In his last years, Alex Haley, the celebrated author who made millions from his books and television miniseries, was beset by debt, surrounded by supplicants and "financially abused" by many of the people closest to him, say family members and friends.
Haley was not bankrupt when he died last Feb. 10 of a heart attack. But his lavish spending and boundless generosity created financial pressures that were compounded by his failure to complete the books he had started. Despite the continuing popularity of his two most successful works, "Roots" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," he subsisted in his latter years mostly on revenue generated by public appearances and speaking engagements.
Some of the people closest to him blame financial stress and the hectic schedule it engendered for his death at age 70 in Seattle.
Haley left behind assets worth millions of dollars, including at least nine homes and a number of unpublished works that continue the exploration of his family history begun in "Roots," his most beloved book and the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize.
But to pay off debts totaling nearly $1.5 million, many of Haley's most prized possessions will go on the auction block this Thursday, including his 1977 Pulitzer Prize, numerous letters and research notes, his original manuscript for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and the farm where he spent much of his time during the last years of his life and which he envisioned turning into an international think tank.
"It's sad," said Kimball M. Sterling, the auctioneer who is handling the sale.
Similarities between the scattering to the wind of Haley's literary legacy and the auctioning of his slave ancestors--about whom he wrote so movingly in "Roots"--are not lost on critics of the sale.
George Haley, Alex Haley's brother and executor of the estate, said that the auction was made necessary by the estate's immediate need for cash to settle claims against it.
Haley's longtime lawyer, Louis C. Blau of Beverly Hills, is spearheading an effort to keep the literary property intact.
Blau said he hopes to pool the resources of a number of Haley's friends and "institutions friendly to Alex Haley" to buy the material and donate it to an institution such as the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where scholars would have access to it. He acknowledged, though, that "I don't know to what extent the purchase of anything will come about."
Haley had donated material related to "Roots" to the university last year and had been discussing further donations with officials at the school at the time of his death.
Sterling said that a Tennessee physician also is attempting to pool the resources of other doctors in an effort to purchase the literary properties so that they might be kept intact for scholarship purposes.
In addition, he said, Playboy magazine plans to bid on material relating to Haley's lengthy interviews with such figures as Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and writer James Baldwin.
Haley inaugurated the Playboy interview feature three decades ago with a piece on Miles Davis and was an important contributor to the magazine in the 1960s.
The Malcolm X interview is expected to generate heated bidding, not only because of the black Muslim leader's recent ascendancy in African-American consciousness but because he signed nearly 100 pages of interview galleys after checking them for accuracy.
Haley was eulogized after his death as one of the most important American authors of this century. "Roots" was a publishing phenomenon, sparking widespread interest in genealogy and causing a surge in black pride in African heritage that still is seen today, for instance, in the movement for multiculturalism in education.
The television miniseries based on the book became the most-watched television program of all time. According to Doubleday Publishing Co., 5.5 million copies of the book are in print.
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Haley's first book, was published in 1965. More than 6 million copies have been sold worldwide, according to Beverly Robinson, assistant publicity director for Ballantine Books.
"In the last three to three-and-a-half years there has been something like a 300% increase in the sales of the book," she said. "It is just a classic and it goes on selling like crazy."
Proceeds from the books have not been enough to offset claims against the estate, however, said George Haley.
More than a half-million dollars in claims have been filed, not counting claims by researcher George Sims, who had worked for Haley since the 1960s, and Haley's widow, from whom he was estranged at the time of his death, that they are entitled to a percentage of the sales from all of Haley's works. Among the debtors is the undertaker who conducted the author's funeral.
In addition, a $975,000 mortgage is owed on Haley's 127-acre farm located 20 miles from Knoxville.
"The estate is not bankrupt by any means but it certainly has an immediate need for liquid assets," said George Haley, who is chairman of the U.S. Postal Rate Commission.
