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.