As two security guards rushed author Alex Haley out the back door of a Washington hotel this week, Lou Etta Watkins, 49, of Leesburg, Va., began to scream. "Please, Mr. Haley.Don't go. I've come all this way to get your autograph" shouted the black woman, almost in tears.
Haley took the woman's two copies of "Roots" and signed quickly: "To Lou with love, Alex Haley." Then the guards whisked him away.
"I just had to stop and sign for that lady," Haley said later. "I could see in her face that it meant a lot. Sometimes I tend to forget that people see me as some kind of symbol of triumph for black people."
In the three months since the first copies of "Roots" rolled off the press, creating for him unimagined professional and financial success, Alex Haley's personal life has been in constant disarray and his self-concept has become confused.
In a way that he cannot explain, Haley said he has emerged as a national folk hero and a powerful symbol of something he also cannot fully comprehend.
Wherever he appears, huge crowds gather. No matter how many times he tells it, people seem to be mesmerized by his eloquent speech about how Africans were enslaved and the injustices they encountered in America. Somelisteners are moved to tears. Others gasp out loud.
Following Haley's lectures, hundreds of people line up to have his signature emblazoned in their personal copy of "Roots". On several occasions, Haley said, masses of people have pushed and showed to get to him, stopping just short of riot. In Philadelphia Tuesday night, he said, a force of 12 security guards were required to restrain a crowd of 500 persons waiting anxiously in lie for his autograph.
In the midst of the swirl of good fortune that has made him a millionaire and, possibly, the most famous black man in America, Alex Haley, a mild-mannered and modest man is struggling to stay in touch with himself.
In an interview here yesterday, Haley talked about the pressures that have been placed on him as he attempts to satisfy dozens of requests for speaking engagements, seek out business ventures and attempt to lead a normal life at the same time.
"There's no way I can keep up the pace," Haley said. "Just this morning I turned down at least $100,000 worth of lectures that I physically just cannot do.
"People everywhere want me to come. But I'm beginning to think of my quality of life.That's more important than money," Haley said.
Haley is already expected to earn more than $5 million from his various "Roots" related ventures, including the book, the 12-hour television film, and a two-album record set to be released next month.
Two weeks ago, Haley's fast-paced schedule led to his complete physical exhaustion. He called off his lectures for 10 days to recuperate.
His current series of lectures began on Feb. 17 in San Francisco on Feb. 18 he spoke in Phoenix, Ariz., and on the 19th he returned to San Francisco.
This week's schedule had Haley speaking here Monday; in Philadelphia Tuesday; here again Wednesday; in Akron, Ohio, yesterday, and here for the third time today.
It took Haley several minutes to think back to the time when he last had what he would consider a "normal day." "I believe it was in January, 1975," he said. "I have a beautiful home in Jamaica . . . I was living there finishing 'Roots.'
"I came back to New York with the manuscript more or less finished and from that day to this I have not set foot in my lovely home," Haley said.
"On the same day I finished 'Roots' I flew that night to a speaking engagement at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.," Haley said. "I hadn't slept for three days. I remember I got on the plane and the next thing I remembered the stewardess said "Sir, we're here.' I wobbled through the speech then I got back on the plane and flew straight to California to work on the 'Roots' movie."
Haley said he was on location for the shooting for nearly all of the film. "There were only a few days when I left the set or the location to go and do something more urgent," he said.
"This whole fast pace of living has been steadily accelerating. I'm getting less and less sleep and I do most of my work on the plane when we're enroute from one city to the other," said Haley.
In recent weeks, Haley said he had attempted to slow the pace by opening his own office for the first time in Los Angeles. The office is run by a cousin, Jennie Haley, of Richmond, Calif.
Haley said he has also hired Arthur Sims, friend from childhood and a Secret Service agent for 37 years, to travel with him as an administrative assistant. Haley said his attorney, Louis Blau, has been put in charge of Alex Haley Productions, Inc., created to promote and market his literary work.
"One thing that has really come to bother me is that I suddenly find myself in a position where I can't walk the streets or be a private person anymore," Haley said.
"When I go to lectures a big factor now is the people calling and arranging security. I have to go with hefty guards and it really bothers me because I've always been able to mingle with the people," said Haley.
One irony in the excitement surrounding Haley is that, while "Roots" has been hailed as a work that will help to restore family unity among blacks, Haley's own family life was virtually destroyed during the years he was obsessed with his book research.
"I was married to what I was doing, really," Haley said. "That wasn't enough to keep my fmily together. There were two divorces and there are children. But in some funny way since all this has happened it has brought us closer together than we were before.
"Someone said, and I think it's well put, that wasn't it ironic that 'Roots' would be written by a gypsy. And it's true. I was always up and gone, back and yonder and so forth," added Haley, "Now my family understands what has happening to me."
Haley said he has two daughters, Cynthia, 13, who lives in Georgia, and Lydia, 31, who lives in New York, and a son, Wiliam Haley, 29, a staff sergeant in the Army.
Yesterday, before he left Washington for Akron, Haley busily answered phone calls coming in on two phones in his hotel suite. He received one call to lecture in London, another call was from Australia, a third was a request from the White House for his birth date and social security number.
Until three months ago, Haley had maintained his modest life style on advances from his publisher, the Doubleday Publishing Company, and the good will of his friends.
Today, Haley said he is certain he already has earned more than $1 million and expects to receive that amount many times over as "Roots" in its various forms is sold throughout the world. His book has already sold more than one million copies and is being translated into 18 languages.
By year's end, Haley said the television version of "Roots" will have been distributed around the world. Next month, a two-record album set will be released with Haley's vote telling how he went about the "Roots" research. Already in the works are numerous other spin-offs, including a major contract with a television network to work as a commentator, according to Haley.
"When somebody calls me a millionaire it still rings kind of strange in my ears," said Haley. "The point is I don't feel any different than I felt before, I'm really not interested in money, I think the biggest thing I've bought recently is six dress suits because I was getting kind of shabby.
"The thing that I'm really concerned about is when will I have the time to write again, I want to write another book called, '"Search,'" said Haley. "It will be the exciting tale of what the search for my roots was really like.
"I'm much more happy writing a book that I am counting money. I just love to do what I do," said Haley, who is 55, but looks 10 years younger. "I love to write, I'm in ecstasy when I'm writing really, really well. That's just my greatest joy. I don't need anybody's barbiturates or whatever.
"That's as high a I can be - when I'm writing," he said.