1 Rootsmania

Sunday, January 23, 1977

Neither man uttered a word. Inside his suite at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City, actor Warren Beatty looked over at his fifty-five-year-old friend, Alex Haley. The two-hour television premiere of Roots, adapted from Haley’s best-selling book, had just ended. The credits were rolling.

“Did you have any idea, any dream of all this?” Beatty asked.

“If I had, I’d have typed a whole lot faster,” the writer quipped in his deep baritone Southern drawl.

Beatty, who had met Haley a few years earlier through their film agent, remarked prophetically, “Your life will never be the same again. ”

The following evening at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, Haley was scheduled to deliver a talk on the same stage on which the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed. Before the doors opened, Haley stepped onto the stage to survey the three-thousand-seat auditorium. It wasn’t the first time he’d spoken at a venue of this size, but this one was certainly the most impressive. Though the audiences and venues changed, the topic never did.

Haley’s talk was always about his work-in-progress, a genealogical account spanning more than two centuries. The story began with Haley’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, a West African captured by slave traders. It followed Kunta Kinte’s life in bondage and the lives of his descendants. Based on stories Haley had first heard from his grandmother as a youngster on her front porch in Henning, Tennessee, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, would take twelve years, two editors, and a failed marriage to complete.

What inspired Haley to pen a book about his ancestry took hold during his early years as a freelance writer. In 1959, after serving two decades in the US Coast Guard—the latter half spent as the coast guard’s chief journalist—Haley had relocated to Greenwich Village, a popular destination at the time for struggling artists, musicians, and, of course, writers. Barely able to afford three meals a day, the five-foot-nine, pudgy thirty-eight-year-old at first struggled. No longer living on a military salary nor able to draw from his pension (his first wife, whom he was separated from, and their two children were living off of it), Haley had reached a low point. One evening, he took stock of his entire net worth, as he later put it, “two cans of sardines and eighteen cents.”

Ever the optimist, Haley was determined to make a name for himself. With the aid of an established writer (James Baldwin), a supportive editor (Reader’s Digest’s Fulton Oursler, Jr.), and a savvy literary agent (Paul R. Reynolds), the ex-coast guardsman honed his skills and eventually went from a second-rate journalist to one of the leading black writers for popular magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Playboy, Saturday Evening Post, and

Haley’s big break came when he coauthored the best-selling 1965 memoir, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Though Haley had little sympathy for Malcolm X’s radical ideas, the author recognized how these ideas were shaped by the tragic legacy of American slavery, a story yet to be told properly to the mainstream. What finally convinced Haley to take on the task came during an assignment for Playboy in London.

During the turbulent sixties, the men’s magazine hired Haley as a freelancer. His job was to interview celebrities for the popular “Interview” feature. Having already interviewed Malcolm X, Miles Davis, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his latest subject was British actress Julie Christie. Visiting Christie outside of London on the set of Darling, Haley had no luck luring the film star away. Instead, he passed the time at the renowned British Museum, where he encountered the two-thousand-year-old Rosetta Stone. Mesmerized, he discovered that the stone he was hovering over had “unlocked” the past to ancient Egypt. It was at that moment, Alex Haley recalled, the journey of discovering his roots began.

That evening at the Lincoln Center, Haley spoke for two hours. He never stopped to pause or take a sip from his water glass. Afterward, overwhelmed by fans, Haley did something that would become part of a ritual. He snuck out the back door. He was driven to two high-end parties sponsored by Doubleday, his publisher. It was a heady experience for a man who, some fifteen years before, was unemployed and living in a basement on the opposite end of town.

The next day, following a lunchtime lecture at the Dutch Treat Club (a men’s civic organization), Haley returned to his hotel room to find scores of books to be signed, not to mention four people waiting for him: a friend from the Carnegie Foundation, a photographer, a reporter, and a representative from Gambia (his protagonist’s native country).  Haley’s daily routine would not let up. Everywhere Haley went—New England, the Midwest, and the South—well-wishers greeted him. His cab driver from JFK Airport was “thrilled to be driving the newly famous writer.” Back in Manhattan, walking the beat, a black NYPD officer grabbed the author’s hand. “Hey, brother, that’s a magnificent piece of work. You’ve made us all proud.”

By the end of the eight-night, twelve-hour miniseries, which the New York Times proclaimed the “most significant civil rights event since the Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965,” the man behind Roots had become America’s newest folk hero.

