THE ANGUISH OF ALEX HALEY'S WIDOWWITH HER HUSBAND'S LITERARY LEGACY DISPERSED, SHE'S LOCKED IN A BITTER PROBATE BATTLE
Celebrities, ambassadors and politicians crowded into the Greenwood Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jesse Jackson was there. Cicely Tyson was there. Dick Gregory was there. Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, was there. Dignitaries from Senegal and the Gambia were there.
They had come to mourn Alex Haley, the 70-year-old author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, who had died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992.
It was a grand memorial service for the writer whose two books served as beacons of hope, pride and understanding to millions of Americans in the late 20th century.
On that winter day, few people noticed the little woman sitting in the front row near the African mahogany casket.
In contrast to the elegant women who'd come to pay their last respects, My Haley, the 44-year-old widow of Alex Haley, wore only a trace of makeup. She dressed as she usually dressed, in a style that was neither fashionable nor unfashionable. She wore a tailored suit, sensible pumps and pearl stud earrings. Her body was tiny and lean, a testament to an ascetic daily routine of exercise, meditation and a diet consisting largely of baked potatoes and steamed root vegetables.
She could not know as she listened to the eulogies that after spending 18 years with Alex Haley, and--as she describes it--collaborating on many of his literary projects, that she would be portrayed in a complicated probate case as a gold digger who had once "hijacked" her husband's unfinished books. Or that she was soon to become so impoverished that she would be evicted from her California apartment and have to move to Phoenix, where she would share rent with her mother and brother. These troubles were not the worst of it.
What would shatter her most would be an estate auction, ordered by her husband's brother George, that would forever scatter the literary legacy of Alex Haley's personal manuscripts, notes and research materials. Like his ancestor Kunta Kinte, the cultural history of Alex Haley would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
On many levels, Alex Haley's death devastated his petite widow.
And embarrassed her.
By the time of the memorial service, practically everyone in the family knew that Alex's mistress had been the person to summon Seattle paramedics when he suffered his fatal heart attack. The mistress, in fact, attended the memorial service.
But what struck My Haley as most strange at the service was something only a wife would notice. The dead writer had been dressed in a stunning tailored suit. A sprig of rosebuds had been pinned to the lapel. But his shoes were too large. Alex Haley would have hated the fact that his shoes didn't fit, she thought to herself, Alex only wore shoes that fit like a glove.
She let her eyes travel from the casket to Alex Haley's brothers and sister, to his children and his first wife, to the elegant mourners.
My Haley really knew very little about the man whom she secretly married in 1977. She didn't know his children, his siblings, his friends. Alex Haley had kept her apart from them, and they, in turn, had been kept apart from her.
Her famous husband had carved out a secretive lifestyle during the busy years of traveling and lecturing following the 1976 publication of Roots. He did not live in any particular home, although he owned houses and condos all over the country and a huge estate in eastern Tennessee. If he threw a lavish party on that estate, which he called the "farm," it was unlikely that My or many other members of the Haley family would know about it.
Or be invited.
With everyone assembled at the memorial service, My Haley recognized that her husband fit people into his life as though they were, in her words, "segments of an orange." She lived in one segment. His children, first wife and brothers and sister fit into a different segment. His friends in eastern Tennessee slid into another segment. The fancy people from the entertainment world belonged in yet another.
She looked again at the casket, listened to the speeches about Alex Haley the public figure, about his abundant kindnesses, his largess, his humility. He felt obliged, said his eulogizers, to pay back the world for his good fortune by never refusing a request to autograph a book, give a graduation speech, deliver a lecture, chat with fans. "Find the good and praise it," was his motto.
When My's turn came to eulogize her husband, she said that Alex was a hero.
In a way, she still adored him as much as she did when she first met him in Jamaica in 1974. She had just received her Ph.D. and begged him, in letters, to let her work with him. Finally, he consented. It was in the Jamaica house that she says she helped Alex finish Roots in 18 months.
At the time, the book was 12 years overdue.
She was happy to organize him, to help him finish Roots. "When I saw the piles of material, and the disarray, and the way he was working, I saw how I could truly contribute to him. That's what I really wanted to do, because I felt that he was a man with a great, great mission," she recalls.
It was in Jamaica that she says Alex had first proposed. He said they would have no children, but they would write together and their books would be their children.
But after Roots, no new books were completed.
And through the years, Alex became increasingly annoyed when My would mention that his true "mission" was to write more great books.
In fact, after Jamaica she seemed to annoy him a lot. Nonetheless, they secretly married in 1977. It was, from the beginning, a marriage in which he was gone more than he was home. My frequently locked herself in her bathroom and buried her tearful face in the fur of her Yorkshire terrier. She could not stand up to the loneliness.
Once, they nearly divorced. But Alex and My could not bring themselves to break up their cerebral relationship, which became more and more distant physically until, in the end, they were no longer lovers.
For obvious reasons, the torments of this unconventional relationship were not mentioned by Dr. Myran Lewis Haley when her turn came to eulogize her husband in the Greenwood Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Afterward, the Haley family and My did not share a funeral feast. In fact, they had inadvertently insulted one another.
