Haygood shares time with 'The Butler' at UC
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Wil Haygood addressed the crowd at the University of Charleston Tuesday night, he wore a tie clip that once belonged to former president John F. Kennedy.
It was given to him by Eugene Allen, the White House butler who is the inspiration of the major motion picture "Lee Daniels' The Butler," starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.
"He called me over to his house and he said, 'If the president thought a lot of you, he would give you a tie clip.' He said, 'I want you to have this... I never saw this coming - that the world would reach out to me and express love on this level,'" Haygood said.
Allen, who grew up on a plantation in Virginia and served as a butler for eight presidents -- from Harry Truman to Ronald Regan -- thought a lot of Haygood for telling his story.
In 2008, Haygood, a Washington Post reporter who once worked as a copy editor and writer for the Gazette, was covering then-senator Barack Obama's campaign trail.
He wanted to find someone who worked in the White House during the era of segregation to juxtapose his or her story with the election of the first black president.
Then he found Allen, a humble, 89-year-old man living with his wife in D.C.
On the first day they met, Allen showed him into his basement, which was decorated with souvenirs from his three decades inside the White House, where he worked his way up from the pantry to the position of head butler.
"He flicked on the light switch and my life changed," Haygood said. "I got dizzy. My knees actually got weak. American history through the eyes of this one man, from segregation all the way up to the eve of the 2008 election."
Allen's stories were unbelievable. There was the time First Lady Nancy Reagan asked him to attend a state dinner as a guest instead of serving it - which was adapted into a touching scene in the film.
He told Haygood about the sorrow inside the White House following JFK's assassination, and about how he didn't like former president Lyndon Johnson's use of the "n word."
"Lee Daniels' The Butler," which is based on Allen's life and chronicles the fight for civil rights, was adapted from Haygood's article for the Washington Post, which was published in 2008.
Haygood spoke to a packed house at UC on Tuesday as a guest of the university's annual speaker series, sponsored by the Dow Chemical Foundation.
"This is a story about power because it involves the White House and legislation and bills... but it's a story brought down to earth by a very, very humble, common couple. And I think a lot of people can identify with the real life butler and his wife, and I think that's why the story has, you might say, gripped the nation," he said Tuesday.
Allen and his wife both died before the film inspired by them was released. But Haygood says he is happy knowing that their story has reached so many.
"People who knew him have told me personally that that's him up on the screen. Down to his voice, his mannerisms, his walk," Haygood said. "Charles, his son, came to the movie set last summer and turned to me and said, 'It is uncanny how Forest and Oprah have captured my mom and dad.'"
Haygood said that during his younger days at the Gazette -- which he credits for helping form his "writing muscle" -- he would have never dreamed that one day his work would lead to this.
"I don't think anyone can ever say that they dreamed of being on a movie set with six Oscar winners making a movie based on a story that you wrote -- it's just too unreal to even think that," he said. "There are some mornings I still have to pinch myself. Sometimes I walk by a movie theater and I'll just stand across the street and watch the people buying tickets and I just think, 'Wow.'"
Haygood's book, "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson," is in the works to become his next book-to-film adaptation.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.