My dad, the greatest: Hana Ali recalls the crushing heartache that would haunt her father his whole life

Muhammad Ali’s daughter Hana was raised in a bubble of love, affection and megastars streaming through the front door. But, in an exclusive extract from her moving memoir, she recalls the crushing heartache that would haunt her father his whole life…

I was born in 1976, the elder of two daughters from my father’s third marriage, to Veronica Porche. Like any family we had our ups and downs, happy and unpleasant memories. The difference is we had to share our dad with the world.

Dad never had children with his first wife, he had four children with his second wife and two other children with women he was never married to. Although our stories differ, we share the fact that throughout our lives our father showered us with unconditional love and affection.

I grew up in a fairy tale, living in a four-storey mansion in Fremont, California, complete with a trellis and floral vine balcony. My father was the most famous man in the world and my mother one of the most beautiful. Celebrities visited often – Michael Jackson, John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Tom Jones, Cary Grant, Kris Kristofferson, Lionel Richie. There were pool parties and magic shows. Life was good and the feeling I remember most as a child was love.

Unlike most celebrities, who feel people are intruding on their lives, my father welcomed it. He regularly turned down security and interacted freely with the crowds. His love for people was extraordinary. I would get home from school to find homeless families sleeping in our guest room. He’d see them on the street, pile them into his Rolls-Royce and bring them home. He’d buy them clothes, take them to hotels and pay the bills for months in advance. He used to sit me on his lap, look into my eyes and say, ‘Hana, if you can stop one heart from breaking, you shall not live in vain.’

My sister Laila was always threatening to run away from home as she felt as though she was living in a glasshouse – a beautiful doll on display – with no escape. She felt more comfortable with our mother but I was a Daddy’s girl. He’d tell jokes, entertain, perform magic tricks or sit behind his grand desk talking on the telephone, enjoying being the centre of attention. I used to sit at his feet beaming up at him, soaking it all in.

My father travelled often, but most of my memories are of him at home. I remember playing on the floor when he was working at his desk. No matter what was going on, his door was always open. I remember him eating with us every night when he was home, telling me stories until I fell asleep and waking me up with kisses every morning. I remember him trying to braid my hair before school and walking me there with two uneven ponytails. I was proud of my crooked ponytails. Every morning after the nanny neatly combed my hair I snuck out to mess it up again, then ran down to my father’s office and asked him to braid it. He made me feel as though I was the most special little girl in the world.

Every summer, my father brought his children together at our house. He’d drive us around Los Angeles in the Rolls with the top down. He loved putting himself and his family on display. I waved to the crowds and smiled as they chanted my father’s name. He wanted people to be able to reach out and touch him. He would wave and smile and sign autographs at red lights.

One day in 1984, Laila and I arrived home and noticed a black Mercedes with tinted windows in front of the house. As we walked in through the door Laila ran off to find my mother but I had only one thing on my mind: my father. I ran upstairs to the guest bedroom where he took daytime naps. ‘Daddy…’ I stopped in my tracks. He was lying in bed under a sheet with one hand behind his head and sitting in a chair beside him was the unmistakable figure of Michael Jackson. Politicians and actors might have been unfamiliar to my young eyes, but the King of Pop was one of my favourites. Michael was lifting his black fedora hat, showing my father his bandages. He’d been injured filming a Pepsi commercial when pyrotechnics set his hair on fire. It was a massive news story.

I stepped out of the room and closed the door. ‘Michael Jackson!’ I screamed. Laila came running out of my mother’s room. My mother had already told her. She had changed into her pink dress with the white ruffles. I was still in my swimsuit and shorts.

‘Hana, do you know who this is?’ Dad asked as Laila and I walked back into the room. ‘This is the most famous singer in the world.’ I stood there for a second with my mouth open. As Michael sat smiling at me, with his hat in his hand, I couldn’t stop staring at the white
bandages wrapped around his head.

‘What happened to your head?’ I asked.

‘I had an accident.’

‘Does it hurt?’

‘Not any more,’ he smiled. I smiled back, then quickly shut the door and ran around the house screaming to anyone who would listen that Michael Jackson just smiled at me. Then I went back upstairs and jumped on my father’s bed. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but for the next hour or so, I lay next to Dad, staring at Michael Jackson, wondering what really happened between him and Billie Jean.