My maintains the Haley family had excluded her from the funeral plans, that the family hadn't even told her where the memorial service was to be. And she says she was humiliated to have to walk into the Greenwood church half an hour late.
William Haley, Alex's only son, is still irritated that Alex's "invisible woman" had made a "grand entrance" by arriving late to the memorial service. She could have picked up a schedule of the day's events when she attended the previous night's wake, he says. And he is annoyed that his father's widow was accompanied by her lawyers at the services.
"She did not come as a widow; she came with her lawyers to get his manuscripts," says William.
My insists that she brought the lawyers at William's suggestion, that he had told her over the telephone that "estate matters" were to be hammered out between funeral services, an allegation William denies.
The truth is that by the time of Alex Haley's probate, everyone except the author's children had a lawyer, 17 in all, tugging at the estate. The struggle over the will became a public spectacle covered by the national press. From the New York Times to the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town," one overriding question emerged: How could the artifacts of Alex Haley's inspirational career, a cultural bequest that would have enriched any museum or library, be squandered into the hands of private collectors?
Understanding Alex Haley's relationship to My, his relationship to his children and former wives and his relationship to his brothers and particularly his father is critical to understanding why his brother George Haley, as executor of Alex's estate, permitted the diaspora of Alex Haley's literary legacy.
@body:The fate of what little remains of Alex Haley's fortune will be determined in a windowless courtroom in the Chancery Court in Knoxville, Tennessee.
It was the clean beauty of the hills of southern Appalachia and the character of the Appalachian people themselves that drew Alex to this corner of eastern Tennessee in the early 1980s.
He loved to drive into the mountains with his good friend John Rice Irwin, a Tennessee historian and museum curator.
Alex Haley was particularly devoted to the miners who barely survived a life of carving coal out of the hills. And the country folk clearly adored Alex Haley.
Irwin recalls that when Alex Haley decided to build a manmade lake right before the rainy season, neighboring farmers trooped over to help. Using their pickup-truck headlights for illumination, they worked until three in the morning. All night long, Alex Haley raced from the farmhouse to the lake, bringing his neighbors snacks and steaming cups of coffee. "People wouldn't be this kind in Los Angeles," Irwin remembers him saying.
He was so charmed by east Tennessee, in fact, that beginning in the mid-1980s, he bought several pieces of real estate, including two condos in Knoxville and a farm in nearby Norris. The farm became his plaything and "sandcastle," says John Rice Irwin.
Despite his genuine affection for this land and its people, Alex Haley was unable to ever settle into his estate. Instead, he developed the farm for others, for fellow artists, for show-business contacts.
Now My wonders if Alex wasn't seeking approval from "friends" and an adoring public to fill the holes left by his father. Alex had felt his father never approved of him--first because he did not graduate from college and then because he sacrificed his family's financial security for his own freelance writing career.
Whatever the reason, Alex Haley did not often sleep at the farm. Instead, he might pop in on John Rice Irwin and his wife, who would feed him the Southern food he loved--fried potatoes, corn bread, garden greens and pinto beans. "I never knew anyone who liked to eat as much as Alex," says Irwin.
My Haley occasionally visited the Tennessee farm. But she was not particularly comfortable there. She could not really share Alex's unbridled joy about the artificial lake he'd stocked with catfish so that local children could come for a day of fishing.
She says Alex began to envision the farm as a retreat for writers and artists. He began to name the famous people who would come to visit.
With this in mind, he built a large lodge, with fireplaces and wood floors, a superb kitchen and a recreation room with a pool table and a large-screen color TV. It was here that Haley held his lavish parties, such as the one he threw for Oprah Winfrey two years ago. The dark-green awning hanging from the front entry proudly proclaimed "Haley Farm," so that visitors would know exactly where they were.
Next, Alex Haley added several guest houses, again with fireplaces and wood floors and fully equipped kitchens.
It was extravagant, but Haley was at the time earning about $1 million a year from his lecture tours and residuals from his books. So when he borrowed money, his lenders knew he'd make good.
Alex could never persuade My to move to Tennessee. He promised to build her a house, but she resisted. She had been alone in a big house before, in Los Angeles, when the two had first married and Alex was always off lecturing.
She wanted to remain in her apartment in California, where she felt safe and had a few friends. She saw nothing wrong with linking up with Alex via the telephone and the fax machine. After all, that's how they had communicated for much of their marriage.
She says she was, at the time, still doing research for Alex. She claims in court that she was a collaborator on at least three unpublished works: Queen, the story of the white side of Alex Haley's family, which is soon to be made into a TV miniseries; Madame C.J. Walker, the story of a black cosmetics entrepreneur; and Henning, a collection of stories about Haley's boyhood summertimes at his grandmother's house in western Tennessee.
She did the research, she says, because Alex asked her to. She wanted to pave the way for Alex's great books. But the more she researched, the more he put off writing.
