5 Dodged A Bullet

At the end of the summer, Haley returned to the United States for more book signings, interviews, and lectures. Work dominated his life. Family was a distant second. It was so distant that few knew Haley had ever been married, let alone was a father.

His first wife, Nan Branch, had married him against her father’s wishes when she was seventeen and Haley was twenty-one. They soon had two children, Lydia and William. Life together started off well, but due to their ages, lack of real-life experiences, Haley’s infidelities, and frequent departures at sea, their relationship quickly went awry. Haley’s various mistresses had the audacity, Branch recalled, to “come and ring the bell [at their apartment].” In 1959, when Haley was ready to retire from the coast guard, the couple divorced.

Four years later, while living in the Village, the up-and-coming writer met his second wife, Juliette Collins. They had a daughter, Cynthia, and relocated upstate where he was teaching at Hamilton College. When that relationship failed, he vowed not to remarry.

When Myran “My” Lewis entered Haley’s life, he was living in Jamaica working on the Roots manuscript. A recent PhD graduate, Lewis’ studies had focused on African American culture, including a MA thesis on Malcolm X. She begged Haley to include her in his decade-long project. Twenty-five years his junior, Lewis became more and more involved with Haley’s research, writing, and his life. She was initially introduced to friends (never family) as his “editorial assistant” even though they were in the midst of a passionate affair. But once Roots hit bookshelves, Lewis was relegated to the background, rarely accompanying him in public. Following his secret wedding to Lewis (Haley had only invited his attorney, Lou Blau, to the ceremony; his brothers weren’t even notified), Haley had excused himself and spent the latter part of his wedding night with another woman. Sleeping with multiple women, Haley told childhood friend Fred Montgomery, was something he “couldn’t control.” And no one was going to tell him what to do.

By late August 1977, Doubleday and Haley came to an undisclosed agreement. Whether it was Haley dropping the suit or Doubleday caving to their best-selling author’s demands is not known. One thing was certain. Haley’s relationship with his publisher had been irreversibly weakened.

By early fall, Walker’s trial was underway. Once again Haley’s questionable research methods were scrutinized. Haley’s chief researcher and childhood friend, George Sims, had no training and no college degree. Reading the transcript of Sims’ and Haley’s testimony, Walker concluded that neither man knew how to conduct professional, scholarly research.

Another of Haley’s longtime friends, C. Eric Lincoln, who held a PhD and was a well-regarded writer in the field of African American studies, concurred. Knowing Haley, Lincoln had an idea of what transpired. “George [Sims] went into the library and found the facts that Alex needed. . . . [and then] brought back a stack of data and put it in front of Alex and Alex used it, having no sense of the necessity of documentation.” To them, it was all fair game.

What mystified Walker was how Doubleday could have allowed a “nonfiction” book to be given a free pass without standard scrutiny or footnotes. Haley always stood by his “faction” definition—the book was both fact and fiction. But what particularly angered Walker was the discovery that Haley hadn’t written the book alone. When he began Roots, Haley assumed his editor at Playboy, Murray Fisher (who had helped edit free of charge The Autobiography of Malcolm X) would lend a helping hand, though this time for a considerable fee. But when it came to Roots, Fisher’s role was more a coauthor than editorial guide. The project consumed so much of his time that Fisher eventually left Playboy to concentrate on it, and he’d asked that his name be included on the cover page beneath Haley’s.

The more Walker heard about Fisher, who also happened to be white, the more disturbed she became. But Walker made a tactical error by not attending the daily proceedings (her husband was ill), thus making herself unavailable to testify.

The judge ruled that the similarities Walker contested were, at best, “subject to public domain, since it had to do with ‘historical or contemporary fact.”’ Walker’s attorney should have pushed for her to address the court, he added, and her legal counsel had “deviated more often than they should from fundamental rules of evidence and procedure,” resulting in “numerous” violations of the court. The case was over. Haley won.

Despite the fallout with Doubleday and the unflattering revelations disclosed during the Walker trial, Haley seemed untouchable. The sequel to Roots was underway; the story would begin in the post-Reconstruction era. Haley used a tape recorder to provide details about the latter half of his family history, beginning with his grandmother’s childhood. Those recordings were then given to one of the screenwriters from the original miniseries, Ernest Kinoy, to create a three hundred and fifty-page script for Roots: The Next Generation.

With two trials down and one to go, Haley must have felt confident about going up against Courlander. The trial would be held in November 1978. The $16 million Roots TV sequel was scheduled to air in three months’ time. If the trial dragged out or, worse, rendered a guilty verdict, it could impact everything from the sequel’s ratings and book sales to funding for Ethnic Studies departments, Gambia’s tourism industry, and anything else associated with Roots.


Alex Haley's Roots Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.