Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (5 page)

African American life was covered by John H. Johnson's three magazines:
Negro Digest,
first published in 1942;
begun in 1945; and
launched in 1951. A black version of
Life, Ebony
focused on black celebrities and on civil rights activities.
a weekly digest-sized newsmagazine in the style of
became for many African Americans the authoritative source for news about civil rights protests and the lives of famous African Americans. Johnson believed that his magazines delivered the message that blacks “were going places we had never been before and doing things we'd never done before” and that his publications had a larger social impact: “You have to change images before you can change acts and institutions.”

Though he never wrote for Johnson's publications, Haley in 1954 started to write articles that challenged the negative images white Americans held about African Americans. Appearing first in the
Christian Science Monitor
and then in
Reader's Digest
was his article entitled “The Harlem Nobody Knows.” Haley cast Harlem as a place that defied its reputation as a “sinkhole” of capitalism. He predicated his story on the Cold War assumption that foreigners believed that the largest obstacle to the United States' influence among “the colored races who comprise two-thirds of the world's population is discrimination against the American Negro, seemingly typified by this over-crowded, dilapidated area.” To counter the image of black degradation in Harlem, Haley emphasized that the area was filled with businesses run by blacks who had overcome the problems caused by the Great Depression and the 1943 riot. “What we need is a crusade of public relations,” one man told Haley. “Harlem's biggest trouble now is that in too many minds the Negro remains a stereotype.”

In 1955 Haley published a piece in
Atlantic Monthly
recalling his Aunt Liz. The story is a slice of life with a building plot—the expectation in Henning that the proud and independent Elizabeth Murray had a lot of money and would contribute it to some community cause. Haley displayed a talent for description, as in the case of a service at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church: “Both the Senior and Junior Choirs sang with inspiration. Then the preacher gave the devil such a beating round the stump that Brother Dandridge's wooden leg was going fortissimo in general bedlam, Sister Scrap Scott shrieked three times in high C and fainted right in the choir stand, and Brother Rich Harrell leaped clear over the rostrum railing to kiss the preacher's hand.” Haley wrote in Negro dialect, even though its use was then being condemned for pandering to white racism. He thus took an idiom used to mock black people and made it one that celebrated them. Haley believed it brought authenticity to his writing.

Haley's publishing success undermined the popularity of the man known in the Coast Guard as “the cook who writes.” Some officers insisted that “no man can serve two masters,” and Haley sought a transfer. He was dispatched to Coast Guard headquarters in San Francisco. Though it meant leaving the center of American publishing, Haley was relieved to get away from New York. “You can't be around people who are perceiving you negatively for too long.”

Haley was excited about the journey across the country at a time when such trips were glamorized as the modern American family's ideal excursion. But his years in New York had insulated him from the indignities of the race segregation that still existed. The Haleys' drive to San Francisco was a journey through the humiliations that remained for African Americans in the mid-1950s. They faced constant denial of rooms at motels that displayed “Vacancy” signs. Haley began wearing his Coast Guard uniform to try to get better treatment. At times, the family simply slept in the car on the side of the road.

* * *

In 1955 Haley assumed his duties as press officer for the Coast Guard's Twelfth District, covering activities from California to Alaska to Honolulu. The office was located on Sansome Street in San Francisco, only a few blocks from the Embarcadero, Chinatown, and the North Beach entertainment and arts district. The Coast Guard provided integrated housing for him and his family in the Presidio, the old military barracks, also on the north shore near the Golden Gate Bridge. He performed the same public relations duties there as in New York, and his boss, John B. Mahan, recalled that Haley was the perfect public relations professional, skilled at every task.
In October 1956 a Pan-Am flight attempting to circumnavigate the globe ditched in the Pacific, its passengers and crew rescued by the Coast Guard. By the time the survivors were brought to San Francisco, the crash and rescue had become the subject of intense media attention, which Haley managed masterfully, dealing with
magazine and the Art Linkletter television show.