Their marriage survived the Tennessee-California distance for several years, but it was taking its toll on both of them. My waited and waited for the writing to begin. "He was moving away from the things we were most together on, and that was the work," she recalls. "I got so that I was a rub on him . . . The farther he got away from the work, the more excuses he was giving for not doing the work and the more I seemed to cause him irritation by my being."
Finally, the two decided on a divorce. My filed in Los Angeles in 1989, 13 years after they'd married.
Before the divorce could take effect, My says they reconciled. But the idea of divorce would crop up again whenever she mentioned he should be writing. "I came to understand that when he would bring up the divorce, what he was really saying was, 'Get off my back, I don't want to hear about this mission business. I am tired now. I don't feel good.'"
In fact, his health was failing. He developed diabetes. He fatigued easily. He had problems with his vision. His attention span was shorter.
And My Haley began to wonder, as she puts it, "What was going to happen to me?" She had been with Alex Haley since 1974, yet she felt she had no financial security. She had signed a prenuptial agreement giving up any claim on Alex's fortune when the two married in 1977.
Although she is a chief beneficiary in Alex's will, lawyers for the estate say she should not benefit from Alex's benevolence because of the 1977 prenuptial agreement.
She says when she brought up her financial insecurities to Alex, the two agreed to sign a property settlement. "Give me what you want to give me," she says she told him. Two years later, there was still no property settlement.
It wasn't until January 1991 that the two signed a property settlement, and this document is at the heart of the probate battle.
Lawyers for the estate of Alex Haley say My "hijacked" her husband's work and held it "hostage" in order to force him to sign the property settlement. Because Alex signed the paper under "duress," it is not a binding contract, the estate contends.
As evidence, the estate submitted a series of vitriolic faxes from Alex to My, in which the author accused his wife of holding the "guts" of his book hostage and likened her to Saddam Hussein.
The estate also submitted a fax from My to Alex in which she said she was not holding the work hostage. She admitted there was some research material in her lawyer's office, and that it was there at her attorney's bidding. She reminded him that the settlement had not been signed for two years and that the two should get the lawyers out of their lives so they could continue working together.
Today, My says Alex never sent her some of the faxes that were submitted as evidence by the estate.
The way My sees things, there was never any "duress," and she hijacked nothing. In the first place, it was common for her to have research materials for Alex's books, because her job was to do the research. Plus, Alex was not aching to get the material so that he could begin writing, because he wasn't writing at all.
Once the settlement was concluded, they put these bitter times behind them and continued working together, she says. Alex bought her a diamond necklace and purchased a large-screen television set for her grandmother, who had recently had a stroke.
The controversial property settlement provided My with about $8,000 per month in living expenses. But more important, she was promised 15 percent of any monies received from Queen, Henning or Madame C.J. Walker. She was to receive more than $200,000 if Queen should become a TV miniseries.
Most important, if Alex died with the works unfinished, My could finish them, the property settlement says.
Alex Haley did die with the works unfinished, but the executor of his estate, his brother George, refused to hand over the works to My.
My sued the estate earlier this year, contending that the property settlement was a binding document.
There is another complication.
Nannie Haley, who married Alex in 1942, claims that their Mexican divorce had never been filed. Therefore, she says, she is Alex Haley's legitimate wife. Nannie, the mother of Ann and William, says in court papers that Alex asked her for a divorce in the mid-1960s.
"For a period of 21 years following our separation, Mr. Haley was very secretive about his personal affairs, and he would not inform me as to the status of our divorce," she wrote. "I did not remarry following the separation from Mr. Haley, and because of Mr. Haley's promise to me, I always believed that we would resume our relationship. Since our separation, we have had a close friendship."
My had clues as to how segmented her husband's life had become. But it was only after his death that she learned the full extent of it.
Unbeknown to My, Alex frequently called his first wife on the telephone. In fact, just a few weeks before his death, William, Ann, Nannie and Alex revisited the place where Nannie and Alex first courted.
"My mom is a really wonderful person," says Ann. "I would venture to say she loved him throughout. I often say that if my mother had been a different person, there would not have been Roots. She gave him the space to do what he wanted to do, she worked various jobs at department stores to keep us clothed and fed when he was caught up in his writing thing.
"My mother did not get her just due. She was not a fighter. I think that she thought that he would come through for her."
As he did with My, Alex strung Nannie out. He never let go of his first wife, but neither would he fulfill a commitment to her. He could not let her go, but neither could he "come through for her." She was someone to drop in on, to call on the telephone.
Nannie was like a daughter to Alex's father, professor Simon Haley. In some ways, their relationship was warmer than her relationship with Alex.
Simon, the son of a sharecropper and former slave, earned a master's degree from Cornell University and became a college professor. Simon's wife, Bertha, died when Alex was a little boy. Simon remarried to a somewhat stern professor of English. When Alex wrote her letters in the summer, she would return them with corrections, his brothers George and Julius say.
Alex never really felt he lived up to the expectations of his intellectual parents, say his brothers, although Alex sought his father's approval.
