2 Legal Tomfoolery

Roots’ success was a cultural (and financial) phenomenon. It was the first time that many white Americans had read a book from a black perspective. It reignited discussion and interest in the state of race relations; introduced black history to the classroom and, for that matter, the living room; established a new success formula for a television movie series; and demonstrated that blacks had the talent to serve as leading actors in serious dramas. Roots even affected the English language. Prior to the movie, the word “roots,” in reference to the past, was typically used by academics. Following the broadcast, the expression was immediately adopted by the masses, seamlessly integrated into the American lexicon.

Roots’ most poignant contribution may have been to the study of genealogy. Some contended that the renewed interest in the field was inspired first by the bicentennial celebration that occurred a year earlier, and second by President Jimmy Carter’s well-publicized interest in his own background. Genealogy was his hobby; Carter had traced back his family’s line nearly two centuries. Although each were a contributor, it was obvious that Rootsmania was the primary catalyst.

The nation’s most prominent research institution, the National Archives, where Haley’s search had begun a decade earlier, noted that before the broadcast, it received a little more than seven hundred inquiries per month. Now, it averaged 2,300 letters a week, with well over a hundred visitors arriving daily to conduct research on their heritage. In a poll taken two months following the miniseries, the New York Times reported a vast increase in interest of family origins among Americans. City, county, state, and university libraries reported an unprecedented surge in genealogical inquiries. The genealogical division of the Mormon Church in Utah, following the broadcast, was “flooded with appeals for help from ancestor-seekers of all backgrounds at the rate of one out-of-state telephone call a minute.” The private sector jumped on the Roots bandwagon as well. From Back-to-Africa tour groups and mail-order genealogy kits to how-to books and paid-to-hire firms to locate your family origins—even naming newborns after Kunta Kinte—the field of genealogy had been transformed.

Alex Haley had achieved fame and wealth. Hollywood celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and the nation’s most powerful leaders lined up to meet him. Whether it was hobnobbing with Queen Farah of Iran and President Carter at a White House luncheon, receiving a kiss on the cheek from actress Liz Taylor (in front of Secretary of the Navy John Warner, husband number six) at a fundraising event, or having Hollywood’s leading star Marlon Brando beg black comedian Dick Gregory for Alex Haley’s phone number, it would seem that Haley truly was the “most wanted man in the nation.”

When time allowed, Haley spared no expense to indulge himself. He purchased a shiny new Mercedes (with a customized license plate that said “Kinte”). Occasionally, he was overly generous; after coffee with a reporter at a diner, he left a fifty-dollar tip on a six-dollar bill.

Haley’s privacy, however, was a thing of the past. The author fell victim to his own hectic schedule. It got so bad that the middle-aged coast guard veteran was forced to create a “phony excuse just to go to the bathroom!” If Alex Haley thought this was the worst part of being a celebrity, he was mistaken. Unfortunately, Haley was his own worst enemy.

It was considered irrational, foolish, and nonsensical. Why would Alex Haley, who had earned more than $2.5 million in royalties and who was once so poor that he threatened to commit suicide in order to escape his creditors, sue his publisher, Doubleday, $5 million? It made no sense, especially to his longtime editor and friend, Lisa Drew.

Drew had been with Haley since Doubleday’s senior editor and elder statesmen, Ken McCormick, hired her as an assistant in the early 1960s, a time when women in the book industry had few options beyond the secretarial pool. Once it became clear to McCormick that Haley was going to take longer than expected to complete his Roots manuscript, he had passed Haley over to his ambitious and competent assistant, Drew. Although it was an up-and-down relationship—Drew cornering Haley on several occasions demanding copy while he did his best to avoid her, one time even skipping town—the two remained close. Haley wasn’t the first to sue his publisher, but he may have been the first author to file suit with a book on the best-seller list for over twenty weeks with no signs of waning.

Haley cited three major issues. First, that the publisher severely underestimated the potential sales of Roots. In Doubleday’s defense, there had been nothing like it before. The book was already a best seller before the movie aired. After the broadcast, Doubleday could not keep up with demand until it made the decision to switch to another printing press. The publisher had anticipated a big success, printing two hundred thousand copies prior to its release date, the largest first printing the press had ever done. But bookstores across the country had still managed to sell out. This was unprecedented and unpredictable the company argued.

Second, Haley contended that his contract was unfair. At the time he had signed it, he was deeply in debt and renegotiated the paperback rights. By signing a revised agreement, Haley received another advance from Doubleday, totaling approximately $100,000. But there was a trade off. He’d agreed to receive a lower royalty on the paperback edition.

Lastly, Haley believed Roots had not received sufficient publicity. Doubleday argued that it had been reluctant to invest in advertisement until the manuscript had been completed. But once it was on the way for a fall release, the company insisted that it had invested more money on marketing Roots than any of its other books.

From the publishing industry’s perspective, Haley’s case was more about renegotiating a past agreement than a contract violation. Literary agent John Hawkins, who would eventually represent Haley as a client, claimed that the author’s Hollywood-based film agent and attorney, Lou Blau, had encouraged the suit. To Blau, this was how you played the game—sue one day, settle the next (or in this case, renegotiate), and everything goes back to normal. Blau failed to realize, Hawkins explained, that Hollywood tactics did not always translate into other industries. The suit had left an indelible strain in the relationship between author and publisher.

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Legal Tomfoolery Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.

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