*Sorry about the incorrect link earlier. There were some technical problems that have now been fixed – Adam
To his colleagues and friends, it was a bit of a shock—Alex Haley hired a white, southern folk singer to serve as his official biographer. It was the mid-1980s, less than a decade after publication of Roots. Haley, in his early 60s, was still a household name and remained one America’s most popular literary figures.
With access to the best-known writers, why would the Pulitzer Prize-winning author select a singer to pen his life story?
Those close to him were perplexed. Was Haley using Romaine to shake off other potential biographers, who would likely uncover the many skeletons in his closet? Did she have the skills to write such a book? Even if she did, would she even complete it?
Anne Romaine 1942-1995) was a Southern-born singer, a political activist, and a writer.
Although Romaine had been cast as a backwoods musician and political radical, she was not without credentials. Twenty-two years younger than her subject, Romaine earned her master’s from the University of Virginia and eventually worked as a curator at the Alex Haley Museum in the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, it was where the two met.
Romaine expressed an interest in writing Haley’s life story. He gave Romaine the green light and provided her access to his papers and a willingness to be interviewed. He notified family members, friends, and associates to make themselves available too.
The quirky yet relentless, often unprepared but passionate Anne Romaine spent the next decade ignoring criticism and did what any good biographer does—gather as much information about her subject’s life and never take no as an answer.
Whether it was a bestselling writer, an Oscar-winning actor, or a lowly, retired Coast Guardsman, Romaine was determined to speak to anyone who ever associated with Haley. She met, interviewed, and recorded (and, in many cases, transcribed) nearly a hundred interviews.
Unfortunately, Romaine should have consulted other biographers prior to starting the project. Having been versed in this craft, she would have averted unnecessary mistakes.
In 1989, for instance, Romaine interviewed Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz. During the course of the one-hour interview, Shabazz was clearly annoyed when Romaine badgered her about her late husband, which, in the context of the conversation, had no relevance to Haley.
In trying to characterize Haley’s and Malcolm X’s relationship (when they were at work on the Autobiography of Malcolm X) as “father and son,” it was Shabazz who pointed out to Romaine that Haley was only four years older than her husband, hardly enough of an age difference to justify that description.
On another occasion, in her interview with Haley’s former editor at Playboy, Murray Fisher, the would-be biographer began asking questions about his background. The interviewee was annoyed. Not one to mince words, Fisher, who had conducted several interviews himself throughout his lifetime, reminded Romaine that all of her questions (thus far) could easily have been answered by reading the resume that he had sent her in advance.
Murray Fisher, the tallest gentleman in the back row, is surrounded by his Playboy colleagues, (1970).
Not able to regain her confidence, Romaine stumbled over the remaining questions. In fact, oddly, it was Fisher who took over the interview and began asking Romaine what she found out about his old friend.
When Romaine interviewed Haley’s former staffers, she spent the majority of the session asking about their own lives and not much about their former employer. In one interview, for example, Romaine failed to take into consideration the impact of the location, which was a noisy diner. Since Romaine recorded all of her interviews with a handheld device, the outside clamor was easily picked up, making it difficult to understand what was being said.
And yet, despite her flaws, Romaine was quite effective.
Determined to fulfill the task at hand, she met with nearly everyone who had ever associated with the author–his brothers, half-sister, son, daughter, one of his ex-wives, his childhood friends, the editors of Roots, fellow writers, and those affiliated with the Roots movie, no one was off limits.
Tenacious as ever, she also unearthed secrets about her subject.
One of Romaine’s most interesting and insightful sessions was with Haley’s younger brother, former Kansas State Senator and Ambassador to the Gambia, George Haley.
Alex Haley’s younger brother, Ambassador George Haley.
Having already met on prior occasions, Romaine and George had cultivated a relatively warm relationship. The interview took place almost one year after Alex Haley had died. Speaking on the phone, the two spent a considerable time analyzing Alex’s faults as husband and father.
George revealed that Alex considered him, in view of his solid marriage and relationship with his children, to be the “fortunate” one of the family.
Aside from George, Romaine, on many other occasions, had extracted more from her interviewees than she could have ever anticipated.
In the end, however, Romaine never wrote the book. She died in 1995, three yeas after Haley.
Romaine’s legacy, though, is ever present.
All of the recorded interviews are stored away and available to the public in the Anne Romaine Papers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville library’s special collections division.
Romaine’s recordings and transcripts as well as the thousands of pages of documents she accumulated over the decade-long project remains to this day the most important assemblage of material about the author of Roots.