Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (4 page)

In the meantime, Haley was secretly attempting to write magazine articles, mostly romance stories for women's confession magazines. He wrote from the perspective of a woman treated badly by a man. The stories were rejected, but Scott discovered them and put them to use in a new morale-building mission. He began dictating love letters to women whom crewmen had met in Australia, cribbing passages from Haley's stories. Soon crewmen began to receive adoring letters. Haley later wrote that after a shore leave in Brisbane, “Scotty's clients wobbled back, describing fabulous romantic triumphs. . . . Three cheers for the old sea dog rang out regularly. Scotty was fit to split with bliss.”

Crewmen asked Haley to help them with letters to women at home. Soon there was a line of waiting men each night. For a dollar, he interviewed a sailor, got information about the girl's eyes and hair, and banged out a letter. If she was a blonde, Haley might write: “Your hair is like the moonlight as it reflects on the rippling waves away [
sic
] out here where I am only awaiting the next chance to see you.” All the sailor had to do was copy the letter in his own hand and post it. Soon Haley no longer cooked at all. All he did was write love letters and edit the
Seafarer.
“It was a pleasant and rather startling discovery: that one could make his living doing nothing else but writing.” By the time his tour of duty on the
Murzim
ended, Haley knew he wanted to be a writer. Many noteworthy Americans emerged from the war with similar intentions. A brief list of war veterans who became successful fiction writers includes Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Leon Uris, James Michener, and Gore Vidal. Haley did not often use the war experience as the subject of his writing, but military service made him a writer just the same.

* * *

In early 1945, as the war was winding down, Haley decided to re-enlist. Staying in the Coast Guard gave him something to do rather than return to college, as his father wanted. The service had provided him with good opportunities, and it had made significant strides during the war toward fair treatment of black seamen. Haley was posted to the Coast Guard demobilization center in Brooklyn, New York. There he produced Coast Guard publications and handled public relations. In the late 1940s Haley was transferred to the Coast Guard's district headquarters in Manhattan. He still performed public relations duties, but he also served as steward to Admiral Edward H. Smith, who had founded the International Ice Patrol. “Iceberg” Smith was the most famous officer in the Coast Guard. One day when Haley was serving him coffee, the admiral said, “Haley, I just read an interesting article by a colored fellow.” Haley looked at the article and replied, “Yes, sir, I wrote it.”

Smith then arranged for the creation of a new Coast Guard rating for journalists. In late 1949, at age twenty-eight but now sporting a thin mustache that made him look a bit older, Haley was made a chief petty officer with the title Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard. That development was good public relations for the Coast Guard: in 1947 President Harry S. Truman had ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.
11
But Haley's success owed much to his likable manner. “All officers liked Alex,” a black colleague later said, but he was also popular among his fellow blacks, who knew him as an easygoing person and looked at him as a role model.
12

His public relations work brought Haley in touch with influential press people. A New York newspaper reported that “the amiable, industrious and ever helpful Alex Haley” was the one to call “when there's a ship in distress along the Atlantic coast, a plane down at sea, a fishing party marooned.” In 1950 explosives detonated at South Amboy, New Jersey, during the loading of volatile material from ships onto railroad cars. The Coast Guard had responsibility for the work. The explosion killed thirty people, injured many more, and destroyed $20 million in property. Haley handled the Coast Guard's press relations during the catastrophe.
13