Paul Coleman, the estate's attorney, said the estate is selling Haley's papers rather than real estate because Tennessee law requires the selling of personal property before resorting to selling real property.
Furthermore, he said, George Haley could not donate the papers to an institution unless all the beneficiaries agree--and such an agreement appears highly unlikely.
An effort by Myran Haley, the author's third wife and widow, to halt the auction was defeated last week when a Knox County judge decided to take no action on her request. In addition, Nan Haley, the author's first wife, is claiming that she was still married to Haley at the time of his death because their Mexican divorce was not legal.
"Alex's life was complicated in many respects," said George Haley, "but he was a good man."
Some of the people closest to him fear that his goodness and his importance as an author will be overshadowed by the perception of him as a man who squandered his fortune and was taken advantage of by associates.
While George Haley said that his brother was "abused" financially by business associates and family members, he said that the author's loving spirit and non-confrontational manner led to these problems.
"Alex was overly generous, there's no doubt about that," he said. "He would permit people to take advantage of him. He was not a confrontational person."
Edye Ellis, a close friend and co-anchor of the Knoxville NBC affiliate, agreed. "Alex was a full participant in his life," she said, "and always at the ready to extend a helping hand."
Blau, Haley's lawyer since the mid-1970s, said that he advised his client "to a certain extent" on financial and business matters. "I was aware of what he was doing but he made his own decisions," he said.
"He put a lot of his money into his farm in Tennessee that he really was intending would be passed on as a location for seminars to have people from all over the world come there and gather for the benefit of civilization. He had a vision."
Haley hosted numerous parties at the farm at which celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Brooke Shields mingled with foreign ambassadors and local folk from the surrounding Appalachian countryside. To accommodate the gathering, he built five guest cabins, a conference center and an auditorium.
Blau said that he was aware "somewhat" of Haley's financial difficulties, which forced him late last year to put his beloved farm up for sale. But the attorney added: "Mr. Haley felt, and I feel, that the literary value of Mr. Haley's work that will be published in the future will more than pay off any obligations that he had and leave the estate in a good position."
Coleman, the estate attorney, agreed. "Henning," a book about the west Tennessee town where Haley grew up, is being reviewed by a publisher now, he said, adding that its sale alone would more than pay off the estate's debts. Unfortunately, the estate needs cash now.
Another book, "Queen," about Haley's grandmother, was incomplete at the time of Haley's death. It is being completed by another writer, David Stevens, who wrote the made-for-television movie based on the book.
Haley was a prolific writer who left behind numerous unfinished works, ranging from a book about the Civil War to a biography of comedienne Phyllis Diller; from a nonfiction exploration of the social and psychological effect different skin shades have on the lives of black people to a biographical work on Frank Wills, the obscure security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in and whose life Haley saw in almost biblical terms.
"Alex's interests were very broad," said Joe Rossen, the estate specialist in charge of organizing his papers for the three-day auction.
All of this material will be sold in the auction. Among the finds also are audio tapes of interviews Haley conducted with Baldwin and others, including one tape from the early 1960s in which Haley spoke at length--and pessimistically--into the tape recorder about American race relations.
Another surprising discovery was the way in which Malcolm X, in his editing of Haley's manuscript of the book about him, sought to tone down the bitterness of his words. This was done after the black leader had journeyed to Mecca and renounced some of his earlier anti-white pronouncements. In some cases, Rossen said, Haley later restored the original language to preserve the essence of Malcolm X's earlier beliefs.
Ill health, Haley's extroverted nature and constant demands on his time from friends and his public made writing difficult for him in later years. He abandoned many nearly completed television and book projects after conducting extensive research and investing many hours in writing them.
"It's difficult to write, meditate and think when you're a celebrity," said John Rice Irwin, a close friend. Compounding the problems caused by the constant flurry of invitations and requests and Haley's frenetic travel schedule were his natural tendencies. "He was a people person," Irwin said. "He was not the kind of person who ever enjoyed sitting by himself."
Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.