Haley, Alexander Murray Palmer ("Alex")
HALEY, Alexander Murray Palmer ("Alex")
(b. 11 August 1921 in Ithaca, New York; d. 10 February 1992 in Seattle, Washington), author who during the 1960s instituted the standard format for the Playboy magazine interview; his Playboy interview with the civil rights activist Malcolm X led to the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).
Haley was the oldest of three sons born to Simon Haley, a college professor, and Bertha (Palmer) Haley, a teacher. Six weeks after his birth his parents took him to Henning, Tennessee, to live with Bertha's parents, Will and Cynthia Palmer. Haley and his mother remained with the Palmers while Simon returned to Cornell University to complete his graduate studies in agriculture. Haley graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. He attended Elizabeth City Teachers College in North Carolina for two years (1937–1939). Instead of pursuing a career in education, however, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. Approximately thirteen years after entering the Coast Guard he became the chief journalist of the service, editing the official Coast Guard publication, The Outpost. Haley developed his writing skills by writing love letters on behalf of fellow servicemen and creating adventure stories.
In 1941 Haley married Nannie Branch, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1964. He married Juliette Collins later that year. They had one child and divorced in 1977. Haley married his third wife, Myra Lewis, in 1977. They were separated at the time of his death.
In 1959 Haley retired from the military after twenty years of service. He became a freelance writer for Reader's Digest, New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and Atlantic. At Playboy he created and inaugurated the critically acclaimed Playboy interview, interviewing such notables as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; Melvin Belli; Johnny Carson; Miles Davis; George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party; and a minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X. Haley's Miles Davis interview established the now-standard format used for Playboy interviews.
The Malcolm X interview was published in 1963 and was a success. The extensive notes gathered in preparation for the interview and Malcolm's desire to tell his own story proved the right ingredients for a full-length autobiography. While others had requested to write Malcolm's biography, he agreed to collaborate with Haley. But cooperation was not easily developed. Both men had to work at finding a level of trust and move past their skepticism of one another. Haley eventually gained Malcolm's confidence but not without stipulation. Malcolm told Haley, "I don't completely trust anyone.… You I trust about twenty-five per cent." Haley worked two years, in daily sessions, some-times in New York and, on numerous occasions, while accompanying Malcolm on trips.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) depicts the life of one of the most controversial leaders of the 1960s. At one point Malcolm spoke venomously about his hatred of white people, yet later, after his trip to Mecca, he was strong enough to reconsider his position when he met white people who treated him as an equal. Haley states that Malcolm summarized his pilgrimage to Mecca as "eye-opening" and "mind-changing." Malcolm found it necessary to toss aside much of the religious dogma he had been taught by the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
Haley's vibrant yet sensitive writing style made it possible for readers to recognize Malcolm as an astute and courageous leader. Haley successfully captured Malcolm's tone and the sharpness of his intellect and wit. He was able to illuminate the many facets of Malcolm's character and yet maintain the dignity of his story. He wrote in the epilogue how Malcolm insisted "that nothing could be in the book's manuscript that he did not say, and nothing could be left out that he wanted to have in it." Haley assures us that the story is Malcolm's very own. He respectfully asked Malcolm for permission to write his own comments at the end of the book, and his request was granted.
The autobiography candidly describes Malcolm's life experiences of growing up in racist small towns. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm saw his father killed by the Ku Klux Klan. The book also shares Malcolm's experiences as a criminal and discusses his life transformation when he joined the Nation of Islam in the 1950s.
During the writing of the autobiography Malcolm was disenchanted with Muhammad, his leader and father figure, who had silenced Malcolm. Living under the constant threat of death, Malcolm told Haley he felt he would not live to see the publication of his story. His premonition was all too well founded, for he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in 1965, but he had been able to read and approve the manuscript form. Haley describes the assassination of Malcolm, noting that the lives of both Malcolm and his father "were fundamentally shaped to their violent ends by the fact that they were born black in America and tried to combat the inferiority to which their color condemned them."
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was translated into eight languages and sold over six million copies. Its publication gave Haley international recognition and proved he was a writer with great potential and promise. As a result of its success, in the early 1970s Haley received honorary doctorates from Simpson College, Howard University, Williams College, and Capitol University. During the late 1990s a movie was produced based on the autobiography. The book has since experienced renewed popularity and is required reading in many schools. The work is invaluable due to the lack of primary literature collected and archived, even though Malcolm made hundreds of speeches.
In 1976 Haley received the National Book Award for Roots, the multigenerational saga of a black family whose forebear, Kunta Kinte, was brought to the United States as a slave. In 1977 he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Spin-garn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Roots was made into an enormously successful television miniseries. Haley was nominated to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1989 he became the first person to receive an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy, in addition to numerous other honorary degrees.
Haley died of a heart attack en route to a speaking engagement in Seattle on 10 February 1992. On 15 February, after funeral services in Memphis, Tennessee, Haley's body was conveyed to Henning and interred in the front yard of his boyhood home, which was purchased and restored by the state of Tennessee. In 1994 the Children's Defense Fund purchased the farm. It is now the home of the Lang-ston Hughes Library and serves as a conference and training center for people who work with children.
The impact of Haley's literary contributions has extended beyond the decade of the 1960s. His influence can be felt in the study of genealogy and family life, how television audiences view multicultural programming, and, more importantly, the depth of consciousness-raising and respect for African Americans and their contributions to the United States.
Biographies of Haley include David Shirley, Alex Haley (1994), and Sylvia Williams, Alex Haley (1996). Other biographical resources on Haley include Black Literature Criticism, vol. l (1992); Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 4 (1992); and Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 12 (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Feb. 1992).
Johnnieque B. (Johnnie) Love