By then, Alex and Nan lived at 419 West 129th Street in Harlem, in a nice apartment that Haley got by paying money “under the table” to a realtor. The couple's son, William, known in the family as “Fella,” was born in 1945, joining Lydia, now age two. The family arrived in Harlem in the aftermath of the 1943 riot there, provoked by a policeman's shooting of a black soldier who intervened when the cop was beating a black woman. A crowd of three thousand formed around the policeman, a rumor spread that the soldier had died, and two days and nights of property destruction ensued. The event so disturbed New Yorkers and riveted local attention that Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin—all residents of Harlem at the time—recorded their observations and feelings about the violence in their writing.
14
In the eyes of whites, Harlem had become a kind of no-man's-land where crime and violence were ever present.
15
Many Harlem residents felt a keen alienation from the mainstream of American society. A government survey taken in Harlem in the spring of 1942 had discovered that most black residents believed they would be as well or better off if the Japanese won the war.
16
But racial separation and hostility marked all of New York in the 1940s. Whites expected blacks to remain apart in their enclaves in Harlem and Brooklyn, and the few integrated neighborhoods were tense places. In the predominantly white areas of Manhattan, few hotels or restaurants welcomed blacks. On the other hand, the city was home to many black intellectuals and radicals, and it was an environment where discussion of race was continuous—a place where a black writer found rich material.

Now finally reunited with Alex, Nan expected his attention to focus on her and little Lydia and Fella. But she soon felt that he neglected them, and she found his response to her feelings unsatisfactory. Alex usually avoided conflict with Nan, but during an argument in 1947, she slammed the bathroom door in front of him and he reached in and pulled her out roughly. His feelings for Nan were secondary to his professional ambitions. He came back from the war intent on being a writer. “Every night that the Lord brought I was writing,” he said of that time.
17

Simon still wanted Alex to go to college. “Improve your education” was his constant admonition. Now almost thirty years old, Alex felt his father's disappointment acutely. He was the black sheep of the family. By this time, his siblings were college graduates, headed to professional careers. “It was unthinkable,” he wrote later, “that his son would not go to college . . . it was in fact a disgrace. Worst of all, the first son.” Simon was “always drumming into me that everybody in the family had struggled to be somebody—and what was I thinking now[?]”
18

Service in the war, pursuit of a second career in New York, and perhaps Simon's disapproval separated Alex from his southern roots. He was busy and a long way from Henning, and he did not often return there in the 1940s or 1950s. Lydia later said that her father never took her to Henning. In 1949 Alex's beloved Grandma died, and his memorable Aunt Liz shortly followed her to the graveyard.

* * *

As he wrote for Coast Guard publications, Haley also spent the decade between 1944 and 1954 trying to break into writing for national magazines. The 1920s and 1930s had brought the heyday of mass-circulation publications. The most prominent weekly magazines, like the
Saturday Evening Post
and
Time,
had circulations of two to three million in the 1950s, and the monthly
Reader's Digest
went to ten million addresses at that time. Many middle-class American homes subscribed to three or four magazines, and along with newspapers, they were the main portals to American news, opinion, and popular culture.
19
For freelance writers, there were two tiers of magazines to contribute to. At the top were older weeklies that published the leading fiction and nonfiction writers in the country. These included the
Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Atlantic Monthly, Women's Home Companion,
and
Ladies Home Journal
;
Time, Life,
and
Look,
which were focused on news and were written mostly by full-time staff members; and
Reader's Digest,
which was known for its feel-good stories about American life
and
was unique in that its content was mostly reprinted from other magazines, though it published some original pieces by freelancers. These magazines were well illustrated and printed on glossy paper. Less prestigious were magazines called “pulps” for the rough grade of paper on which they were printed. They included the men's adventure publications
Argosy
and
True
and the women's romance magazines
Love Story, Modern Romance,
and
True Confessions.
The hundreds of pulps published in the 1930s and 1940s relied on freelancers and typically paid them a penny a word.

Haley's apprenticeship as a magazine writer was arduous. He had submitted stories to the pulp magazines in his early days in the Coast Guard with little success. At one point he papered a wall with rejection notices, reflecting years of trying. His brightest moment was when he received a postcard from an editor that read simply, “Nice try.” That note was the only encouragement he had received, he said, “but it was all I needed.”
20
In 1946 he sold his first story, “They Drive You Crazy,” set in the Coast Guard, for $100 to a Sunday newspaper supplement,
This Week.
The editors rewrote the story, but Haley got a byline.

