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Alex Murray Palmer Haley was born August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, and reared in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. He was the oldest of three sons born to Bertha George Palmer and Simon Alexander Haley. When he was born, both parents were in their first year of graduate school, Bertha at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and Simon at Cornell University. They took the young Alex to Henning, where he grew up under the influence of women who inspired his search for his past. He remembers listening for hours as his family reminisced about an African ancestor who refused to respond to the slave name "Toby." "They said anytime any of the other slaves called him that, he would strenuously rebuff them, declaring that his name was 'Kin-tay.'" These initial stories would serve as the basis from which the Roots saga grew.
Not a stellar student in high school, Haley graduated with a C average at the age of fifteen. He then entered Alcorn A & M College in Lorman, Mississippi. After a short period, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina, from which he withdrew at age seventeen.
His experiences after college contributed directly to his growth as a writer. In 1939 he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a mess boy. To alleviate the boredom he experienced while cruising in the southwestern Pacific aboard an ammunition ship, he began writing. His first venture included writing love letters for his shipmates. He expanded his range with articles that he submitted to several American magazines. A series of rejection slips followed before his first article was accepted for publication by This Week, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement.
When Haley retired from the coast guard at the age of thirty-seven, he had attained the position of the chief journalist. Although he had dutifully served twenty years in the coast guard, he was not permitted to collect his pension checks--those were given as child support to Nannie Branch, whom he had married in 1941. They had two children, William Alexander, and Lydia Ann. They were separated for several years before getting divorced in 1964, the year he married Juliette Collins, whom he subsequently divorced; they had one child, Cynthia Gertrude.
Determined to continue his avid interest in writing, Haley moved into a basement apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village where, as a freelance writer, he lived a penurious existence. He was in debt and saw no brightness in his immediate future: "I owed everyone. One day a friend called with a Civil Service job that paid $6000 per year. I turned it down. I wanted to make it writing. My friend banged the phone down. I owed him too. I took psychic inventory. I looked in the cupboard, and there were two cans of sardines, marked two for 21 cents. I had 18 cents in a sack and I said to myself that I'd keep them." As a reminder of what he had to endure to get to where he is today, Haley framed the coins and cans and displays them in his private library; he calls them a symbol of his "determination to be independent," and vows that they will always be on the wall.
Haley's life soon took a turn for the better. The day after taking inventory of his circumstances, Haley received a check for an article he had written. This small reward fell short of the recognition he desired, but it did presage the beginning of assignments from more and more magazines, one of which was Reader's Digest, where he later published the first excerpts from Roots.
From the Dictionary of Literary Biography-a Thompson/Gale Database