Longform

THE ANGUISH OF ALEX HALEY'S WIDOWWITH HER HUSBAND'S LITERARY LEGACY DISPERSED, SHE'S LOCKED IN A BITTER PROBATE BATTLE

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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.

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Terry Greene