Friday, August 11, 2017

Birthday: "Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help."

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (1921-1992)
Writer and journalist

If Alex Haley had never written Roots, he would still have been remembered for an extraordinary career when he died of a heart attack in Seattle 25 years ago.

He was born in New York but lived as a child with his mother’s family in Henning, Tennessee, soaking up stories of their past as slaves. He tried college, but dropped out after two years and joined the Coast Guard in 1939.

Haley served with distinction in World War II, and after the war successfully petitioned to transfer from the dead-end CPO-3 steward’s job all African-Americans landed at, into journalism. He flourished as a Coast Guard writer, rising to chief petty officer first class: the first in Coast Guard journalism, the position created for him in respect for his work.

He retired after twenty years, in 1959. After a stint as an editor at Reader’s Digest, Haley launched his next great career: he invented the Playboy interview.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s conceit was that his magazine could appear to the carnal and the cerebral in the same reader, so he threw considerable resources at leading journalists to interview leading public figures in long, detailed discussions (and led to a decades-long joke about men caught ogling the centerfold: "I just read it for the interviews").

Haley proved the master who set the template for those who followed. His 1962 interview with the notoriously spiky Miles Davis was a revelation; he got Dr Martin Luther King Jr to give the longest interview of his life. He interviewed the louche and the lurid alike: American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell sat down for a chat, albeit with a revolver on the side table. Muhammad Ali, Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Carson: Haley ran the table of the rich and famous.

A series of interviews with Malcolm X led to Haley’s first book after the activist’s murder. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) sold six million copies in its first decade, and is still considered one of the most important political books of the 20th century.

Then, in 1976, Haley hit another home run. He stitched together his family’s oral history with research in archives and on the road to produce Roots: The Saga of An American Family.

The book was a sensation, tracing an African family from their transportation as slaves in the 18th century through the American civil war and into Haley’s time. It kicked off an astonishing growth of interest in African-American history and genealogy. In 1977 a miniseries from the book drew an audience of 130 million. American slowed down the nights it aired; it was talked about everywhere. The books spent months on the New York Times bestseller list, and 22 weeks at #1. The miniseries won an Emmy and a Peabody Award; the book, a special Pulitzer Prize.

The book also generated two promptly-filed lawsuits by authors claiming Haley had lifted their work. One was dismissed as without merit; Haley settle the other with a cash settlement and admission that some of that author's work had, in fact, made its way into Roots. Haley called his work “faction”, which turned out an unwieldy attempt to meld literary skill with copious research that Haley inserted as the book's last chapter. Had he just called it an historical novel, he would fared better: the suits damaged his reputation as a scholarly writer beyond repair.

To the public, however, it was all a blip in a transformative experience the like of which America has not seen since. Haley worked, slowly, on another book, a sequel to the first, from a farm he bought in Tennessee, outside the small town of his mother’s family. He was working on it when he died. Finished by others, Queen: The Story of An African-American Family, was published in 1993 and- like all his work- was made into a miniseries and a movie.

Alex Haley thought his work touched a universal chord. “When you start about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth,” he said. “In my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good, and praise it. My fondest hope is that 'Roots' may start black, white, brown, red, yellow people digging back for their own roots. Man, that would make me feel 90 feet tall.”

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