The Battle Over The Mockingbird
By Caroline Overington
The Australian Women's Weekly, July 2015
For the best part of half a century, that was the answer that Harper Lee gave, when people asked her whether she wanted to talk about her novel.
Hell, no, she did not want to talk about To Kill A Mockingbird – not to you, not to me, not to Oprah, not to the President, not to anybody. No, she did not want to be interviewed about it, not to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication in 2010, not even when they gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As for the suggestion that Harper, now 89, might want to write a sequel, a prequel or any other kind of book, her answer was the same: no. Everything that Harper Lee wanted to say about human beings – their kindness and their capacity for cruelty – she had already said in Mockingbird. There would be no second book.
Harper’s approach to publicity was frustrating for journalists, who started calling her a recluse, but she wasn’t a recluse. She just hated the press. Harper Lee kept an apartment in New York City until the mid-2000s. She regularly attended all kinds of events, either in her honour or just for fun. She just never spoke publicly at any of them. After moving back to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 2007, Harper Lee became a regular at church, at the pokies beyond the county lines, at the Dollar General (she loves a bargain), at the local laundromat and at David’s Catfish House.
Time marches on, of course, and like everyone, Harper Lee has in recent years moved from being elderly to being frail. Her hearing went, as did most of her sight. She suffered a stroke and now uses a wheelchair to get around. Some years ago, a decision was taken that she should move into a nursing home called The Meadows of Monroeville on the outskirts of town. Her interests – including her financial interests – would be managed by her older sister, Alice, who became a lawyer in the 1940s and remained one until she turned 100.
Then, last November, Alice died. She was 103 and lo, what happened next?
Well, you wouldn’t believe it, but Harper Lee’s new lawyer, a woman called Tonja B. Carter, popped up to say, hey, look what I found – a new manuscript by Harper Lee written 50 years ago and never published.
Tonja took that manuscript to the US publishing house, HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and, in February – just four months after the death of the protective Alice – the company announced its intention to publish two million copies of the book, titled Go Set A Watchman.
So stunning was this news, it made the front page of The New York Times. There was a second novel by
Harper Lee? Really? Because that would, without question, be the biggest book of the year. Unfortunately for HarperCollins, the celebrations were short-lived, mainly because it quickly became apparent that nobody at the company had actually spoken to Harper Lee about this or any other book.
“That wasn’t necessary,” the Senior Vice President and Publisher, Jonathan Burnham told The New York Times. “We talked to her through her lawyer and friend Tonja Carter.” Harper’s editor Hugh Van Dusen, confirmed this, saying, “She’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja.”
This, then, became the story: publicity- shy Harper Lee – who has suffered a stroke, who is deaf, almost blind, who has never shown any interest in either money or publicity, and who is now 89 years old and lives in a nursing home – will publish a second book after all.
Yet is this really what she wants? Or is somebody taking advantage?
IT TAKES A very long time to get to Monroeville, not only from Australia, but from anywhere in the States. First, you must fly to Dallas and then to either Pensacola, Florida, or Montgomery, Alabama, and from there it is a two-hour drive, past the bridge at Selma, past at least a hundred Baptist churches, past the little town of Murder Creek, past armadillo road kill, past the Mockingbird Inn, past a diner called Butts ’N Stuff, and, finally, you are there.
The first thing you notice is the courthouse. It’s exactly the same as the one they used in the Mockingbird movie,
starring Gregory Peck, and why wouldn’t it be? Monroeville is where Harper Lee grew up and it provided the inspiration for her book.
As a girl, Harper (whose real name is Nelle, which is her grandmother Ellen’s name spelt backwards) would creep into this old courthouse to watch her father work. Amasa Lee – who is Atticus Finch in the book – rarely did criminal cases, but at one point, he was appointed to defend two black men, a father and son, who were accused of killing a white storekeeper. Both men were hanged.
Unusually for the times and more so for the South, Amasa Lee encouraged both his daughters to study law. Alice graduated and became an attorney. Harper gave it a go, but ultimately moved to New York City, hoping to become a writer (her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was already there). To make ends meet, she took a job at an
airline, but in 1956, some friends in Manhattan presented her with an envelope filled with enough money to enable her to write for a year.
It’s no secret that Harper Lee had a few goes at Mockingbird before getting it right. The novel was finally published in July 1960 and became an instant best-seller. The story, told through Scout’s eyes, is simple yet profound. It concerns an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, charged with the rape of a white woman. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, is determined to bring the matter to trial. Many of Atticus’ more famous lines have entered the lexicon: “Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway”, and “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”.
Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird in 1961. The film came out in 1962 and won three Academy Awards. To this day, people name their children – Atticus, Scout, Harper – in honour of Harper Lee.
Trouble is, Harper hated the attention. In her last substantive interview in 1964, she said she found the praise “frightening”. Pretty soon after that, she stopped talking about her book altogether. Residents of Monroeville, being polite Southerners, respected her wishes.
Robert Champion, 70, who was for 36 years a Monroeville police inspector, says that he saw Harper Lee regularly “and we talked, but never about the book. She wouldn’t have liked that”. Sam Therrell, 91, who owns a fried green tomato restaurant on Monroeville’s main street, says he never mentioned Mockingbird in Harper Lee’s company. “She had no interest in talking about it,” he says, “and if somebody brought it up, they knew straight away they had made a mistake.”
