(Pierre Salinger interviewed Alex Haley in the 10 March 1975 issue of L’Express.)
Pierre Salinger, journalist, politician and businessman grew up during the 1930s in California. After service in the Navy during World War II, he became a journalist. After a few early successes in investigative journalism involving the California prison system, he was assigned to cover the corruption and possible mob involvement in the Teamsters’ Union during the 1950s. When Robert Kennedy led an investigation of the Teamsters’ Union, he approached Kennedy with an offer to compare notes and join forces. This began a lifelong relationship between Salinger and the Kennedy family. When John F. Kennedy decided to run for president, Salinger helped with his campaign and then he became his White House Press Secretary. Salinger was also involved in Robert Kennedy’s and George McGovern’s presidential campaigns. He spent five months in the Senate after he was appointed to fill the term of a friend who had died. When he lost his own bid for the Senate, he departed the U.S. for Europe, where he had a twenty year career as a journalist.
“A young black officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, was just getting started. For some months, he’d been sending me material ‘over the transom,’ which I’d put off reading. But one day, I got around to it, and to my surprise, I found it to be very good. I recommended him to Collier’s, and he got several assignments that made it into the magazine. After that, he began to pick up work with other places, as well. The young man, who would go on to considerable fame and fortune, was Alex Haley, and, among other things, he wrote the monumental book Roots.
“Years later, when Alex was the toast of the globe, I interviewed him for a French magazine. He said a number of wonderful things, including this fascinating tale of how he had become a writer.” ~ Pierre Salinger
Alex Haley Interviewed By Pierre Salinger
When I went into the Coast Guard, it was at a time that if you were Black and went into any of the naval services you automatically went into what was called the “steward’s department.” You waited on tables, made beds, shined shoes, the menial things. If you did them sufficiently well, you eventually would become a cook. I did become a cook on an ammunition ship on the Southwest Pacific. On that ship our biggest problem was boredom. I began to try to solve mine by, each evening after I had finished cooking, I would go down to the hole of the ship and just write letters to everybody I could think of. All my ex-schoolmates, friends, even teachers. Anybody. I would just write letters, and they would be taken ashore by other ships. Sometimes ships would come out to us and bring mail. Mail call was a very epochal event for us, and when I got things going well I would get maybe thirty, forty letters every mail call. I quickly got the image of being the ship’s most prolific correspondent. Concurrently, we would be at sea maybe two months at a time. When we would get ashore somewhere, maybe Australia, New Zealand, our topmost priority was to find anything that looked like a girl and run her to the ground. This was the whole crew. We would go back out to sea and there would be all these guys smitten with some girl whom they’d left ashore—and girls get all the more lithesome in your mind the longer you are at sea. Some of my friends who were awfully articulate on the ship were not that way on paper, and they began to come around to me in covert ways and suggest it might be nice if I would help them write a letter to a girl, since I wrote so many letters. I began to do this simply because they were my buddies and I wanted to try to be helpful.
They would, literally, in the evenings on ship, line up while I sat at a mess table with a stack of index cards. As they got to me—one by one—I would interview them about the girl: what she looked like, hair, eyes, mouth, nose, what not—Where did you go with her? What did you say? Anything special? And whatever they told me I reduced into notes on a card. Later, as I got the chance, I would take each of these cards which had his or her name on it for each case, and I would use the information he told me about that girl and try to tailor a kind of love letter, for him to write in his own handwriting.
If a guy told me, as many of my “clients” did, that a girl’s hair was blond—many of my clients were white—I would get a fit of creativity and write something like, Your hair is like the moonlight reflected on the rippling waves,” and then these letters would go out to the girls.
I will never forget one time we went to Brisbane, Australia, after about three months at sea. My clients came back the following morning almost as if a script had been written—each one of them, before an increasing large and awestruck audience, would describe, in the graphic way that only young sailors can, how when he met that girl in person behind those letters that I had written for him that he just met incredible results—practically on the spot, some of them swore! I became heroic that day on the ship.
I can tell you the truth, Pierre, that was literally how I stumbled into doing nothing but writing. From that day until the end of the war, at least until the end of my time at sea, I didn’t do anything on that ship but write love letters. My clients did my work for me. And I discovered I really liked doing nothing but writing. That was how I stumbled into trying to write stories for magazines.
I began writing women’s confession stories. They would always come back right away. I would make out I was a girl and this lout had done this, that, and the other thing to me, and I was trying to solve my problem. When I look back that was how I stumbled into trying to write for publication.
From there it went to the men’s adventure magazines, like the old Coronet. That’s where I began to sell and then ultimately I came out to San Francisco and that was the background against which, as you know, by then I was writing for some of the larger magazines. It was the way I kept writing [while I was still] in the service. I should say here that I had gone from a mess boy to become a cook, but once my stuff started selling in national magazines the Coast Guard changed my rating to the first “journalist” in the Coast Guard. Finally, I retired as Chief Journalist when I was 37 in San Francisco. I then went straight to New York and into full-time freelance writing. ~ Alex Haley.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was first published in the 10 March 1975 issue of L’Express. © 1975 L’Express. © 1995, 2001 Pierre Salinger and John Greenya. All Rights Reserved.)