Alex Haley is dead at 70 his 'Roots' stirred blacks Quest for heritage brought acclaim

February 11, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Alex Haley, whose epochal pursuit of his roots brought the black experience into the hearts of hundreds of millions, died early yesterday in a Seattle hospital. He was 70.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's novel, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," produced a swelling of pride in blacks and a televised miniseries based on the book attracted millions of viewers.

A spokeswoman for Swedish Hospital said the onetime Coast Guard cook was admitted to the emergency room late Sunday night and died shortly after midnight. Mr. Haley died of cardiac arrest, said Jane Anne Wilder of the hospital staff. Mr. Haley had been in Washington to speak at a banquet today.

Mr. Haley's meticulously researched quest for his mother's forebears brought him the 1977 Pulitzer Prize and the gratitude of blacks around the world.

Mr. Haley's combination of fact and fiction that described his tribal origins in Gambia, West Africa, his ancestors' capture by slavers and their subsequent evolvement to a questionable freedom in the United States also sparked an unprecedented interest in genealogy.

Mr. Haley spent 12 years writing and researching "Roots," traveling a half-million miles, talking with a tribal griot in Gambia, and poring over papers in more than 50 libraries on three continents.

As part of his research, Mr. Haley booked passage on a freighter from West Africa to the United States, sleeping each night on a board in the hold. He said he wanted to imagine what it was like "to lie there in chains, in filth, hearing the cries of 139 other men screaming, babbling, praying and dying around you."

Alexander Palmer Murray Haley was born in Ithaca, N.Y., and grew up in the west Tennessee town of Henning. He said he was inspired to become a writer by the stories told by his older relatives.

His grandmother's and great-aunts' storytelling led Mr. Haley to trace his mother's side of the family back six generations.

As a speaker, he loved to tell audiences of those boyhood days when those "gray-haired grandmotherly ladies" in their front-porch rocking chairs would dip snuff and swap stories about Chicken George, a cockfighter; Kunta Kinte, Haley's great-great-great-great grandfather;Kinte's slavery mentor, Fiddler; or other colorful family members.

Mr. Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939.

"I specialized in leftovers," he would say of his Coast Guard cooking career. "I could make anything taste better the third day." He discovered a talent for writing about that time and would write love letters for the other sailors for 50 cents.

Mr. Haley served 20 years in the military before starting a magazine-writing career.

His first book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," sprang out of a series of Playboy interviews Mr. Haley conducted with the Black Muslim leader who was assassinated in 1965. That book sold more than 6 million copies in eight languages.

He also had a famous interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, then the leader of the American Nazis.

Mr. Haley said in a 1988 interview that he was able to become a writer because his father had by sweat and determination worked his way out of sharecropping for white farmers.

"I was a sailor, I was a cook and this and that, and it might be said I was bootstrapped up to being a writer, but the real bootstrapping was that which preceded me," he said.

Last month, Mr. Haley, who had been marrried three times, announced he was giving up life on his Tennessee farm to devote more time to writing.

Mr. Haley spent much of his later years at sea aboard old freighters. His "A Different Kind of Christmas," the tale of a slave's escape on the Underground Railroad that was published in 1988, was written on a freighter trip to Australia.

"At sea, I will work from 10 at night until daybreak," Mr. Haley told one interviewer. "Then comes that magic moment when you start to dream about what you are writing, and you know that you are really into it."

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