When Alex practically flunked out of college, his disappointed parents instructed him to join the military. He signed up for the Coast Guard, where he became a cook. At night he practiced his writing.
Like his father, Simon, Alex became the "first black to . . ." when the Coast Guard named him chief journalist.
After 20 years, Alex retired and began a freelance writing career. It was then that his wife Nannie began working in department stores to keep the family fed and clothed.
It pained Simon Haley to see his son pursuing a dream of a writing career while sacrificing the financial security of his wife and children, says Alex's daughter, Ann. It was not that dreams were unimportant, it's just that three squares on the table should take precedence, the old man would lecture on his visits.
Ann recalls that before Simon Haley came to visit, Alex Haley would grimace in anticipation of the lectures that were sure to come.
Alex's brothers and sister say that Simon Haley was very proud of his son Alex and loved him. His brother Julius recalls sitting Alex down one day and telling him, "Dad loves you very much."
Alex himself remained unconvinced that his father approved of him. Alex once told My that although his father seemed to like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex wondered if his father would have preferred him to finish his college work.
Simon Haley died shortly before Roots was published. Alex was never able to resolve the relationship between himself and his father.
Alex's brother George, on the other hand, did exactly what his father expected of him. While Alex merely wrote about racism, George endured it. George Haley was the second black to graduate from the University of Arkansas College of Law.
George was not allowed to sleep or bathe with his classmates.
When the secretarial staffers found out that a Negro student would be sharing their bathroom, they were furious.
It was only in George's third year that he ventured into the cafeteria, and on the first occasion his meal was knocked off his tray. Other students asked him how often he bathed, or whether he lusted after white girls.
But George endured, and after a successful career as a Republican legislator in Kansas, he became U.S. postal commissioner, a job he still holds today. He is very proud of his children, who are both lawyers and were graduated with distinction from Howard University and Stanford.
"I am very much like my father," says George.
Because of George's levelheadedness, he was always the sibling to be assigned the tough tasks, says his brother Julius, a retired architect.
"George was closest to Alex," he says. "We as a family always tended to give him [George] the hard tasks and tough responsibilities, and this is another one. We would lump all our troubles on him and then throw stones at him."
@body:It is not surprising that Alex Haley elected to name George as executor of his estate. Nor is it surprising that George went about his fiduciary duties exactly as his father, Simon, might have--by making a cold business decision to auction off, to scatter forever, Alex Haley's literary legacy and personal possessions in order to pay the estate's bills. Three squares a day for the family must take precedence over dreams, is what Simon used to tell Alex. Brother George learned that lesson well, and placed greater stock in fiscal responsibility than preserving his brother's mementos.
George is acutely aware that he has drawn the ire of curators of black museums, My Haley, Alex Haley's children and Alex Haley's friends and readers. In their eyes, George Haley has sacrificed a significant portion of African-American heritage in order to preserve the estate's real estate holdings.
This is how George sees it: When Alex Haley died, he owned ten pieces of Tennessee real estate. All of the properties were mortgaged. The real estate included the 127- acre "farm" in Norris, two condos in Knoxville, a couple of houses in Clinton, some property in Henning.
It turned out that most of the properties were about to be foreclosed on.
In addition Alex Haley owed more than $100,000 in personal debts.
In all, the debts approached about $2 million, says Alex's son, William.
So George decided to sell off Alex's literary legacy, as well as his personal possessions. He says he "would rather not have done it," but he needed to pay the bills, preserve the real estate holdings, protect the estate from even greater debt if the properties are foreclosed on. As George explains it, the estate would have to pay hefty fees on any property that is foreclosed on.
If the real estate is preserved, it can be sold off later and the proceeds will go to the beneficiaries of Alex's will, he says. As taught by his father, George is simply providing for his own family members.
He does not feel he has decimated a national cultural treasure. "I can sleep at night," says Alex Haley's brother.
It is more than ironic that the apparent patriarch of the very family that symbolizes continuity and a sense of pride for so many African Americans would end up destroying a singular writer's literary legacy.
Hundreds of people attended the three-day auction of Alex Haley's personal possessions and working manuscripts. The literary material, including notes, manuscripts and research items from both Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was laid out on tables in the conference center at the University of Tennessee. Buyers bid via special telephones.
When My Haley viewed the conference-center tables stacked with materials she had worked on, she became physically ill. "George will have to answer to God for this," she says.
She did not attend the auction of Alex's personal things at the farm. She could not bear to see his Pulitzer Prize auctioned off.
John Rice Irwin did visit the farm. He was shocked. "It was like watching the second death of Alex," he says. The furniture was sold, the paintings, the antiques, the memorabilia, the awards. But what Irwin remembers most is an old leather suitcase with the initials "A H" that lay on the ground, empty, half-open. It was a suitcase Alex Haley had taken around the world; it was a symbol of his life on the road.
To John Rice Irwin, to treat Alex's suitcase thus was a desecration.
