Feb 19, 2016

Remembering The Search for Harper Lee.


Harper Lee, somehow convinced to pose for a photo.


     No disrespect intended, but I can't think about Harper Lee without thinking about Kathy Kemp.

     The former died today.

     The latter died on 11/9/2010, the 50th anniversary year of Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.
 
     Kathy was also a writer, of books about "outsider" art and columns for the Birmingham Post-Herald and later, The Birmingham News, about everything...including Harper Lee. 
     Here's the column she wrote about the time she was brave, or foolish enough to knock on Lee's door in Monroeville.
 

In search of Harper Lee

By KATHY KEMP

MONROEVILLE, Ala. -- She was not expecting company. Barefoot, white hair uncombed, the 71-year-old woman answered the doorbell wearing a long white pajama top and a scowl.
"What is it?" Harper Lee wanted to know.
Staring at her through the storm door were a reporter and a photographer from Birmingham. Lee has a famous dislike for reporters and photographers. We'd been warned, repeatedly, by folks all over town, "Don't even think of trying to do an interview."
Instead, we thrust forth a copy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and asked for her autograph.
"Good gosh," Lee exclaimed, a look of disgust on her face. "It's a little late for this sort of thing, isn't it?"
It wasn't yet 6 p.m. on a balmy Tuesday. Folks on her street in this small southeastern Alabama town were just coming home from work. Televisions blared through open windows. Schoolchildren played in front yards.
We apologized.
"Just a minute then," she snapped before disappearing into the house. Seconds later, she was back with her fine-point pen and an even more pointed lecture. "I hope you're more polite to other people," she said as she opened the book to the title page.
"Best wishes, Harper Lee," she wrote in a neat, modest script.
She handed back the volume. "Next time try to be more thoughtful."
"Thank you," we said, frankly terrified. And for the first time since opening the door, Lee smiled. In a voice full of warmth and good cheer, she replied, "You're quite welcome."
Some people, if they think of Harper Lee at all, assume she is dead, which isn't so much an insult as it is a natural response to 37 years of silence.
It has been that long since Lippencott published her novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird," the story of a 1930s small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
A year after it was published in 1960, "To Kill A Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two years later, during the worldwide Academy Awards telecast from Hollywood, the movie garnered Gregory Peck a best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the lawyer of Lee's story.
On stage to accept his award, Peck clutched a gift from Lee -- the pocket watch carried by her deceased father, Monroeville lawyer A.C. Lee, the model for one of literature's greatest heroes.
Even in those heady days of early celebrity, Lee never gave an in-depth interview. For the rare reporter able to get her to offer up anything more than a stony look, she revealed, essentially, three things: her fondness for golf, her admiration for her father ("He is one of the few men I've known who has genuine humility") and her plan to publish more and better novels.
That she never published another book, and declined to explain why, has helped establish Harper Lee as a near mythical literary figure, alongside the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of "Catcher in the Rye," and Thomas Pynchon, who is said to be so private that few people know even what he looks like.
The picture that gets painted of these shy writers is done without benefit of primary colors. Periodically, and especially since 1995, when HarperCollins published the 35th anniversary edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird," journalists travel to Harper Lee's hometown and leave with little solid information. Many resort to speculation.
While none of it engendered a response, Lee was sufficiently annoyed last September by a Paul Harvey radio broadcast to allow her sister, 86-year-old Alice Lee, a Monroeville lawyer, to grant a rare interview to The Monroeville Journal, the weekly newspaper that their father once published.
In his nationally aired program, "The Rest of the Story," Harvey -- quoting from Gerald Clarke's biography of Truman Capote, who as a boy had lived next door to the Lee family -- reported that Harper Lee's mother twice tried to drown the young Harper.
"I can't say that the story was a lie in enough ways to get the point across," Alice Lee told the newspaper, adding that she and her sister were "livid" at the Harvey report.
