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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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.

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Terry Greene