In the end, the auction netted about $800,000, says Paul Coleman, the estate's attorney. If Alex had known the documents were worth so much, Coleman jokes, he would have sold them himself and had another party.
Curators of black museums do not value crude jokes about the scattering of Roots and Malcolm X materials.
Roots was a monumentally important book because it ushered in "a new body of scholarship that looks at enslaved people as subjects, not objects, and recognizes them as agents of history and culture," explains Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center, a New York institute that specializes in African-American culture. It also prompted millions of Americans to look at their "personal histories and ethnic and racial traditions."
Once Alex Haley demonstrated that he could trace his family roots, says Dodson, "others who had been afraid of going too far back because of the embarrassment and shame that many African Americans felt over slavery got the courage" to look into their pasts.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Alex Haley himself preferred over Roots, told the story of a leader, considered by many to be as pivotal in African-American history as his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. The book "has been and will remain a classic text," says Dodson. "But again, it is more than that. If offers a sense of the possible. With Malcolm's life, you're able to see no matter how low you go, if you apply yourself, you can rise again and reach unimagined heights. Malcolm transformed himself in prison, and this can be seen as a metaphor for people trapped in the streets today. The book had a tremendous impact on people across gender, class and racial lines."
Like many black institutions, the Schomburg could not afford to buy the entire literary legacy. And it would have been impossible, in any case, because of the way the auction was set up.
"His personal papers were not offered for sale as a complete entity, but rather were broken into lots that did not maintain the intellectual integrity of the whole," says Dodson. Because the auction was silent, only the auctioneer knows the names of purchasers. And he cannot divulge the buyers' names because of privacy laws.
Dodson says he tried to persuade George at least to keep the literary treasure intact for one bidder. "I talked to George Haley about it before the auction, but he is capable of being very unaffected by things in the emotional sense."
The decision pained Haley's children, Ann and William. William was already raw from taking care of the funeral plans, from consoling his own children. "Your grandfather loved you very much," he remembers telling his little son. "He would have liked to spend more time with you."
William and Ann sacrificed their father to his adoring public, and then, upon his death, they had to sacrifice his artifacts to his estate.
"We were not offered as much as a pocket handkerchief," says Ann. "My brother had to buy my father's car. The estate could have afforded to give that to my brother."
It is clear to Ann Haley "that Uncle George could care less about us."
Both William and Ann now must cope with the fact that his literary legacy has been dispersed. What it means, in a sense, is that part of their sacrifice was for nothing. But they are both stoic, and have resigned themselves to the concept that the things that were sold were just things, that their father contributed more to the world than "things."
Ann Haley has little hope that she or anyone else in the family will get any of the approximately $2 million that will remain when the estate is probated. "If I get 25 cents, that's fine. If I get nothing, that's fine," says Ann Haley.
Julius Haley, Alex's brother, says he doubts that anyone will inherit money. "It will go to the lawyers."
Ann Haley no longer reads the legal documents that are mailed to her. "I have to put this behind me and go on with my life. You must know that what my father created nobody can ever buy. His children will come together to go forward and perpetuate what he began."
My Haley, too, feels she has to perpetuate what her husband began. That is why she is fighting the estate to recover three uncompleted works that she claims she is entitled to finish. There is not a single step in the struggle that is without pain.
It was hurtful to My when William, in claiming his father's body in Seattle, elected to list his mother, Nannie, as the "surviving spouse." She cannot help but wonder if the relationship with Alex's family would have been less strained had they all not been unwittingly forced into separate segments of Alex Haley's life. She remembers, for instance, that she learned about a Haley family reunion from an article in People magazine. When asked why she wasn't invited, she recalls Alex saying it was just something he was "roped into."
My's absence from the family reunion perplexes William. So does just about everything else about his father's relationship with My, whom his father never mentioned. "My literally was the invisible woman," says William.
She was invisible because she was not allowed to be visible, is how My sees things. Each time she'd ask to meet Alex's brothers and sister and children, he would act annoyed, she says.
At the time of Alex's death, My had yet to meet either brother Julius or sister Lois. She had met George only briefly. She had never met Ann. She had chatted with William only once or twice.
"Nan was the only wife I knew," says Julius. The fact that he never met My does not strike him as odd. His brother, after all, was a public figure with a hellish schedule. When Alex got together with George and Julius and their little sister, Lois, that was enough. They were just happy to have what little time they could with him. They loved their brother, says Julius.
Nor did Alex often talk of his siblings, or of My, to his best friend, John Rice Irwin. That struck Irwin as somewhat odd, "considering the fact that we spent ten years together, much of that time on trips."
"Virtually all of our conversations centered around his life as a contemporary kind of thing," says Irwin, who was constantly amused by the fact that when Alex "became disturbed by something, he simply jumped on an airplane."
My saw Alex's addictive flitting from worshipful audience to worshipful audience as a substitute for the love he felt he never got from his father. Instead of giving, and receiving, from his life's soul mates, Alex took his affection from crowds who demanded little in return except his charm and his time. Those who should have been closer were compartmentalized and kept at a distance. If he was not pressed, as in the case of Nannie, he did not act. When pressured by My, Alex did only enough to relieve the stress. In a remarkably careless fashion, he signed documents that openly conflicted with each other: the will, the property settlement, the prenuptial agreement.
