Reagans.

Fact: Allen grew up in Virginia on a plantation. “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his 
upbringing,” Wil Haygood, a reporter with the Washington Post said. He worked as a waiter at a Virgina Hotel, and when he later earned a job at the White House, he started as a pantry stocker. Allen never missed a day of work. Jackie Kennedy did give Allen one of the president’s ties after his assassination. When asked who his favorite White House figure was during his career at the White House, he’d often say he was especially fond of Nancy Reagan who, incidentally, had promoted Allen to maitre d.’ It was after Allen retired that Mrs. Reagan invited him and his wife as guests at a state dinner. “What an enjoyment!” Allen said in a filmed interview by the Smithsonian about attending the state dinner with his wife Helene.

Allen’s son Charles said in a television interview, “People would ask my dad, ‘Who was your favorite president?’ And he would answer, ‘Well I liked all of them.’ And he really did. And those feelings were reciprocated. Forest Whitaker captured the essence of my father’s behavior just about spot on. He studied archived film clips and talked to me and had a butler coach. Some of the scenes shown at home when my parents were older were so realistic that my cousin had to be carried out of the theater from being overcome by emotion. Ms. Winfrey’s interpretation of my mother doesn’t follow her behavioral patterns, but that’s because my mom was also quiet, and they needed her character in the movie to play off against Cecil Gaines. I thought Ms. Winfrey did an amazing job.”

The Real Butler and the Pastry Chef Who Knew Him