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Roots of Alex Haley Fame Headed for Auction Block : Author: His estate, in need of cash, is selling prized possessions, including notes and original manuscripts.

September 27, 1992|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — 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Haley left behind assets worth millions of dollars, including at least nine homes and a number of unpublished works that continue the exploration of his family history begun in "Roots," his most beloved book and the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize.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.

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