San Francisco then offered a more open racial environment, one far more relaxed than New York. It was a “be yourself, do your thing town,” Haley later said admiringly. The city had become home to the “Beats,” the movement of avant-garde poets and writers led by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s. They were keenly interested in ethnic cultures, especially those of Asians and blacks, more than in the mainstream traditions that had until then dominated American letters. The Beats lived public lives in the coffee shops, nightclubs, and bookstores of San Francisco's North Beach.

Early in Haley's time there, a group of Coast Guard public relations men went to Enrico Banducci's famous outdoor café, the Hungry i in North Beach, and one of Haley's colleagues recognized Barnaby Conrad seated nearby. A writer and San Francisco celebrity, Conrad had published
(1952), a fictionalized biography of Spain's most famous bullfighter. After
sold three million copies, Conrad wrote other books and articles for
Collier's, Reader's Digest, Look,
Saturday Review.
In 1953 he had opened a nightclub in the Barbary Coast section of North Beach called El Matador, which immediately became the place to be seen in San Francisco. Unprompted, Haley's colleague approached Conrad and said that the author needed to meet a fellow writer named Alex Haley. Conrad draped his arm around Alex's shoulder and insisted that he come to El Matador. Haley went there often and saw many famous actors and musicians, but the celebrities who made the greatest impression were the writers. John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, William Saroyan, and Budd Schulberg came through. Conrad made a special effort to have Haley spend time with Schulberg, who became Alex's lifelong friend. Haley later said that Conrad was no “liberal,” meaning that he treated him as he did other friends, without the false warmth that some whites showed blacks to display a progressive attitude. Conrad had taught writing, knew the writing market, and edited Alex's work. He later said Haley was “a good storyteller, worked hard at writing every day, read everything about writing and never gave up.” Haley spent hours chatting with other writers. “It was the first time I had been in a community of selling writers.”

The celebrities most appreciated at El Matador were raconteurs, and Conrad was an accomplished storyteller. Haley had grown up amid good storytellers, and now his appreciation of the art was reinforced. Conrad was also a model for how to act as a celebrity and how to behave toward them. A friend wrote that Conrad made it “his business and pleasure to chat up the celebrity at hand,” and soon they went “off into the night, arm in arm, to begin a lifelong friendship.” The same could be said of Alex Haley. One of the keys to Haley's success as a writer and celebrity in his own right was his affability. He was pleasant company, quick to offer an entertaining yarn. He was comfortable with whites at a time when blacks and whites had relatively few interactions.

But home life was a different matter. Nan remembered that Alex would come home from work, have dinner, and leave again, saying that he was going to back to his Coast Guard office to work on his writing. He was not always working. His San Francisco friends like Barnaby Conrad knew that Haley saw other women and that he was a self-confessed “womanizer.” Haley's good friend C. Eric Lincoln later told an interviewer that he and Haley had caroused looking for women during these years. One evening Nan began hemorrhaging, called Haley's office, and was given a different telephone number to call. The woman who answered called Alex to the phone, but Nan hung up. Her daughter called an ambulance. In 1958 Nan, Lydia, and Fella—the children were now teenagers—went back to her home in North Carolina for a visit, and once there, Nan decided to stay. The marriage was almost over.

The San Francisco experience gave Haley confidence that he belonged in a community of writers, but he did not publish much in those years. That his writing had stalled may have fueled his desire to return to New York when he retired from the Coast Guard after twenty years' service. In 1959, at age thirty-eight, he was going to create his own fame as a writer.


