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 sixties, was still a household name and remained one of 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?
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. The author consented, providing Romaine access to his papers and agreeing 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 for an answer.
Whether it was a best-selling 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 the craft, she would have avoided 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 raised questions about her late husband, questions which had little 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, an experienced interviewer, 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.
Not able to regain her composure, 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. 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.
As Romaine became seasoned as an interviewer, she continued to amass fascinating nuggets of information about her subjects.
In the end, however, Romaine never wrote the book. She died in 1995, three years after Haley.
But her efforts were not in vain. 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.