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Haley -- The Master Storyteller Whose `Roots' Ran Very Deep

By Jacqueline Trescott
The Washington Post

Washington

One morning last week Alex Haley stood at a government-issue lectern in an ordinary hearing room in downtown Washington and once again made you feel like you were right on the front porch in Henning, Tenn.

In a deep, velvety voice Haley told the story of Queen Haley, his paternal grandmother, and described her in such lush physical and emotional detail that, once again, a Haley became part of your family. It was your grandmother dipping snuff, swatting and spitting at the lightning bugs, rocking in the pine chair and talking about old times.

And, as Haley listed his various projects -- a miniseries on Queen, a series of interviews with black filmmakers, the long-awaited story of Henning -- once again you knew something of magnitude was brewing. "Queen was born near Florence, Alabama, on a plantation called the Forks of Cypress," he said. "Her father was the master and her mother a mulatto weaver. She was raised as the servant of her half-sisters. She was what they called `a child of the plantation.' " After the Civil War, Queen was freed and was chased into a forest. "There she joined three couples, and this was the first time she had ever confronted what being black was. I just can't wait to write that scene."

Haley, who died early Monday in Seattle, where he had been scheduled to speak, pulled us into the drawing rooms of living history and created characters that became part of the American lexicon.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965 gave us the words and lessons of a complex leader, and a new generation hungry for Malcolm material has made the book a bestseller again. Even further back Haley had let us sit by his side as he talked to Miles Davis in the first structured Playboy interview, and then to Martin L. King Jr., Melvin Belli and Malcolm X. In reading his astonishing conversation with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, you could feel the same chills down your spine that Haley felt and wasn't ashamed to reveal.

And then there was Roots. For 12 years Haley, stocky and freckled-bronze, traveled around to book club luncheons and church assemblies talking about his search for his ancestors. All of us who listened, and cared, could recite Haley's stories about earning his first money as a writer by composing love letters for his shipmates in the Coast Guard and the thrill he experienced as he churned the microfilm in the National Archives and saw his great-grandfather's name.

The folklore became fact. The story of his family won a Pulitzer Prize and became a phenomenal bestseller and a miniseries in 1977 with one of the largest television audiences ever. Alexander Palmer Haley now belonged to everyone.

The fame rested nicely on Haley. "I don't let it get to me. I stay within the bounds of where Sister Scrap Green in Henning used to keep people. Once when my father was pontificating about his fraternity key, Sister Scrap said, "Fine, `fessor Haley, but what do it open?' All this is nice. ... . But I have to keep thinking what do it open?" he said as we drove around Los Angeles in his brand-new Mercedes.

The post-Roots period was not the easiest time for Haley. Lawsuits followed his new money. He settled one plagiarism suit out of court and was philosophical about the experience. He didn't like controversy. Last year, when a verbal sparring match erupted between Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka over a Malcolm X film project, Haley said he had turned down a million-dollar deal to do another Malcolm book last spring because he just didn't want to get embroiled in everyone's interpretation of Malcolm's contribution.

The Haley family story continued with Roots: The Next Generation, another miniseries, broadcast in 1979. The two adaptations of Roots had provided a short-lived but enjoyable period of full employment for many black actors. It was this proper paternalism that he brought to his recent interviews, airing now on Black Entertainment Television, with the new generation of black filmmakers.

Haley has two brothers in Washington, George, a lawyer who is chairman of the U.S. Postal Rate Commission, and Julius, an architect. When Alex arrived at the Postal Rate Commission for coffee and a brief speech last Wednesday, he sat in the audience. Reminded that George expected him up front, he said "Oh, I do this because it just drives him crazy." It was the last time his brothers saw him.

He looked rested, the kind of penetrating glow that comes from being at sea, which is where Haley retreated to finish many writing projects -- the kind of rest you don't expect from someone who keeps a grueling schedule. He didn't look 70.

He stood at the side of the podium, going far beyond his announced time, talking about the ironies of his family's life. A passenger on the train where Haley's father was working as a porter during the summers was so impressed by the father that he sent his tuition of $480.20 to a North Carolina agricultural college. Once he didn't have to work, Haley's father's grades improved, and he won a scholarship from Cornell University. The man who had helped his father turned out to be an executive of Curtis publishing. "So when I had my first story published by the Saturday Evening Post, I went to New York for coffee with the editor., and I just started crying, put my hands up to my face because I realized if the man hadn't helped Dad I wouldn't have been there," said Haley last week.

It was a morning where he shared his gifts once again. He connected with people, displaying wit, and charm, giving all of us a family anecdote that could become our own.