ALEXANDER PALMER HALEY was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, where his father, Simon Haley, was a graduate student at Cornell University and his mother, Bertha Palmer Haley, was planning to enter a musical conservatory. After Alex's birth, his parents took a hiatus from their studies and returned to Bertha's hometown of Henning, Tennessee, where they had two more sons. Young Alex was quite close to both his maternal grandparents, Will and Cynthia Palmer. He had a special fondness for his grandmother, who along with her sisters would entertain him by reciting their family's history back to the first family member to arrive in America from Africa.
Bertha Haley was never in good health and died when Alex was ten. Two years after her death, Haley's father married Zeona Hatcher, and the couple had a daughter. Although Haley did well in school, graduating from high school at age fifteen and then completing two years of college, his youth and his degenerating relationship with his father impelled him to drop college and join the Coast Guard. During his twenty years in the Coast Guard, Haley honed his writing skills, first as a ghostwriter of love letters for fellow shipmates and then as a public relations officer in New York and San Francisco. He began to sell stories (usually about the Coast Guard) to men's adventure magazines and in 1954 sold an article to Reader's Digest.
Haley took early retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959 and became a writer. Continuing his work for Reader's Digest, in 1960 Haley conducted the first of what would be many interviews with a controversial minister of the Nation of Islam named Malcolm X. His reputation as a journalist continued to grow as he conducted a widely read series of interviews with prominent black Americans for Playboy. In early 1963, Haley began to interview Malcolm X for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. Despite Malcolm X's initial distrust of his interviewer, respect and confidence eventually developed between the two men, and the book remains important both as a personal history of the militant preacher (assassi