Author Alex Haley (1921-1992) was best known for works depicting the struggles of African Americans. Raised in Henning, Tennessee, he began writing to help pass the time during his two decades with the U.S. Coast Guard. After conducting interviews with Malcolm X for Playboy magazine, he turned the material into his first book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965). Haley’s subsequent novel, “Roots” (1976), was a fictionalized account of his own family’s history, traced through seven generations. It was adapted into a 1977 miniseries that became the most-watched broadcast in TV history, a record it would hold for years.
Alex Haley was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. At the time of his birth, Haley’s father, Simon Haley, a World War I veteran, was a graduate student in agriculture at Cornell University, and his mother, Bertha Palmer Haley, was a teacher. For the first five years of his life, Haley lived with his mother and grandparents in Henning, Tennessee, while his father finished his studies. When Simon Haley completed his degree, he joined the family in Tennessee and taught as a professor of agriculture at various southern universities. Alex Haley was always remarkably proud of his father, whom he said had overcome the immense obstacles of racism to achieve high levels of success and provide better opportunities for his children.
At the conclusion of World War II, the Coast Guard permitted Haley to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had achieved the rank of first class petty officer in the rate of journalist. Haley was soon promoted to chief journalist of the Coast Guard, a rank he held until his retirement in 1959, after 20 years of service. A highly decorated veteran, Haley has received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. Haley also had a Coast Guard Cutter named in his honor, the USCGC Alex Haley.
Career as a Writer
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard in 1959, Haley set out to make it as a freelance writer. Although he published many articles during these years, the pay was barely enough to make ends meet. Haley recalls working 16-hour days for about $2,000 a year, surviving on nothing but canned sardines for weeks at a time. Then, in 1962, Haley got his big break when Playboy magazine assigned him to conduct an interview with the famous trumpeter Miles Davis. The interview was such a success that the magazine contracted Haley to do a series of interviews with prominent African-Americans. Known as “The Playboy Interviews,” Haley interviewed such prominent figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones and Malcolm X. After concluding his 1963 interview with Malcolm X, Haley asked the civil rights leader if he could write a book on his life. The result, two years later, was The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. A seminal book of the civil rights movement as well as an international bestseller, the book memorialized for eternity the life of Malcolm X while transforming Haley, his collaborator, into a celebrated writer.
In the aftermath of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, freelance writing offers for Haley began pouring in, and he could have easily lived out his lifelong dream of being a successful independent writer. Instead, Haley embarked on a hugely ambitious new project to trace and retell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. During a decade of research on three continents, Haley examined slave ship records at archives in the United States and England and traveled to Gambia, the home of his ancestors in West Africa.
Alex Haley married Nannie Branch in 1941, and they remained married for 13 years before divorcing in 1954. That same year, he married Juliette Collins; they split in 1972. He later married Myra Lewis, to whom he remained married for the duration of his life. Haley had three children, a son and two daughters. His later works included A Different Kind of Christmas (1988) and Queen, another historical novel based on a different branch of his family, published posthumously in 1993. Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70.
Haley’s works inspired a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributed to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. Haley always maintained that the goal of his writing and his life was simply to advance the cause of black people. He once said, “The money I have made and will be making means nothing to me compared to the fact that about half of the black people I meet ranging from the most sophisticated to the least sophisticated say to me, ‘I’m proud of you.’ I feel strongly about always earning that and never letting black people down.”
Biography courtesy of BIO.com