Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York in 1921. He grew up in the South, the son of Simon Alexander Haley, a teacher, and the former Bertha George Palmer, also a teacher. In 1939 Haley began a twenty year service with the coast guard. It was during his service that he began to write. After World War II, Haley was able to petition the Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had become a First Class Petty Officer in the rate of Journalist. He later advanced to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959.
After his retirement from the Coast Guard, Haley began his writing career and eventually became a senior editor for Reader's Digest. Haley conducted the first Playboy Interview for Playboy magazine. The interview, with jazz legend Miles Davis, appeared in the September 1962 issue. Throughout the 1960s, Haley was responsible for some of the magazine's most notable interviews, including an interview with American Nazi Party leader, George Lincoln Rockwell and an interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was the longest he ever granted to any publication. One of Haley's most famous interviews was a 1963 interview with Malcolm X for Playboy, which led to collaboration on the activist's autobiography. Haley later ghostwrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm's death. The book was published in 1965 and was a huge success, later named by Time magazine one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century. In 1976 Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based loosely on his family's history. Haley traced in it his ancestry back to Africa and covered seven American generations, starting from his ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Roots was eventually published in 37 languages, won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become a popular television miniseries in 1977, as well as causing a renewed interest in genealogy. In the late 1980s, Haley began working on a second historical novel based on another branch of his family. Haley died in Seattle, Washington of a heart attack before he could complete the story; at his request, it was finished by David Stevens and was published as Alex Haley's Queen. It was subsequently made into a movie in 1993.Haley was also posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal from the government of South Korea ten years after his death.