Alex's inability to settle down and establish intimate relationships, the apparent coldness he displayed when he isolated the people in his life, foreshadowed the lack of emotion George exhibited in handling the literary legacy.
The way My saw it, her husband's public life was so demanding that she was just glad to receive his calls on the telephone several times a day.
"I adored him for his desire to want to enhance humanity with powerful words," she says. "I had great hero worship and honor for this man of powerful words. That kind of stuff is thick. You can't cut through that so easily. People can say, 'He's this and he's that,' 'He's treating you this way and that way,' but when you've got that other thing, it's hard to cut through."
The question lingers: Why would My Haley endure this relationship? One answer is that the pattern was familiar to her.
@body:Looking back on it, My Haley will reluctantly concede similarities between Alex Haley and her father, James Lewis. She recalls, for instance, that her father segmented his life, too, was incredibly charismatic, and was much older than his wife. And, like Alex, James Lewis could be verbally abusive.
James Lewis was known around town for his good looks. He was a "very light complexioned" black with what was called "good hair," which meant it was straight, says My, "like white people had."
James Lewis and his young wife, Lillian, a legal secretary, were what My calls "partyers." He was a club owner, some 28 years older than Lillian. They lived in South Charleston, West Virginia.
"He was a man of great mystery and respect uptown," says My of her father. "Uptown was where his family lived. They were the light, bourgeois blacks. My father was the one to work and put his brothers and sisters through college."
Her father kept My away from his family, much as Alex would with his own family years later. She suspects part of the reason was that My's skin was dark.
James Lewis eventually gave up the clubs, says My, because he felt "the life" would set a bad example for his children. His decision turned out to be a terrible mistake.
"He found out that for an uneducated, however handsome, black man, there were very few possibilities," she says. "He began to take jobs that were demeaning to him. He was a night watchman at the state capitol. He was a bellboy at a hotel where people slipped him 50 cents for carrying their bags. He didn't give language to it, but I could almost tell that something was dying inside of him."
With her father slipping in and out of her life and her mother busy working two jobs, My became devoted to her grandmother, Julia Dickerson.
"There are two people in the world I worshiped. One was Grandmother and the other was Alex Haley," she says.
Julia Dickerson did "day work" for white people. She became determined that her little, dark-skinned grandaughter would succeed just as much as any of the white children whose rooms she cleaned, whose clothes she ironed.
So Julia watched. When the white children worked with flash cards, she would insist that My's mother make flash cards for My.
And even though Julia Dickerson could barely read, she memorized books and held My on her lap, "reading," with the child's fingers pressed to the grandmother's voice box so that My could understand "the power of the word."
What My adored about her grandmother most was that she gave to her a sense that anything was possible--that she, My, was a special child who could do anything she set out to do.
When My was 8, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio. Her father became more abusive, and often let it be known that his children would never amount to anything, meaning that he would never amount to anything.
One night James Lewis went mad. He held his family hostage at knife point all night, until My's brother managed to sneak out to get the police.
It was not surprising that Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X had such a powerful effect on My when she was in high school. Like Malcolm, My suffered the loss of a parent who went mad--perhaps for no other reason than that racial pressures were too much to bear.
"One of the reasons for the popularity of The Autobiography is that so many of us had gone through these experiences one way or another that it touched a chord," says My.
Plus, Malcolm's story gave young black people the sense of possibility--if Malcolm could transform himself from a pimp and dope dealer to a prominent world figure, why couldn't they change their lives?
As My plodded through her doctoral courses in communication at Ohio State University, she got a job counseling black students. She was amazed to see that they, too, were inspired by the Alex Haley book. "This was the period when the [Lyndon] Johnson Great Society programs allowed the gateways to open up for students who otherwise might not have been admitted," she says.
"Some of the students couldn't read very well," she says. "Some could barely talk very well. But they cradled this book about Detroit Red, who became Minister Malcolm, because he was a model of possibility. With that model of Malcolm they graduated and made it through in such a way that I knew they had the mettle to go on and do other good things."
Before My got her Ph.D., she listened to a tape of Alex Haley talking about his unpublished book Roots. She could no longer hold herself back. Her destiny, she concluded, was to be with this great man who "could light a fire under you with his words."
She began writing letters to Haley, and sent him a rsum via a mutual friend. But she got no reply.
In the meantime, My earned her Ph.D. in communication from Ohio State University.
Julia Dickerson was so proud she packed cake and fried chicken and took the Greyhound to Columbus. On the night before My graduated, Julia shined and shined her granddaughter's shoes. And then, when she thought My was asleep, she sneaked into her bedroom and ran her hands up and down the graduation robe. Then she tiptoed over to her granddaughter's bed, touched her fingers to My's forehead and blessed her.