For eight straight nights, the nation stopped what it was doing. Americans hadn’t just been watching TV; they’d been caught up in a broadcast phenomenon. Hospitals in New York City reported a “drastic drop” in the number of admissions while the series aired. The NYPD observed a mysterious, ghost-like feel to the city’s streets. Across the nation, the timing of even the most mundane activities was shaped by the television show. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for example, a Boy Scout meeting was rescheduled to accommodate Roots, while in Atlanta, a church shortened its choir practice for the same reason. At Cleveland State University, a professor offered a mid-week seminar to discussthe miniseries. Expecting a dozen students, he found two hundred waiting for him.

Although the blizzard of January 1977 (which covered two-thirds of the nation and was one of the worst since the US Weather Service began keeping records) may have increased viewer numbers, it certainly was not the sole reason for the series’ unprecedented audience size. Out west, where the temperature was more cooperative, viewership was equally as impressive. From coast to coast, restaurants, movie theaters, and nightclubs reported a sharp decline in customers. Even in Las Vegas, casinos were virtually empty and shows were rescheduled. By week’s end, seven of the eight episodes were included in the top ten spots for most-watched television programs ever. The final episode reached eighty million viewers, an all-time record. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural residents were all caught up in “Rootsmania.”

After only one week of celebrity, Haley already missed his quiet days as a private citizen. He was used to spending weeks or months holed up in a hotel room with just a typewriter. In his Manhattan hotel room, he was hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep before flying to Los Angeles, but he was soon interrupted by a knock on the door. The nightstand clock read 3:30 a.m. He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. The knocking continued. Reluctant to get out of bed but concerned there might be an emergency, Haley answered the door in his underwear. A white bellhop extended his hand. “Sir,” the young man said, “I want to thank you for what you’ve done for America.”

A few hours later, Haley was standing outside of a terminal at JFK Airport when a skycap did a double take. “Alex Haley,” the skycap yelled. Nearby passengers came over to see what the commotion was about. The crowd swelled in numbers, jostling for a glimpse, then began pushing and shoving, hoping to obtain autographs. Haley’s plane was due to leave and he had lost sight of his luggage.

“That’s him! That’s him!” The unruly crowd grabbed at his clothes and limbs. The women were worse than the men. Buttons began popping off his shirt. Rescue came in the form of a red-jacketed American Airlines employee who parted the swarming crowd and led the author with baggage in tow to a private airport entrance and to his plane. He suggested that Haley upgrade his seat to first class.

In Los Angeles, the writer’s first stop was the suburb of Culver City, where he was slated to sign books inside the recently completed Fox Hills Mall. At $12.50 per book (expensive for a hardcover in 1977), the mall’s bookstore was anticipating a lucrative afternoon. Haley had allocated two hours for the signing before leaving for his next engagement—an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Entering the employee entrance, he heard a noise above. A news helicopter was hovering. The bookstore manager informed the author that there were over three thousand people waiting, an unheard-of crowd for a book signing; the nation’s best-known writers were fortunate to attract a few hundred. The line began in the bookstore and stretched through the mall walkway, looped out through the shopping center’s exit doors and continued along the sidewalk. There were parents clutching their children’s hands, disheveled teenagers sitting on the concrete sidewalk, white people, black people—all waited for Haley. For the next two and a half hours, Haley signed books until his hand cramped. When it was announced that the author was leaving, a large black woman came forward. “He ain’t goin’ nowhere!” she shouted. Haley took one look at her and sat back down. He took her multiple copies of Roots, signed each one, and then fled.

Delighted to be on The Tonight Show, Haley had a surprise for the program’s host, Johnny Carson, whom he had interviewed a decade before for Playboy. Days earlier, Haley had contacted the Salt Lake City-based Institute of Family Research, one of the largest genealogical information centers in the country. He wanted to have Carson’s roots traced. It had to be done in absolute secrecy, and he needed it in five days. Ordinarily, a search of this type took two months. The institute agreed, but it would cost Haley $45,000. With over a dozen researchers working day and night, the institute managed to trace Carson’s lineage back to the sixteenth century. The research was catalogued in a four-hundred-page leather-bound tome that Haley handed Carson during the show. In a rare unscripted moment, Carson choked up.

Many viewers assumed that he had conducted the research himself. Haley made no mention of the institute.