Then, when I was ten years old, my parents separated and the fairy tale ended. Mom had a lot to deal with in the years they were married. She was an 18-year-old medical student when she met my father, and was portrayed as the beautiful temptress who had seduced a legend and broken up his family. The press and Belinda [Boyd, his second wife] loyalists were relentless in their condemnation of my mother and she was regularly insulted and ridiculed by my father’s staff. Every day members of Daddy’s crew brought countless women before him hoping to lure him away from my mother.

Women were always chasing after him and some tried to claim their children were his. I know he was a lady’s man to the end – his eyes lit up whenever a pretty girl walked by – but I’ve never seen him look at anyone the way he looked at my mother.

Nearly three decades after their divorce his love letters to her were found in a storage room in Los Angeles. He had left them in an envelope on his office floor but my mother never received them. They had been thrown by someone into a random box and put into storage. As a child I never saw my mother weep at love stories or family photos like my father did, and I blamed her for their separation. But she wept in private. I heard her crying at night after the divorce and I was with her when she first discovered the letters during the summer of 2012. The letters and poems had titles such as ‘Let’s Try Again’, ‘Our Melody of Love’, ‘Veronica’. Her reaction was overwhelming. ‘I always thought he never fought for me,’ she said, her eyes damp.

We hugged, wiped each other’s tears. ‘Your father never told me about his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. I found out after the divorce. He was a decent, loving human being. His biggest fault was fooling around. I didn’t always know and they were mostly one-night stands. But there were too many broken promises. After being hurt so many times, my feelings gradually numbed over the years. I always cared about him, but I had to distance myself somehow.’

Trying to understand my parents’ love story has weighed heavily on my heart. Those last few days at Fremont, when my grandmother and aunts were helping my mother pack up the house, carefully storing away our belongings and my happiest memories. Downstairs my father stood alone in his empty office, with nothing tangible to express his love for my mother but an envelope of hopeful letters it seemed he never gave her.

Dad would visit us at our new house, a few blocks from Fremont Place, all the time, before
marrying Lonnie [his fourth wife, Yolanda Williams] and moving to Michigan. Mom would make him lunch and we’d spend the day together doing nothing special. Then, when it was time for him to leave, I would hug him with all my might and stand with my head pressed against the glass door, watching him with tears in my eyes as he slowly walked back to his car.

I worried he was lonely. I worried that he didn’t have food to eat. I worried that he might lose his keys and have to sleep outside (as had happened at Fremont). The pain was so overwhelming I’ve blocked much of that time from my memory. My world was a safe haven, centred on my parents – a bubble I never believed would pop; until it did and everything went blank.

I don’t remember begging my mother to give Dad another chance or promising to be a good girl. I can’t recall the last night I spent at Fremont or moving to our new house or saying goodbye to my father. My only memories from then on are of staring from the window of our new house, watching my father walk up the drive to visit us.

For years I wanted nothing more than to undo Dad’s mistakes and heal my parents’ wounds, especially my father’s because I believed he had suffered the most. Then, one afternoon in 2014 when I was visiting him, I looked at him sitting peacefully in his large leather chair, smiling at the image of his youthful self on television. ‘Wasn’t I something?’ he said as he watched himself telling reporters how he’d whopped George Foreman.

‘You still are, and you always will be,’ I replied. He smiled and kept watching with an expression of indescribable peace and satisfaction on his face – one that a 72-year-old man with Parkinson’s wasn’t supposed to have. I then realised it was my heart, not his, that was still fretful with unresolved sorrow about the past. In that moment I decided I would do as my father had done so many times before when faced with sorrow or loss, in or out of the ring. All I needed to do was let go and give it to God. My parents shared a great romance and Laila and I were born from that love. Sometimes there was pain in the 12 years they were together and my father would be the first to admit that he made mistakes. It still saddens me, though, to think they cost him the love of his life.

This is an edited extract from At Home with Muhammad Ali – a Memoir of Love, Loss and Forgiveness by Hana Ali to be published on Thursday by Bantam Press, price £20.