When we telephoned Alice Lee at her law office to ask if she would talk more about her life and that of her youngest sister, she was polite, but unapologetic.
"That's a no-no," the elder Lee sister said. "It has been a no-no in my family for 37 years."
The middle Lee sister, 81-year-old Louise Conner of Eufaula, isn't quite as accomplished at cutting short a reporter's phone call.
"My sister is so private," Conner said of the novelist. "I don't want to do anything to mar the love we have for each other."
Conner went on to explain that as a former journalist, who once wrote feature stories that occasionally appeared in the Birmingham newspapers, she understands the news media interest in Harper Lee.
"I wish she would talk," Mrs. Conner said. "I'm very proud of her. I'm proud of my other sister, too. In a way, Alice is more remarkable, because she's 86 years old and still a practicing attorney. I'd love to talk to you, but I know how my sister feels."
Nelle Harper Lee is not a recluse.
Elusive maybe, when it comes to fans and reporters, but among friends and family and hometown acquaintances, Nelle -- which is what they all call her -- is a familiar and jovial presence.
"With Nelle, there's a complete absence of pretentiousness," said her childhood friend and fellow writer Riley Kelly, 71. "Nelle loves green lima beans, I can tell you that. And she also has car sickness."
"I remember seeing her with Gregory Peck, walking around Monroeville in dungarees and tennis shoes. Girls didn't dress like that in those days. I think Alice keeps the books for her. Alice told me, 'Nell never knows how much money she has in the bank.' That sounds just like her."
Considering that "To Kill A Mockingbird" has sold about 15 million copies (it still averages several thousand sales a year) and has never been out of print, it's a safe assumption that Nelle Harper Lee has a healthy bank account.
She divides her time between a New York apartment and Monroeville, where she lives with "Miss Alice," as her sister is known, in a modest brick house near the junior high school. Afraid to fly, Lee travels by train to and from New York.
By all reports, she enjoys simple pleasures. She plays golf at the local course. She attends dinner parties at friends' houses but has been known to leave immediately if a stranger approaches her about her book.
At David's Catfish Cabin, where she's a regular with Miss Alice at noon on Saturdays, the world-famous writer always orders sweet tea and a child's plate of catfish filet, for which she pays $6.
"They're both a little hard of hearing, but nice," said waitress Janet Flowers. "Miss Alice's hearing aid is always turned wide open. You hear it go 'weeee,' and then Miss Nelle tells her to turn it down. They always fight over the ticket. Miss Nelle pays one week and Miss Alice the next."
Even when she's eating, people approach Harper Lee for autographs.
"That's why she started sitting in the back room," Flowers said. "I got her to sign my waitress pad. I've never seen her turn down anybody who asked for an autograph."
Lee's cousin, Richard Williams, 61, runs Williams Drugs in downtown Monroeville, across the street from the old county courthouse that served as a model for the one in the movie. Williams is used to strangers stopping by to inquire about the town and Harper Lee.
He's protective, but an enthusiastic public-relations man nevertheless.
"Nelle is a real individual-type person, real pleasant to talk to," Williams said. "I asked her one time why she never wrote another book. She told me, 'When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down.'"
For nearly a decade, according to Alexander City lawyer Tom Radney, Harper Lee has been working on another book. In the late '80s, she spent a year in Alex City, poring over court records for a true-life murder mystery she plans to call "The Reverend."
"I still talk to Nelle twice a year, and every time we talk, she says she's still working on it," said Radney, who has been assisting in her research.
In the late '60s, Radney successfully represented W.M. Maxwell, a voodoo-practicing black preacher who was believed to have conjured up, or otherwise been responsible for, the deaths of five family members.
Although acquitted of murder, in the late 1970s Maxwell was fatally shot by an angry relative of one of the murder victims, and Radney won that relative an acquittal as well. He also got to thinking about what a terrific book the whole saga would make and sent word to Lee through her niece, Molly Chapman, who lives in Alexander City.
"I found Nelle Lee to be warm, charming and extremely intelligent," Radney said. "She is not reclusive by any means. I think the reason she doesn't like publicity is, to her, that would be flaunting her success. And she's not that type."