About ninety-nine thousand copies of Roots sold the week after the miniseries aired on ABC. Doubleday switched to a high-speed press, doubling production. Every bookstore was out of stock. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and discount retailers, all of which mostly carried paperbacks, began distributing the best-seller in hardcover. Copies were for sale on street corners in various cities, even outside Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Four months after its debut, Roots had sold more than eight hundred thousand copies, unheard of for such a short period of time. Americans were obsessed and Haley did his best to oblige. From Dayton, Ohio, to Wichita, Kansas, and Phoenix, Arizona, to San Francisco, California, Haley crisscrossed the nation as if he were campaigning for the presidency.

Initially, Haley took his newfound celebrity status in stride. In Baltimore, a reporter observed that when Haley autographed his book, he could have easily signed only his name or maybe even just his initials and no one would have raised an eyebrow, given that nearly every book signing after the miniseries aired had resembled the Fox Hills turnout. Instead, “Mr. Haley, seated at a small table, asks for his or her name and he writes, carefully, ‘The Family of Kunta Kinte sends best wishes to (name of recipient) family. Sincerely, Alex Haley’. . . . The book has immense meaning for him; now he wants that copy to mean a lot to its owner-reader.”

By the end of the month, fans were becoming even more numerous and more zealous. In Philadelphia, a dozen guards were needed to protect the author. At a book signing in the nation’s capital prior to Haley’s arrival, those in attendance were jostling one another so much that the event was canceled. The organizer feared a riot could erupt.

When not autographing books, there were phone calls from heads of state, film producers, and fellow writers awaiting his attention. Roots had become a twenty-four hour, seven-day-a-week operation. Haley was never left alone. The demanding itinerary and intrusive media—not to mention concern for his personal safety—drove him to the brink of a physical and mental collapse. When he went for a check-up, his doctor was alarmed. He’d been averaging three hours of sleep a night. In February 1977, after five months on the road and a month after the series aired, Haley cancelled his next ten appearances, forfeiting an estimated $100,000 in earnings.

His absence from the spotlight didn’t hurt sales. By March, Roots had been number one on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for more than twenty weeks, with one million copies sold. The public discussion continued unabated. The Los Angeles Times received numerous letters in response to the Roots miniseries. The San Francisco Chronicle’s mailbag regarding Roots was “heavy, courteous and civilized.”

But not all the discourse was positive. A gentleman from Long Beach, California, felt that the movie would “inflame” race relations; a white housewife from Atlanta added that “blacks were just getting settled down, and this will make them angry again.” David Duke, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan concurred. The miniseries was inflammatory and could be used as an excuse to incite a riot. Nancy Reagan, wife of California Governor Ronald Reagan, expressed a similar view. Such negative opinions did little to stifle book sales or discourage the author, who was back on the road.

Besieged with awards and honors from small colleges, local historical societies, nationally recognized universities, and even the United States Senate, Haley found himself in a commanding position. This was reflected in his lecture fee. Whereas he was earning $3,000 per lecture before the movie aired and shortly thereafter, Haley was now receiving $4,500—nearly half the annual salary of the average American worker at the time. With an astonishing nine hundred lectures scheduled over the next two years, Haley was expected to earn over $4 million (equivalent to $14 million in 2013) in lecture fees alone. Forbes magazine estimated that if Roots was anything like The Godfather, another recent best-seller adapted into a movie, Haley was on track to amass more than $10 million (equal to $35 million in 2013). Given that potential earning power, “Haley is one author, who won’t end his day in a garret,” Forbes predicted. He clearly needed to upgrade his business operation.

For Haley, local mom-and-pop bookshop signings were becoming a thing of the past. Auditoriums and concert halls were his venue of choice. With the help of Ofield Dukes (a former Motown Records representative who headed a public-relations agency) to control both his itinerary and brand, Alex Haley established a media empire. He was no longer just an author, Dukes explained. The PR professional envisioned an enterprise comprised of publications (articles and books), lectures, and products (movies and spoken-word records). The author would no longer promote himself. This was now a full-fledged operation that required staff, offices, and investments. To get it off the ground, Dukes asked for $10,000. Haley consented.

Thousands of letters addressed to “Alex Haley, Roots, U.S.A.” arrived from all over the world. Canvas bags were piling up at Haley’s Los Angeles office. The author needed a team to sort through them all. Most spoke of personal experiences or asked about tracing family history. They came from children, parents, grandparents, people of color, whites, rich, poor, academics, doctors, teachers, and so on. Some wrote soliciting favors. A small-town reporter sent Haley one of his articles hoping it would be optioned for a movie. A third-grade teacher inquired about a job. Haley’s secretaries did their best to respond, sending out an average of five hundred pre-typed responses a week.

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Rootsmania Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.

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