FamilySearch finds celebrity photographer Kimberly Butler’s family tree

Photojournalist and celebrity photographer Kimberly Butler had a good idea of what was coming in the “big reveal,” but she was about to be flabbergasted.

It was a Tuesday morning, June 29, and Butler was sitting at a table in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Craig Foster, a research specialist at FamilySearch.

Last fall, Butler had stumbled across a newsletter Foster had written that said all but one U.S. president descended from the chief butlers of Ireland, a title of nobility. She wanted to know if that meant that anybody descended from a chief butler, as she is, would be related to all but one of the U.S. presidents.

Now Foster was ready to unveil the truth — and more — about Butler’s Irish heritage, with video cameras recording it all.

When it was over, the “humbled” Butler said tears flowed. She felt “incredibly overwhelmed” but added, “This explains everything.”

“I think it’s a great blessing that this has happened,” Butler said. “I finally know where I came from.”

Butler’s personal family history reveal will be featured in a documentary she is producing about her life. The project has no official release date but will likely be viewable on Netflix, she said. After filming her conversation with Foster, Butler spoke with the Deseret News. She discussed the defining moments of her journey from traumatized orphan girl to finding her passion for photography and forging a career that has taken her across the globe. She has photographed hundreds of celebrities, world leaders (including five U.S. presidents) and news events.

Photographer Kimberly Butler discusses her family history during the filming of a documentary about Butler’s life at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Navigating a dysfunctional childhood

When Butler was 8 years old, her father suffered from post-traumatic stress sisorder after World War II and her mother was unable to care for children. So the young girl was placed in an orphanage while her parents worked out their problems. Butler described that period of her life as a “big horror show.”

During this time, a fifth grade teacher took an interest in Butler and became a lifelong friend. In many ways, the woman loved Butler more than her own mother, she said.

Butler’s family was reunited a few years later only to break up when things worsened again. Butler said her growing up years were a “roller coaster.”

“I come from a background, a childhood, that was very dysfunctional,” Butler said. “When I was 16, (my father) got crazy again and I ended up moving out of the house. A lot of other things happened too. … It was trauma after trauma after trauma. … Somehow I was able to navigate it.”

Despite her family issues, Butler said something in her DNA motivated her to gain an education and “pull myself out of this mess,” she said.

“I always knew something was different,” Butler said. “I know that I am destined for something else.”

Kimberly Butler and Craig Foster discuss Butler’s family history for a film documentary.

Left, Kimberly Butler and FamilySearch research consultant Craig Foster discuss Butler’s family history while being filmed by Michael Sadowski, Napela Productions director of photography, for a documentary about Butler’s life at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘Building a reputation’

Butler started her higher education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she “learned how to learn,” before moving on to film school at New York University.

At that time, more male student films were being shown in class than female films. So Butler and her best friend complained to the man running the program.

“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Women don’t belong in Hollywood anyway,’” Butler said. “OK. OK. That’s all you have to do: I’m going to dance on your grave.”

Along with studying film, Butler started taking photography classes at NYU. She found she liked the solitude of working alone and built a dark room in her home in Queens. She took night classes for three years while working as a valet parking attendant at NYU and loved it.

Following graduation, Butler chased any available opportunities, including head shots for friends at $100 a pop. Feeling ambitious, she picked up the phone one day and dialed the number for Time Magazine. She connected with an editor who actually offered her an assignment to shoot the portrait of ESPN broadcaster Beano Cook.

“I got all excited. I ran around the room. I called my mother,” she said. “Then I got sick to my stomach because now you have to shoot it.”

Butler threw herself into her work, determined not to fail. A friend encouraged her to reach out to the ABC network and see if they needed a photographer. She did and got another gig. The network was impressed with her work, and for a time she was its top photographer.

From there she began working with broadcast journalist and television personality Barbara Walters. She went with Walters to Libya in 1986 after two U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist bombing.

“I’m just looking around like, ‘Wow,’” she said. “I started getting those assignments from ABC, which is building a reputation.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t always last, as Butler encountered various episodes of sexism in the workplace. But she continued to work hard and find opportunities.

Over three decades, Butler has worked for several major broadcast networks. She was a regular contributor for 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. She has published books. She said she also made a lot of money working for Disney.

“People liked me because I wasn’t a prima donna,” Butler said.