Robert Monroe, his Coast Guard commanding officer, had been a sportswriter in Florida. Haley showed Monroe some of his freelance writing, which Monroe began to edit. “I would give him a page and it would come back with chicken scratches with green ink,” Haley later said. Monroe was the first person to give Haley a sense that writing was “more than slathering a lot of words over a piece of paper.” While he was telling people in the Coast Guard that Haley had real promise, he would say to Alex, “In five years you might learn to write a good sentence.” When Haley shared his many rejection slips, Monroe asked, “What the hell did you expect?” But Haley knew that the gruff exterior covered a kind heart. The two became good friends.

Haley's Coast Guard work put him in touch with writers who suggested magazine opportunities. Glenn D. Kittler, a freelance journalist, told him that
Coronet,
a general-interest, digest-sized monthly that featured stories about and by celebrities, was buying one-page historical vignettes. Starting in 1952 Haley wrote several of these for
Coronet
and was paid $100 if they ran under his name, $125 if under the name of some celebrity. Since the early 1920s
Time
magazine had advanced the nation's preoccupation with personal fame through its cover portraits, and its sister publication,
Life,
devoted many of its slick, large-format pages to profiles of entertainment, sports, and political figures.
Reader's Digest
reprinted articles on celebrities and created a variation on the celebrity theme with its feature “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Editors presumed that Americans viewed society through the lens of the individual profile.

By 1954 Haley felt that he was making headway. Now he wanted to explore more serious social issues. He was already familiar with the work of Richard Wright, and if he had not yet read Ralph Ellison's
Invisible Man
and James Baldwin's essays, he would do so shortly. Much of the best writing by African Americans was autobiographical, whether fiction or nonfiction. Alex had lived his boyhood immersed in his own family history. If his own story could not match the degradation of Wright's Mississippi background or the religious tension of Baldwin's Harlem upbringing or the psychological tortures endured by Ellison's Invisible Man, Alex had acquired in Henning a rich and original story.

In 1951 he began to imagine a story he entitled “The Lord and Little David.” He set it near Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the summer of 1926, in a community that was about half white and half black. The plot centered on the relationship between two twelve-year-olds, David, white, and George, black. Haley wrote that “there was no thought of any race ‘problem'” in a community that “ran quite smoothly, all sharing the bond of being poor and living for cotton, both facts as accepted as the seasons.”
21
In 1952 he submitted “The Lord and Little David” to the
Saturday Evening Post.
The
Post
's editors thought Haley's dialogue was good, but they were not sure whether the characters were white or black, nor could they quite follow the plot, which centered on a white church excursion. A while later, Haley sent the manuscript to a “literary consultant,” Maryse Rutledge, who confirmed the
Post
's critique. “It runs off in too many directions and is what I would call too busy,” Rutledge said, “confusing to the reader because, although you have sensitive feel of your characters, the story itself seems to get lost.” Haley worked hard on his craft. He took twenty-one pages of notes from Maren Elwood's widely used instructional guide
Characters Make Your Story.
And he now embraced autobiographical subjects for his main writing efforts, never to let them go.
22

* * *

In 1954 race relations in the United States were changing significantly. This was the year of
Brown v. Board of Education,
in which the U.S. Supreme Court turned American jurisprudence firmly against segregation. The next year the Montgomery bus boycott initiated a direct-action movement against segregation that continued into the mid-1960s. The civil rights movement would create new opportunities for black journalists of Haley's generation. Carl Rowan, another Tennesseean and a navy veteran, covered the movement for the
Minneapolis Tribune
and later the
Chicago Sun-Times.
James Hicks, a veteran of the South Pacific theater, edited the
New York Amsterdam News
and also covered the trial of Emmett Till's killers in 1955 and the Little Rock school crisis in 1957. Lerone Bennett, a Mississippi native, edited
Ebony
and commented extensively on civil rights activism through the 1950s and 1960s. Louis Lomax from Georgia wrote widely about activism and then became the country's first black television reporter.

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