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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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.

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Terry Greene