Kimberly Butler and Craig Foster discuss Butler’s family history while being filmed for a documentary about Butler’s life.

Celebrity photographer Kimberly Butler and Craig Foster, FamilySearch research consultant, discuss Butler’s family history during the filming of a documentary about Butler’s life at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Connecting with FamilySearch

When he isn’t researching at FamilySearch, Foster serves as a committee member and the vice president of North America for the Butler Society, a “one-name” society with more than 800 members worldwide, according to its website.

A few times a year, Foster will write a newsletter for the society. It was his newsletter last fall prior to the 2020 presidential election, which discussed U.S. presidents descending from the chief butlers of Ireland, that caught Butler’s eye on Facebook.

With the same surname, the celebrity photographer, a patriot at heart, was delighted to think she might be distantly related to the U.S. presidents. She tracked Foster down for more information. It didn’t take long for him to respond with good news. Using FamilySearch.org, he verified that Butler had two solid lines going back to the second chief butler of Ireland.

“I was crying when he told me,” she said.

The two continued to have a dialogue, and Butler expressed interest in coming to the Family History Library to film a segment about her newfound genealogy.

What Butler didn’t know is that Foster had more to share. Foster said the Butler surname comes from being related to the Irish chief butlers. Here’s a summary of what else she learned:

  • As a descendant of Theobald le Botiller, the second Chief Butler of Ireland, Butler is related to all of the butler-descended U.S. presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden.
  • She’s also related to the only president not related to the Irish chief butlers, Martin Van Buren, thanks to common Dutch New York ancestors.
  • She was pleased to learn she’s related to Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, “two great queens of history that made England a superpower,” Butler said.
  • She 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).
  • Her family tree also includes Latter-day Saint leaders Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and current President Russell M. Nelson.
  • Several famous American photographers and other famous historical figures.

Foster finished the big reveal by reading off a long list of modern celebrities who are also descended from the chief butlers of Ireland, including the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali, actress Jennifer Aniston, entertainer Garth Brooks and former NFL Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, to name a few.

“She was thrilled,” Foster said later. “Of course she knew about the presidents, but it was powerful for her to see it. She had no idea about the signers of the Declaration of Independence and was just flabbergasted.”

Photographer Kimberly Butler discusses her family history during the filming of a documentary about her life.

Photographer Kimberly Butler discusses her family history during the filming of a documentary about Butler’s life at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘New, wonderful friends’

Loaded down with a backpack full of family charts, Butler is eager to schedule visits with new distant cousins Queen Elizabeth II and former U.S. President George W. Bush.

“I’m going to call her, I’d like to come over for tea,” she said. “I’m going to send this (chart) to George W. — I knew his dad really well — and tell him I want to come see him.”

Sifting through the various charts, Butler’s eyes light up as she reads some of the names: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John Hancock and many more. Now she wants to learn more about their lives and share it with her grandchildren. She also wants to help her adopted daughter find her biological mother and discover her own history.

“Look, I made all these new, wonderful friends,” she says. “I’m carrying the DNA. There’s one little piece of Lincoln running around in my bloodstream. I’m like ‘Wow.’ Now I want to read the memoirs of (Ulysses S.) Grant. I want to read what they wrote about themselves.”

Butler expressed her deep gratitude to Foster and FamilySearch for helping her discover her roots, something anyone can do using the same tools and resources. Knowing her past has helped her to heal from some of her childhood trauma, although she emphasized that she wouldn’t change a thing about her life because the trials have made her who she is today.

“This is a grand slam during the World Series,” she said. “If this has done anything, I finally know why I am the way I am. This explains everything.”

‘Lady Butler’

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 photo shoot with a celebrity — “I don’t know, pick anybody, say Kevin Costner” — and a publicist standing nearby questions her methods or judgment, which they often do, she’s going to pull out a business card proudly displaying the words, “Lady Kimberly Butler.” She might also use it to get a reservation at a restaurant.

“I think I’m going to get some letterheads … and cards. Because when people are mean to me, as they will be in New York, I can just give them my card, and then all of the sudden, they are going to love me,” she said. “I think it will straighten everything away. Oh … Lady Butler’s coming to (photograph) you.”

Photographer Kimberly Butler learned she is related to those mentioned on this list of famous American photographers.

Photographer Kimberly Butler has learned that she is related to this list of famous American photographers. Butler received the list while filming a documentary about her life at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News