A book and a one-man show detail the life of Alonzo Fields, the White House’s first African-American chief butler.
INDIANAPOLIS — When Juanita Hudson first heard about the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a story of a black man who was a White House butler for decades, she thought the film might be about her uncle, Alonzo Fields.
For good reason, too, because Fields, who worked in the White House from the Hoover to Eisenhower administrations, was the first African-American to be promoted to chief butler. The Indiana native wrote a book, My 21 Years in the White House, and later was the subject of a one-man theater show, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, that played to audiences nationwide.
Hudson, 76, remembers seeing the nearly 3-hour stage performance at Indiana Repertory Theatre and finding it a fitting tribute to her Uncle Lonnie, whom she recalls fondly from his visits to his family in Indianapolis. He was level, and decorous — he usually had on a coat and tie. He was approachable.
“He was a very tall person, he just filled the doorway, like a giant,” she said. “But his voice was medium, gentle. We liked him very much. My mom liked him, and she didn’t like everybody.”
Alonzo Fields pictured above
The Butler, which opened Friday with a blockbuster cast including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Lenny Kravtiz, turned out not to be about Fields. It is based the life of another black White House butler, Eugene Allen, who succeeded Fields. Fields, who left White House service in 1953, hired Allen.
The younger butler, whose dramatized movie character is the fictional Cecil Gaines (played by Whitaker), served during more racially turbulent, dramatic times than Fields. Allen was there for the height of the civil rights movement. Fields left just prior — a year before Brown v. Board of Education, and two years before both Emmett Till’s murder and Rosa Parks’ ignition of the Montgomery bus boycott.
“Alonzo’s story, the book he wrote, it was all before the Black Power, it was beforeRoots, it was before all of this,” said Roscoe Fields, the butler’s nephew, who lives in Indianapolis and is an accountant. “In the book he had what people were eating during certain events — it’s what he knew about. If he’d come later, he’d probably have written a different book.”
Martin Luther King was born in 1929, Malcolm X in 1925. Alonzo Fields was born in 1900. His book, published in 1960 (reviewers said it was “most sincere,” had “a sense of discretion” and would be “of timely interest to women readers”), is no tell-all. Nor is it confrontational, though Richard Nixon shows up, momentarily, as a jerk.
“As I always told the Negro servants and dining room help that worked for me,” Fields wrote, “‘Boys, remember that we are helping to make history. We have a small part, perhaps a menial part, but they can’t do much here without us. They’ve got to eat, you know.'”
By the time he retired from the White House, Fields had the title maitre d’hotel and was in charge of more than a dozen butlers, cooks and other workers. He oversaw the planning of all White House social functions.
His descendants of a certain age, such as Hudson and Roscoe Fields, are proud of him and were honored to go backstage at the 2001 Indianapolis debut of Looking Over the President’s Shoulder to meet James Still, the actor and playwright. “It was downtown, and it was special,” said Hudson.
“But I remember my grandson thought, ‘Well, he was a butler,’ and my grandson wasn’t impressed with being a butler,'” said Hudson, who can recall a time when many black people, including her own mother, worked “in house,” as domestic servants for well-off white people. Such jobs paid little money, but many black women took them, even into the 1970s.
“It’s a generational thing,” said Loretta Fields, another of Alonzo Fields’ nieces. Loretta Fields, 60, lives in Chicago and sells real estate. Her three children graduated from college and are in business. “Uncle Lonnie, I look at him as a trailblazer,” she said. “He paved the way to other opportunities. But my kids would never have aspired to be a butler.”
The funny thing is, Alonzo Fields didn’t aspire to be a butler, either. He aspired to be an opera singer. He had a powerful voice, “deep, rich, almost a baritone but not quite,” recalled Loretta Fields. He came to music by way of his father, who was a band leader in the small, all-black Gibson County town of Lyles Station. Fields’ father ran the general store and on weekends led the town’s marching band. Later the family moved to Indianapolis, where they operated a boarding house.
Alonzo Fields was in his 20s when he decided to pursue his music seriously. He moved to Boston and enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. He showed promise but lacked funds.
To pay for his school, Fields took a job as a butler to Samuel W. Stratton, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I confess I didn’t relish the thought of being a house servant,” he wrote in his autobiography, but it was pointed out to him that “if I ever did reach the heights as a concert singer, these conventions he was teaching me would give me a background of good breeding.”
Then two things happened. Stratton died suddenly, on October 18, 1931, while giving an interview to a reporter on the subject of his good friend Thomas Edison. Edison, who previously while visiting Stratton had been served tea by Fields, as had John D. Rockefeller and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, had died earlier that day.
Also, in the midst of the Great Depression, jobs were extremely scarce.
Herbert Hoover was the U.S. president, and his wife remembered Stratton’s strapping butler. She offered him a job as a servant in the White House. Fields, who by then had a wife and stepdaughter (“food and shelter were the paramount issues for my family,” he later wrote), took the job.
It was supposed to be for a few months, to get the Fieldses through the winter.
“I know I should have been elated and I knew, as most people told me, that I was lucky to have a job at the White House,” Fields wrote. “But I had a premonition that this was going to be a very long winter for me and that somehow, regardless of my efforts, fate might be deciding my singing career.”
By 1933, Fields had been elevated to chief butler. In a 1982 interview with Ebony magazine, Fields described the White House as “a beautiful jail with the President as a sort of warden.”
Still, serving as butler in the White House could be thrilling. The actress Marie Dressler “remarked that she thought me handsome and that I should be in Hollywood,” Fields wrote.
He had more than one comical encounter with Winston Churchill, the English prime minister. The Roosevelts were fun people, but Fields’ favorite president was Truman. Truman “treated him not like a servant,” according to an account published by the Medford (Mass.) Historical Society, “but like a man.”
But the highlight for Fields happened early on in his White House tenure and involved nobody big. It was Christmas, 1932. “I was invited to sing in the East Room for the party given for the help,” he wrote. “Of course the President and First Lady were absent, but despite this I had my day, and a very appreciative audience gave me reason to believe they enjoyed my renditions. To this day, that afternoon … was the most thrilling experience in all the 21 years at the White House.”
Fields died at age 94. In 1994, as he lay dying of leukemia, an old friend named Oscar Greene visited him in the hospital. The Medford Historical Society reports that Fields asked Greene to give his eulogy.
These were Fields’ instructions to Greene: “Don’t talk too long and don’t tell the truth.”