If "The Reverend" is ever published, and Radney has his doubts, it will beg comparison to Truman Capote's acclaimed novelistic true-crime saga, "In Cold Blood," published in 1965 and dedicated to Harper Lee.
Capote took Lee with him to Kansas in the early '60s to help him research the book, which chronicles the shotgun murders in 1959 of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan.
It was Capote's down-to-earth companion in dungarees and tennis shoes who was able to break the ice with the reticent Kansans, who had never before met anyone like the theatrical, gossip-loving Capote.
One of the legends that has grown up around the two friends is that Capote, who had published fiction since his late teens, actually wrote "Mockingbird," using drafts provided by Lee.
"I think Harper Lee had more to do with 'In Cold Blood' than Truman had to do with 'To Kill A Mockingbird,'" scoffed Claudia Durst Johnson, a retired University of Alabama English professor and an expert on Lee's book.
"Their writing style is entirely different. He wrote about Monroeville but in a very different way. And from what is known about Truman, if he'd written 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' I'm sure he would have said so," Johnson said.
Capote himself, who died in the mid-1980s, denied any involvement in the writing of "Mockingbird." He did happily take credit for inspiring the character of Dill, the boy who lived next door to the Finch children, Jem and his tomboy sister Scout, through whose eyes Lee's story is told.
In the early '90s, while still on faculty at Alabama, Johnson persuaded Lee, through mutual friends, to sit down for a talk about her book and writing in general.
Johnson gathered that the novelist had abandoned the Maxwell murder book project and was working on her memoirs. Lee discussed her literary heroes -- Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eudora Welty. As for her own fame and fortune, Lee was not prepared.
"She was quite surprised, almost dumbfounded, at the response to the book," Johnson said. "She was quite happy about it, but not about the attention she got personally.
"She comes from a generation of writers who never appeared on 'Oprah,' people who were fairly private. And as we've made stars and personalities of our novelists, we can't understand why anybody would want to keep their private lives private. Everybody wants to be on TV."
According to Johnson, polls conducted by the Library of Congress continue to show that Americans consider "Mockingbird" just below the Bible in terms of books that have changed people's lives.
Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt said "Mockingbird" is required reading for schoolchildren in Australia, Ireland and most Scandinavian countries.
"It's the way high school students all over the world are taught about justice," he said. "These students buy Cliffs notes on Shakespeare. But they actually read 'To Kill A Mockingbird.'"
That Lee never published another book doesn't diminish her accomplishment, Johnson said.
"I was in a gathering of literary types, including one prolific contemporary writer who is very famous, and somebody picked up 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and tossed it aside and said, 'That's a one-book author.'
"And this famous guy turned and said, 'But what a book it is. I would exchange all my novels for one book like that.'"
Even today, you can walk the streets of Monroeville and find vestiges of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Like the book's fictional town of Maycomb, Monroeville remains a slow-moving place where folks, to borrow a line from the book, amble across the square, shuffle in and out of the stores around it, take their time about everything.
The original 1903 Monroe County Courthouse, with its noble clock tower, remains the centerpiece of Monroeville, even though the low-slung building next door has long replaced it as the site for courtroom dramas and other county business.
The childhood homes of both Harper Lee and Truman Capote were torn down decades ago, and in their place are a vacant lot and a drive-up ice cream joint called Mel's Dairy Dream. But somebody was wise enough to preserve the old courthouse, which is the first stop for tourists -- some 20,000 a year, in a town of 7,000 residents.
"Every lawyer here wants to try a case in that courtroom," said W. Robert McMillan, 38, who practices law in Monroeville. "I look at that courtroom and think of justice."
Walk into that old courtroom, and you'll start looking for Gregory Peck. The movie was filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, but the crew studied the courthouse and re-created it with exactness, down to the wooden floors, tall windows and polished, curved rail of the steep balcony.