People on the Way Up

Nan Haley often told her husband, “You're married to your typewriter.” In June 1959 she gave him an ultimatum. “She banged her hand on the kitchen table and said, ‘It's me or that typewriter,'” he recalled. “I thought, ‘I wish you hadn't phrased it that way.'” They both moved back to New York in the summer of 1959 but separated for good. Nan settled in Harlem, and Alex moved to a one-room basement studio apartment on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. Maintaining two residences and living on a relatively meager military pension meant that Nan and Alex faced hard financial times. He had not wanted her to work when the children were small. But “when Alex left me, I knew I had to work,” she said later. “I had to take care [of] and provide for my children. Because I knew that I could never depend on him.” By then she was angry at his financial irresponsibility. “It was always ‘when my ship comes in and when things get better, I'm going to do this for you, I'm going to do that for you.' But he never did. . . . He did not do what he was supposed to do.” Years later, Nan bemoaned Alex's failings as a husband. “I don't think he ever let me get close to him. Only to cook, wash, have sex, that's about it. . . . He always was secretive.” Haley never spoke speak critically of Nan and claimed that they “just sort of drifted apart.”

Haley maintained contact with his children but made little time for them. His son, Fella, lived with him for a while in the Village after the teenager was accused of having sex with a minor girl in Harlem in 1962. The disposition of the charge is not clear. Fella entered the army in the mid-1960s and served with the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper in Vietnam.

Money problems plagued Haley from his first days out of the Coast Guard. He pursued freelance writing jobs far and wide, but they did not come quickly. “I was literally hanging on by my fingernails, trying to make it as a magazine writer,” he remembered. One fellow Coast Guard veteran noted that it was hard for some men to adjust to fending entirely for themselves, saying, “Alex lost control of his finances.” A friend told him about a civil service job as a “public information officer,” for which Haley was well qualified. The friend, to whom Haley owed money, promised that he could get Haley the job if he agreed to take it immediately. Haley finally said that he wanted to “keep on trying to make it [with] writing.” At that point his Greenwich Village cupboard held only two cans of sardines and his pocket only eighteen cents, which he spent on a head of cabbage. He thought, “There's nowhere to go but up.”

Haley longed for the writing community to which Barnaby Conrad had introduced him in San Francisco. He wrote to several writers then living in Greenwich Village. He heard only from James Baldwin. “Jimmy, bless him . . . perceived, that I was really crying for a shoulder to lean on.” Baldwin walked into Haley's basement apartment, “as if we were old buddies and writing peers, and sat down, cross-legged on the little hassock I had, and talked to me for an hour . . . about nothing in particular, and not that much about writing. But he said to me, in his actions, that he regarded me as a peer. And that did more for me than he could ever know.” The two became good friends.

More companionship came from George Sims, a boyhood friend from Henning, a tall, light-skinned man married to an Irish woman at a time when interracial marriages were uncommon. Sims had settled in Greenwich Village and worked as a janitor and bank messenger. He had arranged for Haley to live in the basement apartment of his building. Sims had an avid curiosity about black history that he satisfied by spending nights and weekends at the New York Public Library. He reputedly had a photographic memory. In the early 1960s Sims and Haley spent many late evenings wandering about Greenwich Village. They chatted about Henning, the people they knew there, and the meaning of the lives they had observed. The time spent with Sims in Greenwich Village nurtured Alex's autobiographical instincts. The two men were close companions for the next thirty years, and Sims became Haley's research assistant.

Haley wrote in his diary on New Year's Day 1962 that he was hard at work writing, pausing only a few minutes to have a drink with the Simses before recording his resolutions for the future: “This year, I hope, will see a number of aspirations accomplished, chief among them my first book—at this writing, the book on Henning, and that it will prove a resounding success.” This is the first recorded mention of his conscious intention to write about his background.

Years later he wrote an unpublished autobiographical novel in the third person, set during these years in New York. One scene depicted Alex visiting Nan at her job as a waitress. In the novel she works because she enjoys it, not because she has to, and “Alex wishes she wouldn't work.” He hands her his pension check, and Nan pushes it back to him. She senses that something is disturbing him but knows that she “probably can't get close to it.” She asks about his writing, and “he says a little too much about how well it's going.” He will have to “install a bigger mailbox to handle all the checks!” The next scene describes his mailbox as overflowing with rejected manuscripts and unpaid bills. “He hasn't had a sale in too long. . . . turned down by all the best magazines. What's wrong?” George Sims offers to get Haley a job as a messenger at the bank where he works. In the next scene, “Alex is in a messenger's uniform which is too small in some places and too big in others.” His white boss is overbearing and condescending, and on the job, Haley is “shunted aside, ignored, treated as though he were a mindless robot.” He feels like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: “Nothing. Nobody.”

