Photojournalist and celebrity photographer kimberly butler She had a good idea of what was coming in the “big reveal,” but she was shocked.
It was a Tuesday morning, June 29, and Butler was sitting at a table with Craig Foster, a research specialist at FamilySearch at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Last fall, Butler stumbled across a newspaper Foster wrote that all but one American president descended from Ireland’s chief butlers was a title of nobility. She wanted to know if this meant that any descendants of Chief Butler, as she is, would be related to everyone except one of the American presidents.
Now Foster was ready to reveal the truth about Butler’s Irish heritage — and more — with video cameras recording it all.
When it was over, the “humble” butler said tears flowed. She felt “incredibly overwhelmed” but said, “It explains everything.”
“I think it’s a huge blessing that this has happened,” Butler said. “I finally know where I came from.”
Butler’s personal family history will be revealed in a documentary she is making about her life. He added that the project has no official release date, but will likely be watched on Netflix. After filming his conversation with Foster, Butler took the . He discusses the defining moments of his journey from traumatized orphan girl to finding his passion for photography and building a career around the world. She has photographed hundreds of celebrities, world leaders (including five US presidents) and news programs.
navigating a dysfunctional childhood
When Butler was 8 years old, his father suffered from post-World War II post-traumatic stress and his mother was unable to care for the children. So the little girl is put in an orphanage while her parents solve their problems. Butler described that period of his life as a “big horror show”.
During this time, the fifth grade teacher took an interest in Butler and became lifelong friends. He said that in many ways the woman loved Butler more than her mother.
Butler’s family broke up again a few years later when things went bad again. Butler said her years of growing up were a “roller coaster.”
Butler said, “I come from a background, childhood, that was very dysfunctional.” “When I was 16,[my father]went crazy again and I ran out of the house. Many more things happened. … It was trauma after trauma after trauma. … Somehow I Was able to navigate it.”
Despite her family issues, Butler said something in her DNA inspired her to pursue an education and “get herself out of this mess,” she said.
“I always knew something was different,” Butler said. “I know I’m destined for something else.”
‘Building a reputation’
Butler began his higher education at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he “learned to learn” before attending film school at New York University.
At that time more male student films were being shown in the classroom than female films. So Butler and his best friend complained to the man running the program.
“They said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Women aren’t in Hollywood anyway,'” Butler said. “Okay. Okay. All you have to do is: I’m going to dance at your grave.”
Butler began taking photography classes at NYU along with studying film. He found that he liked working alone and built a dark room in his home in Queens. She took night classes for three years while working as a valet parking attendant at NYU and loved it.
After graduation, Butler pursued any available opportunity, including head shots for friends at $100 a pop. Feeling ambitious, he picked up the phone one day and dialed the number for Time magazine. She got engaged to an editor who actually offered her an assignment to shoot a portrait for ESPN broadcaster Beano Cook.
“I got all excited. I ran around the room. I called my mom,” she said. “Then I got sick to my stomach because now you have to shoot it.”
Butler threw himself into his work, determined not to fail. A friend encouraged her to reach out to ABC Network and see if they needed a photographer. He did and got another gig. The network was impressed by her work, and for some time she was its top photographer.
From there he began working with broadcast journalist and television personality Barbara Walters. She accompanied Walters to Libya in 1986 after two American soldiers were killed in a terroristic bombing.
“I’m just looking around, ‘Whoa,'” she said. “I started getting assignments from ABC that are building a reputation.”
Unfortunately, this didn’t always work out, as Butler suffered various episodes of sexism in the workplace. But she continued to work hard and look for opportunities.
Over three decades, Butler has worked for several major broadcast networks. She was a regular contributor to People Magazine, a gig she called a “game-changer.” The native New Yorker has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and Russia as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. He has published books. She said that she also made a lot of money working for Disney.
“People liked me because I wasn’t a prima donna,” Butler said.
Connecting with FamilySearch
When he is not doing research at FamilySearch, Foster serves as a committee member and vice president of North America. Butler Society, a “one-name” society with more than 800 members worldwide, according to its website.
Several times a year Foster would write a newsletter for the society. It was his newsletter before the 2020 presidential election, discussing US presidents descending from Ireland’s chief butlers, that caught Butler’s eye on Facebook.
With the same surname, the celebrity photographer, a patriot at heart, was delighted to think she could be distantly related to American presidents. She tracked down Foster for more information. It didn’t take him long to respond to the good news. using the FamilySearch.org, he confirmed that Butler had two solid lines going back to Ireland’s second chief butler.
“I was crying when he told me,” she said.
Communication between the two continued, and Butler expressed interest in coming to the Family History Library to film a segment about his new lineage.
Little did Butler know that Foster had more to share. Foster said that the Butler surname comes from being related to the Irish chief Butler. Here’s a summary of what else he learned:
- As a descendant of Theobald Le Botiller, Ireland’s second chief butler, Butler is related to all Butler-descendant US presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden.
- He is also related to the only president not related to the Irish chief butler, Martin Van Buren, thanks to the common Dutch New York ancestry.
- Butler said he was delighted to learn that they were related to Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, “the two great queens in history who made England a superpower.”
- He is related to all the founding fathers and more than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as two grandfathers who fought for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War (one was at Valley Forge with Washington, she said).
- His lineage also includes Latter-day Saints leaders Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and current President Russell M. Nelson.
- Many famous American photographers and other famous historical figures.
Foster made the big reveal by reading up on a long list of modern celebrities who are descendants of Ireland’s main butlers, including the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali, actress Jennifer Aniston, entertainer Garth Brooks and former NFL Super Bowl winning quarterback Peyton, and former NFL Super Bowl-winning quarterback Peyton. Eli Manning, to name a few.
“She was thrilled,” Foster later said. “Of course she knew about presidents, but it was powerful for her to see it. She had no idea about those who signed the Declaration of Independence and she was just stunned.
‘New, wonderful friends’
With a backpack full of family charts, Butler looks forward to scheduling visits with new distant cousin Queen Elizabeth II and former US President George W.
“I’m going to call him, I’d like to come over for tea,” she said. “I’m going to send this (chart) to George W. – I knew his father really well – and tell him I want to come visit him.”
Going through the various charts, Butler’s eyes lit up as she reads to name a few: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John Hancock and many more. Now she wants to know more about his life and share it with her grandchildren. She also wants to help her adopted daughter find her biological mother and discover her history.
“Look, I’ve made all these new, wonderful friends,” she says. “I’m carrying DNA. There’s a little bit of Lincoln running around in my blood. I’m like ‘Wow. Now I want to read (Ulysses S.) Grant’s memoirs. I want to read what he has written about himself.”
Butler expressed his deep gratitude to Foster and FamilySearch for helping him find his roots, which anyone can do using the same tools and resources. Knowing her past has helped her recover from some of her childhood traumas, although she insists that nothing will change about her life as trials have made her who she is today.
“It’s a Grand Slam during the World Series,” she said. “If it has done anything, I finally know why I am the way I am. It explains everything.”
Butler believes there’s a very practical side to knowing your family history, especially if you descend from royalty like she does.
The next time she’s doing a photo shoot with a celebrity—”I don’t know, pick someone, say Kevin Costner”—and a publicist standing nearby questions her methods or judgment, which they often do, she Taking out a business card proudly displaying the words “Lady Kimberly Butler”. She can also use it to get a reservation at a restaurant.
“I think I’m going to get some letterhead… and cards. Because when people are down for me, like they would in New York, I can just give them my card, and then all of a sudden, they’re gonna love me , ”she said. “I think it will fix everything. Oh … Lady Butler is coming to you (photo).”