Harper Lee, Gregarious for a Day
Of all the functions at the president’s
mansion of the University of Alabama here, none has acquired
the mystique surrounding a modest annual luncheon attended
by high school students from around the state.
They come with cameras dangling
on their wrists and dressed, respectfully, as if they were
about to issue an insurance policy or anchor the news. An
awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ the
occasion attracts no actor, politician or music figure. Instead,
it draws someone to whom Alabamians collectively attach far
more obsession: the author of the book itself, Harper Lee,
who lives in the small town of Monroeville, Ala., one of the
most reclusive writers in the history of American letters.
With more than 10,000,000 copies
sold since it first appeared in 1960, ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird’’ exists
as one of the best-selling novels of all time. For decades,
Ms. Lee has remained fiercely mindful of her privacy, politely
but resolutely refusing to talk to the press and making only
rare public appearances, in which she always declines to speak.
She has maintained her resolve despite renewed attention in
the wake of the film ‘‘Capote,’’ in
which Ms. Lee is portrayed as the moral conscience of her childhood
friend Truman Capote; the coming ‘‘Infamous,’’ another
Capote movie in which Sandra Bullock plays Ms. Lee; and a biography
of Ms. Lee scheduled for May.
But since the essay contest, sponsored
by the Honors College at the University of Alabama, got going
five years ago, Ms. Lee, who is 79, has attended the ceremony
faithfully, meeting with the 50 or so winners from most of
the state’s school
districts and graciously posing for pictures with the parents
and teachers who accompany them.
‘‘What these people have done for me is wonderful,’’ Ms.
Lee, who agreed to speak to a reporter about the event, said
during the luncheon on Friday. She was referring specifically
to the two people who had conceived the contest in her honor,
Thomas N. Carruthers, a prominent Birmingham lawyer, and Cathy
Randall, a former administrator at the university.
Ms. Lee said she was struck by the
perspective young people bring to the book. ‘‘They always see new things
in it,’’ she added. ‘‘And the way they
relate it to their lives now is really quite incredible.’’
The students write with longing
for the kind of unmanaged childhood experienced by Jem and
Scout Finch in the rural 1930’s
Alabama of Ms. Lee’s rendering. Some tell of the racial
tensions they witness in their school cafeterias, others of
the regional prejudices they experience at the hands of Northern
peers who assume anyone from Alabama must drive a pickup truck
or live in a mobile home. In an essay a few years ago one girl
likened the trial of the book’s Tom Robinson, a black
man unjustly accused of raping a white girl, to the 1999 murder
of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man living in Sylacauga, killed
because he was gay.
The recipient of the Pulitzer Prize
in 1961, ‘‘To
Kill a Mockingbird’’ remains the only book Ms.
Lee has written. It is difficult to overestimate the sustained
power of the novel or the reverence with which Ms. Lee is treated
here: it is not uncommon to find live staged versions of the
story, hear of someone who has devoted his life to playing
Atticus Finch in road shows, or meet children named Scout or
ones named after the author herself.
At a book signing after the ceremony
on Friday afternoon, a little girl in a velvet dress approached
Ms. Lee with a hardback copy of ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ announcing
that her name was Harper. ‘‘Well, that’s
my name, too,’’ Ms. Lee said. The girl’s
mother, LaDonnah Roberts, said she had decided to make her
daughter Ms. Lee’s namesake after her mother-in-law gave
her a copy of the book during her pregnancy. Another girl,
Catherine Briscoe, 15, one of the essay contest winners, had
read the novel six times. She trembled and held her hand to
her heart as she spoke of its author: ‘‘It was
breathtaking to meet the most important person in my life.’’
Sometimes Ms. Lee will encounter
someone who will claim to know exactly where Boo Radley lived. ‘‘I had a
girl come up to me here,’’ Ms. Lee recalled, referring
to an awards ceremony a few years ago, ‘‘and she
said, ‘Boo Radley lives across the street from my grandparents.’ ‘‘
‘‘Well, I didn’t know what to say to that,’’ she
Ms. Lee lives with her 94-year-old sister, Alice, a lawyer
who still practices, and keeps an apartment in New York. She
is not a judge in the essay contest, nor does she make any
formal statement at the ceremony. Her one stipulation for the
contest was that children who were home-schooled be eligible
The story of Ms. Lee’s involvement
with the contest begins five years ago with her induction
to the Alabama Academy of Honor, a society that pays homage
to influential people born or living in the state. In 2001,
as the academy was casting about to include more women, Mr.
Carruthers, chairman of the academy, called Ms. Randall to
see whom the group might have overlooked, he said. When Mr.
Carruthers went back to the committee and recommended that
they approach Ms. Lee, the other members decreed that he
could try but that surely, because of her outsized reputation
for shyness, she would have no part of such a group.
Mr. Carruthers was not deterred. ‘‘I had a vested
interest in this whole thing,’’ he joked, ‘‘because
I wanted to prove them all wrong.’’
He approached Ms. Lee about the
possibility of a nomination. ‘‘I
couldn’t promise that she would win,’’ he
said. To everyone’s surprise, Ms. Lee accepted the nomination.
She was elected to the academy in 2001, one year after Rosa
Parks and one year before Condoleezza Rice. Fearing that too
much pomp and fuss might scare her off, Mr. Carruthers asked
academy members not to bring fawning grandchildren to the induction
ceremony. Many brought them anyway, with books to sign, all
of which Ms. Lee cheerfully autographed. Mr. Carruthers and
Ms. Randall devised the essay contest to commemorate her entry
into the academy.
Ms. Lee is quick-witted and gregarious.
At the ceremony she greeted a server at the mansion whom
she remembered from luncheons past. ‘‘I went back to my friends and I told everyone
that I’d met you,’’ the young woman said. ‘‘Nobody
believed me. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I did, and she is the
nicest, sweetest lady.’’ Ms. Lee looked at her
with amused suspicion and started to laugh.
During lunch she reminisced about
her old friend Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay for
the acclaimed 1962 film of ‘‘To
Kill a Mockingbird,’’ starring Gregory Peck. Ms.
Lee spent three weeks on the set, she said, and took off when
she realized everything would be fine without her.
‘‘I think it is one of the best translations of
a book to film ever made,’’ she said. Ms. Lee attended
Peck’s memorial service in California three years ago.
About her friend Mr. Foote, who is 89, she said, ‘‘He’s
become quite amazing looking in old age, like God, but clean-shaven.’’
When Mr. Carruthers approached and
asked why he hadn’t
received a letter from her in so long—the two have become
good friends—she answered that she would get to him ‘‘once
I finish off all the letters I have to write.’’ Since
the release of ‘‘Capote,’’ much of
her time has been spent writing demurrals to reporters seeking
interviews about her life. Someone suggested she come up with
a form-letter response to such requests.
What it would say, she joked, ‘‘is hell, no.’’#
Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted