From the beginning, in the mid-1960s, Alex Haley was told his idea would never work. His agent insisted no publisher would print a book about a feared, even hated black leader. And the proposed subject of the book agreed.
Even when Haley won over his agent and found a publisher, events threatened to keep "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" from ever seeing print. When gunmen in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom ended the life of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965, publisher Nelson Doubleday announced that out of fear of harm to his staff and to his bookstore in New York, Doubleday would not publish the book -- even though it had been set in type, ready to be !! printed.
Such were the uncertain origins of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which, 27 years later, surely stands as one of the great success stories in American publishing history. Journalist I. F. Stone wrote prophetically that "this book will have a permanent place in the literature of the Afro-American struggle," and the sales figures alone indicate this: More than 3 million copies have been printed since it was first published in October 1965.
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X," a story of a one-time dope peddler and hustler who became a charismatic international figure, has moved readers of all races for two generations, including filmmaker Spike Lee, whose movie biography of Malcolm X is set for release Wednesday.
In his new book, "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of 'Malcolm X,' " Mr. Lee writes of the book's extraordinary impact when he read it as a junior high school student in Brooklyn in 1969-70: "I read it and thought, 'This is a great Black man, a strong Black man, a courageous Black man who did not back down from anybody, even toward his death. The Man. Malcolm."
The idea for the autobiography, Haley writes in his epilogue, came from an interview he did with Malcolm X for Playboy. It was a forthright, far-ranging interview, and Malcolm X, at the time still a leading figure in the Black Muslims, insisted the magazine would never publish it. Haley wrote:
". . . Malcolm repeatedly exclaimed, after particularly blistering anti-Christian or anti-white sentiments, 'You know that devil's not going to print that!' He was mightily taken aback when Playboy kept its word."
But when Haley then told his literary agent he wanted to help write Malcolm X's autobiography, he got a swift no. The idea was preposterous, said the agent, Paul Reynolds.
"Paul discouraged Alex mightily," said John Hawkins, who joined Reynolds' agency in 1966 and became Haley's agent in the mid-'70s. "But then Paul's daughter was home visiting from the University of Pennsylvania over the weekend. He told her about what he had said to Alex.
"She had heard Malcolm speak at Penn, and told her father, 'No, no, you are wrong. This guy speaks to younger people. He is something special.' And on Monday morning Reynolds called Alex back and told him they should do it."
He said Mr. Reynolds, whom he described as prim and proper, first had to get the approval of Malcolm X and Black Muslim
leader Elijah Muhammad. They met at a coffee house in Harlem, where "they talked about the book, quoted Shakespeare back to each other," Mr. Hawkins recalled. "And in the end they got the go-ahead from Muhammad."
The contract was secured with Doubleday, and Haley began his interview sessions with Malcolm X. As Haley describes in the book, "To use a word he liked, I think both of us were a little bit 'spooky.' Sitting right there and staring at me was the fiery Malcolm X who could be as acid toward Negroes who angered him as he was against whites in general."
It didn't look good at the beginning: "For perhaps a month I was afraid we weren't going to get any book." But he and Malcolm X began to get comfortable, and in time "shared a mutual camaraderie that, although it was never verbally expressed, was a warm one."
It was an unusual collaboration. Haley writes that at the outset, Malcolm X insisted on a written agreement: "Nothing can be in this book's manuscript that I didn't say, and nothing can be left out that I want in it." Haley, in turn, insisted he be allowed to write a chapter at the end that would not be subject to review by Malcolm X.
Gregory Reed, a Detroit attorney who recently bought the "Autobiography" manuscript, says Haley and Malcolm X kept a running commentary on nearly every page.
"The notations by Malcolm would be in red and the ones by Haley in green," said Mr. Reed, who bought the manuscript last month for $100,000 at a Haley estate sale and also paid $21,000 for three chapters that had been deleted from the book. "Malcolm's use of language was extremely impressive. He would correct Haley in different areas. Haley would use an expression such as 'stupid,' and Malcolm would say, 'no, no, use "ignorant" -- there is a difference.' "
Malcolm X knew well that his autobiography would be, at the least, controversial, and quite possibly dangerous, as he split publicly with the Black Muslims while he was working on the book. Haley, writing his first book, "knew it was an explosive book," Mr. Hawkins said. "And he made sure that he and Malcolm went over every single word of the manuscript."
But when Malcolm X was murdered, it seemed the book would die as well. Doubleday announced a few weeks after his death that it was giving up all rights to the book. Reynolds and Haley set about finding a new publisher.
"They got turned down by a long list of publishing houses -- about 12-13, I think," Mr. Hawkins said. "Finally, after about two months, Grove Press agreed to take it and paid $20,000 for the rights."
In retrospect, Grove Press was probably the most likely publisher to take such a sensitive book. It had published such noted black authors as LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) and Julius Lester, and was also the publisher of revolutionary Che Guevara.
"Three or four of us at Grove read it overnight and made an offer the next day," said Richard Seaver, then editor-in-chief at Grove and now president of Arcade Publishing. "We just thought it was a terrific piece of work."
Barney Rosset, then the publisher of Grove, said he "did have some [safety] concerns, but I didn't let it deter me. On the whole, I liked the whole feeling of the strong activist viewpoint of Malcolm. Religiously, he left me cold, but he had a strong attitude on behalf of black people -- his call to self-reliance and equality."
Mr. Seaver recalled that "there was further editing done with Alex Haley, but it was not substantial -- mostly some line editing and then the epilogue. Mostly, though, we were very sensitive about not making major changes because of the nature of the situation."
The book finally was published in October 1965 with a respectable first printing of 10,000. From the beginning, the critical reception was outstanding -- the New York Times, for instance, called it "a brilliant, painful, important book." And, Mr. Seaver says, fears about security proved groundless.
Mr. Rosset says the book sold well in hardcover "but never became a best seller. But when it went paperback in 1966, it was a consistent seller. We probably had a half-million in print by the ,, early 1970s."
The book's staying power continued when Ballantine got the paperback publishing rights in 1973. According to spokeswoman Beverly Robinson, more than 2.5 million copies of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" have been printed by Ballantine, including a remarkable 500,000 in its 33rd and most recent printing this month. Outside the United States, the book has been published in at least 15 languages, says Sharon Friedman, an associate in Mr. Hawkins' literary agency in New York.
Twenty-seven years after the book's publication, Barney Rosset says that, as the man who brought it into print, he's not surprised by its success.
"I think what remains relevant is not so much the message but the feelings -- this book understands the depths of the feelings of black people," he said. "I've had teachers tell me it is very useful in teaching black kids how to read. The book has a power that has gone beyond what is normal in a book. It is extraordinary."