Remembering Alex Haley -- We look back at the life of the ''Roots'' author

Remembering Alex Haley

Alex Haley got his start in the Coast Guard, writing love letters for other guys to send their girls. For the rest of his days he was a literary ventriloquist, wrapping his prose around somebody else’s passionate feelings. After leaving the Guard at 37, Haley continued to board boats to write; much of Roots, his epochal 1976 account of a forebear’s passage from Africa into slavery, was composed on a freighter. Haley lived all over, split from three wives, and died at 70 of a heart attack last week in Seattle, near one of his several writing lairs. ”He wasn’t particular about destinations,” says his travel agent.

But he knew where he was going. He created the much-imitated Playboy Interview in the early ’60s; one of his interviewees hired him to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the black leader’s 1965 love-hate letter to America. Malcolm was assassinated just before its publication, but the book sold more than 6 million copies and kept his story alive.

Haley wrote only one more big book: Roots, whose 1977 TV miniseries adaptation drew 130 million viewers, beating the record set by Gone With the Wind. Roots stunned the country: Its producer claimed that Congress let out early and Vegas canceled its 8 o’clock shows the week of its broadcast. Neither history nor literature, Roots was billed by Haley as ”faction,” while critic Richard Schickel called it ”Mandingo for middlebrows.” The author of an obscure 1967 novel, The African, called it plagiarism; he was given a reported $500,000. ”There are only 33 plots in the world,” grumbled Haley.

Such lawsuits helped discourage Haley from writing for many years, but he enjoyed a late burst of creativity. The day of his death, casting began for Queen, a six-hour miniseries telling his mulatto grandmother’s story. Scheduled to hit CBS next fall or in the spring of ’93, Queen could push the cumulative audience for his family drama well past the nation’s total population.

When the first blockbuster, the pro-KKK film The Birth of a Nation, came out in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson likened it to ”writing history with lightning.” Alex Haley stole that lightning for the other side.