He returns home to his basement cell, like the one the Invisible Man occupies, to find his father waiting for him in the hall. Simon Haley looks at the messenger's uniform and asks what Alex has done to himself. “Three sons I've got . . . a lawyer, an architect—and a messenger boy.” Simon has let Alex find his own way, but now Simon thinks that was a mistake, and he is “ready to move back into the vacuum.” His response to Alex's poor achievement is the same as always: college. Alex refuses, because he is going to be a writer. He tries to make peace with Simon, but his father is bitterly disappointed in him. “And what next?” Simon asks. “A janitor? A shoe-shine?” The next day on the job, Haley lashes out at white women who refuse to acknowledge his presence. “Look at me! I'm somebody, you hear? I'm a person. Look at me!” He angrily quits the messenger job.

Haley's autobiographical novel revealed his fear of failure during his first years after leaving the Coast Guard. His commitment to writing did in fact falter amid his financial struggles. He applied for corporate public relations jobs and included his photograph with his resume, so there would be no awkwardness at an interview. Despite excellent qualifications, he never got an interview. He did work briefly as a bank messenger. Whether or not the interaction with Simon in the novel was based on a real event, it showed his hurt at his father's disappointment in him. It would have been uncharacteristic of Haley to lash out at the white women ignoring him, but the scene he created suggested the kind of anger found in the writing of Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin. Haley was at work on imagining a narrative of his life that dwelt on the obstacles he had overcome.

In the early 1960s Haley pursued magazine assignments intensively. He queried various magazines about a wide range of story ideas and was forced to develop a thick skin. He renewed connections to
Coronet, Reader's Digest,
and the
Saturday Evening Post.
He discussed story ideas with the editors of the men's pulp magazine
and talked about possible celebrity pieces for Hugh Hefner's
Show Business Illustrated.
He developed a profile of the comedian Phyllis Diller, whom he had known in San Francisco, where she began her career; he eventually sold the piece to the
Saturday Evening Post.
Haley then began to focus on profiles of black celebrities. He developed a list of what he called “People on the Way Up.” He developed stories on Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Dick Gregory, Leadbelly, Floyd Patterson, and the Olympian Ralph Boston. None of these articles, together representing many months of work in 1960 and 1961, was published. Freelance writing was often a demoralizing pursuit.

In 1962, he did place a long piece on the theme of black achievement in
magazine, at that point still a literary and arts publication. Haley wrote a history of black contributions to American musical culture that touched on the evolution of African traditions through spirituals, minstrels, blues, and jazz, culminating in musical theater in the mid-twentieth century. He connected dozens of black artists to one or another of the musical genres and ended on a triumphal note: “It will be an exciting future indeed when Negro contributions in other fields equal those made in the musical life of America.”

Haley began to connect with entertainment celebrities in New York. In February 1961 he attended a performance of
Il Trovatore
with the singer and actress Lena Horne; her husband, Lennie Hayton, a white composer of big band music and Hollywood musical scores, including “Singin' in the Rain”; and the sociologist and social reformer Jeanne Noble, who had recently become a professor at New York University. Afterward, he had dinner with them at Sardi's, a theater district restaurant. Horne and Noble were members of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and both were involved in civil rights activism. Haley was making contacts with an entertainment elite that might help him on the way up as a writer. But he may also have been having a romance with Noble, a thirty-four-year-old Georgia native. Like Nan, she was a pretty, light-skinned woman who went on to a distinguished career in academics and public service. In his autobiographical novel, Haley describes a relationship he had had with a young, black, and ambitious woman he called “Gwen Richards.” He finally breaks off their relationship because he is more committed to his writing than he is to Gwen.