Dr. Myran Lewis was primed to be a gatekeeper of the African-American legacy. Her counselors at Ohio State University begged her to accept any one of a number of job offers from universities across the country either to set up or to work in Black Studies departments.
They were especially eager for her to take up a teaching assistantship offer at Harvard.
But she clung to the hope that Alex Haley would answer her letters.
The day she had to inform Harvard of her decision to work there, Alex Haley sent her a telegram inviting her to Jamaica. In no time, she was winging her way to Jamaica to meet the man she already adored.
@body:He met her at the airport in Montego Bay in November 1974.
She was 26. He was 52. They liked each other immediately.
"It was like we had known each other for years," she says of that first drive from Montego Bay to Negril, where Alex had rented a cottage facing a vast beach of white sand. She remembers walking into that house and knowing he needed her. The writing room was a mess. She could set up a work station, help him plan his days. Type his copy. Keep people away from him while he wrote. Arrange for his meals. "I did have skills that came intact to contribute to him. I had discipline, fire and enthusiasm. I had the worshipful sense that an apprentice has for the master, and that encourages the master to do more wonderful things. I had a joy of living.
"I don't know if I ever saw the man Alex in a true way for years. I had fallen in love with the calling. I had fallen in love with a dream: the Alex of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Alex of the Roots tape," she says. And of course, the fact that the two were in the tropics, looking out on a beautiful beach and orchid gardens, only made it all the more "glorious."
They had a lot in common. Both worshiped their grandmothers, both came from families that struggled to do better. Education was a recurrent theme in both families.
But unlike My, Alex had been married twice. After leaving Nannie, Alex married again, briefly.
He rarely talked about his ex-wives, except to say that Nannie was "sweet" and that his second wife, Julie, was "volcanic."
It didn't matter to My anyway. She knew in Jamaica that their relationship was the perfect one.
They worked together on Roots for 18 months. When they met, Alex had already done the research, and completed the chapters on Kunta Kinte's capture and journey. But the book was largely unwritten and 12 years overdue. Creditors were hounding him. Editors were hounding him. He had no money, and every once in a while he would sneak back to the United States to make money lecturing.
Then he would return with a few dollars, and they would work. They often discussed the story, talked about the characters. Then he would write a few pages, and edit them. She retyped. He edited again. She retyped. It would go on like that until he would say "Do it on the white this time," which meant the page was to be typed in final-draft form on white paper.
"I paced him so that when the time came for his nap, he had already surprised himself with successes," she says. "It was wonderful to go from success to success."
They dreamed of marrying, of modeling "excellence" for couples of all races. They set it as their goal to work together forever as they were doing in Jamaica. She would help him with his books and he would help her with hers.
But that closeness they found in Jamaica was not to happen again.
@body:When Dr. Myran Lewis moved to California with Alex Haley in 1976, she took with her two pairs of blue jeans, a box of books, a green dress, a red dress and a pair of maroon wedgies.
Her wardrobe was fine in Jamaica, it would certainly be adequate in Los Angeles. But as soon as Roots came out that fall, she knew there was very little about her that was adequate anymore.
Alex became an instant hero. There were lectures to give. Interviews with the press. And, feeling that he had to "give back" some of his good fortune, he graciously accepted each and every invitation to speak, granted each and every interview. He went out practically every night.
When My asked to go along, Alex would tell her he didn't want people to know about her. Or that she wasn't quite ready to be seen by the public. He didn't want her to embarrass him or their race, he said.
He hired a new secretary, his cousin's wife, whose name was Jenny. "She was an exquisite black woman with bangles and other jewelry. She was tall and statuesque. Suddenly I felt sort of like some of the women in Jamaica who were simply utilitarian. I felt squat, functional, definitely not fashionable. I remember feeling so self-conscious I went into the bathroom and cried.
"Alex came into the bathroom and said that our lives had changed, and he was going to need other people."
Then Alex started taking Jenny to the parties, saying it was better to be accompanied by a secretary who could help him take notes.
To this day, My rejects the notion that Alex and Jenny were having an affair.
But Jenny was glamorous and My wasn't. She remembers looking at Jenny one evening in a striking pantsuit with a V neck. Jenny wasn't wearing a bra. "What would Grandmother say?" My remembers thinking to herself.
She tried to hide her disappointment at being left behind. She was crushed not to have been included in the ceremony in which Alex received a Pulitzer Prize for Roots. But she refused to let herself feel anger. Instead, her colon would seize up and she would double over in pain. "I didn't want to make him feel badly; I wanted him to enjoy the success that had come so late in life," she says.
Secretly, she decided to become as lovely as Jenny. She worked out with Richard Simmons. She worked out with Jane Fonda. She began to e-nun-ci-ate every word just as Jenny did. Her family, especially her grandmother, began to worry. "Baby," she remembers her grandmother saying over the telephone one day, "don't talk like that."
One day she had her makeup and fingernails done, hoping Alex would approve. He didn't. "Alex was furious with me," she says. "What did I think I was doing? Was I turning into some Beverly Hills floozy? I was to get that stuff off my eyes. I was to get that stuff off my nails."
