Alex Haley in Coast Guard uniform, 1949. Courtesy of the USCG Military.

USCG Journalist Alex Haley, 1949.  Photo courtesy of the USCG Military.

On August 11, Alex Haley would have turned 93 years-old. To commemorate his birthday, I wanted to share a story about how he got his start as a professional writer.

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Long after he became a best selling author, Alex Haley recalled a phone conversation he had in 1952. “I was standing up at the telephone. And when it hit me who [the caller] was, I just froze.” It was the editor of Coronet, a popular monthly magazine (owned by Esquire), who was looking for a writer. Then serving as the US Coast Guard’s Chief Journalist, the thirty-one-year-old Haley was desperately trying to break into the competitive magazine writing industry. His rejections slips piled high.

Hope was slipping away.

And then came the memorable phone call from the editor of a major New York City-based magazine. To have an article published in Coronet meant so much to the struggling writer that when he was told his byline would not be his own, Haley was not dissuaded. At the time, it was not unusual. Similar publications often hired unknown authors to serve as ghostwriters for celebrities, such as Frank Sinatra, Zza Zza Gabor, and Groucho Marx.

Under contact at $125 (or $100 if written under his own name) for each 600-word article, Haley went to work. Between 1952 and 1960, the neophyte writer penned more than twenty articles for Coronet, with only three attributed to himself. The others were written on behalf of singer Kate Smith and radio/television host Robert Q. Lewis.

Coronet, May 1953 issue.

Coronet, May 1953 issue.

Strangely, the Coronet editors did not think its readers would find it odd that Smith and Lewis, both of whom had no background in maritime or black history, wrote about sea rescues and African Americans—topics that reflected Haley’s expertise.

In “Always a Champion,” published in May 1953 with Lewis’ byline, for example, the story focused on a boxing match that took place on a coast guard cutter. Actually, Haley had written an identical piece in SeaFarer, a short-lived newsletter that he had created for his crewmates.

In “Whittler of Time,” published in June 1954 with Smith’s byline, this piece was about the 18th century African American inventor and scientist Benjamin Banneker. It was highly unusual for a popular magazine like Coronet (that was geared toward a white audience, as demonstrated by its advertisements) to feature an article about an African American figure, especially one who was neither an athlete nor entertainer.

Haley had to pay his dues–even if it meant writing under someone else’s name. In the long run, it paid off. Eventually, he published in Reader’s Digest, Playboy, Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan, with his name in the byline.

 

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