Haley's most successful connection in the world of magazine writing proved to be with
Reader's Digest.
In the early 1920s, DeWitt Wallace had recognized that there was a rapidly expanding middle-brow audience for periodical literature and that there were far too many magazines published for the average person to keep up with all the good journalism. Wallace liked articles that were uplifting, that revealed the tenacity of the human spirit and people's capacity to help others. It may have been at
Reader's Digest
that Haley acquired the maxim he often offered: “Find something good and praise it.” In 1960 and 1961 Haley developed a number of stories for the
most of them profiles of celebrities, black and white. His most noteworthy article was an adoring piece on Percival Scott, his boss on the
. Still, fewer than half the stories he wrote for
Reader's Digest
were published.

The stories that did appear in print were all profiles of talented African Americans who had overcome great obstacles and remained humble, unchanged by great success. Haley wrote about two gold medal–winning Olympians from poor black families, the high jumper John Thomas and the sprinter Wilma Rudolph. Thomas had suffered a terrible injury to his leg but recovered and returned to the top of the field. Haley quoted Thomas's white coach about him: “A kid so nice you'd be proud if he was your own.” Wilma Rudolph had been born with what everyone believed were hopelessly crippled legs—everyone except her mother, who was determined that her twentieth child would walk. At great sacrifice, she got her daughter the therapy that enabled her finally to walk at age eight, and by eighteen, Wilma had grown to be a gazelle-like sprinter. She won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and then returned to her small Tennessee hometown and prepared to be an elementary school teacher. Haley's profile of Mahalia Jackson, “She Makes a Joyful Noise,” tells of the singer's rise from humble beginnings in New Orleans, where her gift of a powerful soprano voice was spotted early. Jackson often turned down lucrative deals that would have meant switching from gospel music to blues and jazz. Haley placed her in the context of black Christianity and portrayed her loyalty to gospel music as her chief virtue.

In 1963 Haley turned to his family experiences in “The Man Who Wouldn't Quit.” Here he told the story of his brother George's struggle as one of the first blacks to enter the University of Arkansas law school in the early 1950s. George was a model young man, a war veteran and an outstanding college student, the academic star of the Haley family. Simon Haley, now teaching in Arkansas, had persuaded George to be a pioneer of desegregation. George suffered abuse from other students and isolation from the law school community, and in his first year he wanted to quit. But he endured the hardships, finally made a white friend, Miller Williams, and ended his legal education on the school's law review. At the end of his piece, Haley announced proudly that George was a successful lawyer and a rising star in Republican politics in Kansas—and revealed that George was his brother.

This story ran in spite of the angry opposition of Miller Williams, who in 1963 was on faculty in the English Department at Louisiana State University, having forsaken law for poetry. Williams feared the possible impact that public exposure of his support for racial integration in Arkansas would have on him and his family, given the volatile racial atmosphere of Louisiana. He had originally been asked to collaborate with Haley on the article, but after traveling to Kansas City to interview George, Williams was cut out of the process, he said, without compensation. Alex, he said, nonetheless promised that Williams would have a chance to review anything said by or about him before it went into print. But Williams said that he was not given that chance and that George ignored his pleas for help. After threatening Alex Haley and
Reader's Digest
with a lawsuit, he was sent galley proofs for the article, which was due out in days. Miller then informed Alex that one anecdote in the story was fabricated: “I get the impression that your attitude has been, ‘What does it matter, so long as I got the information I needed, and so long as I get me a good story?'” He demanded that Haley “get rid of my name and my teaching at L.S.U.” Furthermore, “the remarks attributed clearly to me are self-disparaging, they are inane, and they are false.” But the story ran with Williams's name, his affiliation with Louisiana State, the allegedly false anecdote, and a quote attributed to Miller asking George to be the godfather of his daughter Lucinda. Alex Haley wrote to the
Reader's Digest
legal department that Williams was upset that he had been cut out of a byline and that his need for money could explain “his seeming anxiety to file some potentially lucrative suit.”

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