Incredibly, despite all the signs that their relationship was in trouble, the two decided to marry. It happened this way: She mentioned to Alex that his lawyer's wife was curious as to when they would marry.
Alex looked at her and blinked. "Let's do it now," he said.
So they married. Alex Haley was still her hero. One day, she figured, she would plumb that greatness again when things settled down. It would be like it had been in Jamaica.
Their 1977 wedding was not a gala event. Alex's family was not invited. Her family was not invited. Alex wanted to keep it secret.
Plus, Alex didn't much like My's mother, Lillian, and the feeling was mutual. Lillian had always adored My, had worked two and three jobs at a time to make sure she and her other two children would be educated. Tired as she often was, Lillian always made the kids feel they were special and privileged, despite their poverty, My says.
Lillian was unimpressed by Alex, unimpressed by his work. So was grandmother Julia Dickerson.
My remembers Alex telling her, during those early years in California, that it was a sign of weakness to call her mother and grandmother. He admonished her not to tell the family about their marriage, and for months she obeyed him.
They married at the home of Alex's lawyer, Lou Blau. They read a passage from The Prophet. They had cake and champagne. And then, at two o'clock they went back home. After consummating the marriage, Alex packed up some extra clothes for a studio apartment. He needed fresh clothes, he told her, because sometimes the schedule was so frantic he didn't have time to come home and change.
By three o'clock, he was gone. He didn't return for several days.
Things got worse. One day she walked into his office in their Los Angeles home. "Alex, why couldn't we have a life like we had in Jamaica?" she remembers asking. "What am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong? Help me understand."
"You know," she remembers him telling her "I have to remember this because if I ever have to write a scene in which a woman is very sad, it will be important to remember this."
That is all he said.
Just at the point that My was the most despondent, Alex Haley was twice sued for plagiarism over passages in Roots. Alex was shattered--what would become of his good name? But My was secretly happy to be able to help again. With her background in African-American history, she could do the necessary research to prove that her hero would never plagiarize.
"I was alive again," says My. "I was going dull, and I didn't even know it."
The first case, filed by Margaret Walker, alleged copyright infringement of her novel Jubilee. That case was thrown out of a federal court in 1978.
In the second lawsuit, Alex Haley was humiliated. He was forced to acknowledge publicly that certain passages from Harold Courlander's book, The African "found their way" into Roots. He was also forced to pay Courlander money. Alex could not blame My. She had not even helped him work on the passages in question, which were written by the time she came to Jamaica.
She recalls that he once said, "My image is important to me, and I can never get it back if I lose it. I don't want you to ever shame the Haley name."
His public image was tarnished by the Courlander suit, and it wounded him deeply. She remembers hoping that when he returned from New York, where the trial was, that she could help him recover.
But instead, when he returned, he put the entire contents of his closet into his car and told her he had to move out to "heal."
They would never live together again.
"I had a bucket of water thrown in my face," she says. But she still grasped at the promise of life as they had known it in Jamaica. To her he was still a hero.
To prepare for the day they would again work together in the writing, she says she researched, almost single-handedly, the entire book Queen, and much of Madame C.J. Walker.
And then she says she put together what she and Alex called the "Master Notebooks." Working under Alex's guidance about the boxes of research that she had amassed, she wrote up "story nuggets" on three-by-five cards. She put three cards on each notebook page. In essence she structured and outlined the books he would write.
But Alex still balked at the writing.
She tried other things. She fiddled with her own book on Della Reese, but Alex said it was terrible. She dabbled in screenwriting. She even started a health-food cookie company, which Alex poured thousands of dollars into before it failed.
He wanted her to move to Tennessee with him, but she refused. They nearly divorced and then, somehow, grew closer again. They would write together again, he promised her, just as they had in Jamaica. She began to sense that her hero could no longer write because he was afraid of writing. "I think toward the end we were really talking about a fearful man," she says. "And that was hard for me to deal with."
@body:As a matter of survival, My Haley developed an unconventional source of strength. She practiced Zen archery, a meditation with a bow and arrow. She remembers that two years ago, when she first shot an arrow, "the power across my chest was like nothing I had experienced before. It was fabulous. I thought, 'My God, was that inside me?'"
Alex was delighted with her new pursuit. He sent her an expensive bow. And he sent her a necklace designed like a bow and arrow.
It was to be his last gift.
On the day before he died, he called her from the airport in Los Angeles. He was on his way to his apartment in Seattle. He told her soon they would start working on Queen. They would not only work together, he said, they would write together.
The next day, he was dead.
"People say, 'How could you possibly stay with this person?'" she says. "But to me, in a way, when I connected with Alex part of it was realizing simply that we were supposed to be. Part of my specialness was to thelp this man who had such a wonderful calling to be able to bring understanding, to expand the imagination, to show that it was possible for different races of people to not just get along, but be along together.
"So those really hard times working with him didn't matter because I was fulfilling part of what I was supposed to be.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.