Summer days, little Nelle Lee would sometimes sit in that balcony and watch her father conduct business down below. The trial in the novel "was a composite of all trials in the world, some in the South," Lee told a Life magazine reporter in 1961. "But the courthouse was this one."
The youngest of the four children born to A.C. and Frances Finch Lee, Nelle -- like Scout in "Mockingbird" -- grew up with an older brother, Ed, who is now deceased. As children, the two often played with young Capote, who spent summers next door with his aunts. Capote later immortalized the Lees' backyard tree house in his book "The Grass Harp."
After high school, Lee attended Huntington College in Montgomery before transferring to the University of Alabama in 1945. There, she studied law and edited the college humor magazine, the Rammer-Jammer, for which she wrote biting satire.
She left Alabama in 1950 just short of graduation and headed to New York to become a writer. Working days as an airlines reservations clerk, she wrote at night. With a financial gift from friends that she later paid back, Lee soon was able to devote herself to full-time writing.
According to Tom Radney, her lawyer friend in Alexander City, Harper Lee submitted for publication several novels before "Mockingbird" was accepted. Once Lippencott bought the book, it required years of rewriting and editing.
Just across the street from where the Lee sisters live, Sarah Dyess teaches eighth-grade English at the junior high school. Every spring since she joined the faculty in 1981, Dyess has assigned her students to read "To Kill A Mockingbird."
"When I started, no one in Monroeville was teaching it," she said. "It wasn't required. It's still not required, but it's recommended countywide. My kids get into it. They love it. If nothing else, they relate to the adventures the kids in the book get into. And some of my students tap into the deeper meanings."
Although it would be a short trip for Lee to visit the junior high school, Dyess knows better than to ask. "There's no point in it," she said.
Yet living close to the novelist does have its advantages. When Dyess' daughter marries soon, she plans to give each of her bridesmaids an autographed copy of "To Kill A Mockingbird." It's an open secret that Harper Lee will sign books purchased at local book and gift shops, provided the buyer leaves the book behind and allows the signature to be rendered, unwitnessed, at home or in a back storeroom.
Dyess sees the Lee sisters often at Monroeville's First Methodist Church. Alice Lee, she said, has been active locally and nationally in the Methodist hierarchy.
"They seem like just regular people," the teacher said.
After school, many Monroeville children walk to Mel's Dairy Dream, where Harper Lee's childhood home once stood. There is no monument to her. Few of the children had any idea, as they shuffled through the gravel parking lot toward the order window, that they were literally walking in a legend's footsteps.
But even those who haven't yet read the book seemed to know about "Mockingbird."
"I seen the movie," said Wes Nowling, who, at 14, sports a hint of a beard. "I know they had some kids in there doing something, and they were in a courtroom."
Less than a mile away, the author was at home, unaware, presumably, that yet another reporter was nosing around her town. Later, through her sister, she would turn down our request for an interview.
But we had to see that the legend called Harper Lee in fact exists, and so we made our way to her front door. We rang the bell, not expecting an answer.
When she opened the door, we were taken aback. The legend, in reality, was just a heavyset, sweet-faced woman, barefoot, perhaps napping, and justifiably annoyed. We learned nothing more about her than that she was growing old.
In 1995, when HarperCollins released the anniversary edition of "Mockingbird," the publisher asked the author to pen an introduction. Lee wrote what was more like an anti-introduction: "The only good thing about introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. "Mockingbird' stills says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble."
And so, it seems, has Nelle Harper Lee. In that same nonintroduction, she offered a tiny personal note, which is more eloquent than any sentence about her by another writer.
"I am still alive," she wrote, "although very quiet."


I don't know anything better written about Harper Lee or, perhaps, written by Kathy either.

RIP to you both. 


2 comments:

Jay Croft said...

A fascinating article. Thank you.

Tim Lennox said...

Yes, Kathy was a great writer, very down to earth. She is missed.