It perhaps goes without saying that many townsfolk were absolutely stunned to hear that Harper Lee had given permission for a 50-year-old manuscript to be published (as a novel, an e-book and as audio book to be read by a fellow Southerner, Reese Witherspoon.)
“I can’t say for certain what’s on her mind because I have not asked her,” Sam says, “but I have my doubts about
it. I feel that things are happening of which she would not approve.”
Given that Sam and Harper Lee – whom he calls Nelle – have been friends for more than two decades, why doesn’t he just not pop down to the nursing home and ask her what is going on?
“Well, I can’t, can I?” he said. “I’ve been told to stay away.”
This now is the sore point: Sam Therrell is but one of several friends who say they have been banned from visiting Harper Lee at the nursing home.
“I will tell you this,” he says. “Every Thursday for many years, I would take Miss Alice and Nelle a potato soup. Nelle liked hers fully dressed, with bacon bits and cheese. Then, a year back, I had some health problems – skin cancer – and I had to stop going. I recovered and I wrote a letter to Nelle, saying, ‘Come hell or high water, I will bring the soup to you this Thursday’.”
Two days later, Sam received a letter in reply, but it wasn’t from Harper Lee. It was from the new lawyer, Tonja Carter.
“I got my instructions,” he says, indignantly. “The note says, due to Miss Lee’s state of health, we – we, meaning
onja Carter – are restricting visitors to her close friends. Well, I never pretended to be Miss Lee’s close friend. I took her the soup because I loved her. Since then, I saw the security guard on the door. They are keeping people away.”
Harper Lee’s old preacher, the Reverend Dr Thomas Lane Butts, says he hasn’t seen his friend at the nursing home “for several years. The fact is, Nelle Harper is completely blind. She has to use a piece of glass this wide,” he says, hands as if holding a dinner plate. “She can’t hear. I am quite sure she has her wits about her, but people can’t find out for certain because nobody can get in to see her.”
Well, not nobody.
Tonja Carter gets in. As anyone in town will tell you, she is not from Monroeville, but moved to town when she married a second cousin of Truman Capote, named Patrick Carter. By most accounts, she started working as an assistant to Alice Lee, who encouraged her to study law.
In 2006, when Tonja graduated, her surname went on the shingle and, when Alice retired at age 100, Tonja took over many of her clients, including Harper Lee.
It escapes no one’s attention that Harper Lee has become both intensely litigious and rather more vocal on the subject of Mockingbird since Tonja took over her affairs. For example, Harper Lee had long shown absolute contempt for e-books. In a letter to Oprah in 2006 – during which she also declined the offer of an interview – she said, “Can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer?” Yet now, it seems, she’s all for it. In a statement released by her publisher last year, Harper Lee said she would release Mockingbird to Kindle after all, adding, “This is Mockingbird for a new generation.” (The decision leaves J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye as about the only book you can’t now get as an e-book. He never budged.)
Also, while it’s not entirely clear whether Harper Lee owns a computer – friends say she keeps a large magnifying glass by her bed at the nursing home so she can read books – she also decided, at the age of 88, to register the domain name, www.tokillamockingbird.com, which features all the different ways you can now buy her book.
It would be offensive to suggest that because Harper Lee is elderly she must have lost her faculties, but friends do wonder how much of this Harper Lee knows about. And those concerns aren’t without foundation because Harper Lee’s competency has been raised as an issue in at least two recent court cases.
The first case dates back to 2011, when Penguin Books announced that it had secured the rights to a biography of Harper Lee, written by a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Marja Mills. In a statement, Penguin said that Harper
Lee had co-operated with Marja, as had Alice, but two days after the deal was announced, Tonja Carter released a statement from Harper Lee, saying, “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written by Marja Mills”.
Marja was taken aback. Given that Harper Lee was by then living in the nursing home, she reached out to Alice, asking what on earth was going on. She got a note back, in which Alice said that Tonja Carter had typed out that statement “without my knowledge ... carried it to The Meadows and had Nelle Harper sign it [but] poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has had confidence.”
Marja proceeded with plans to publish her book, but then, the day before it hit the shelves, Harper Lee released another statement, again through Tonja Carter and, in light of current events, the wording is startling, “Rest assured, as long as I am alive, any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood”.
Fast forward to 2013 and Harper Lee is again in court, fighting for the right to regain the extremely valuable copyright over To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet how did she ever lose it? According to documents filed with the United States District Court in Manhattan, she gave it away in 2007 to a man called Samuel Pinkus.
Who is Samuel Pinkus? He is the son-in-law of Harper Lee’s old literary agent, who argued that the writer had signed over her copyright – worth millions – for no money and for no reason that anyone could ascertain. Court documents showed that Harper Lee agreed to meet Samuel Pinkus at a motel in Alabama in 2011, where he showed her a document which confirmed her willingness to give the copyright to him. Samuel asked Harper Lee whether she remembered signing it. She said she did and she signed it again, this time in the presence of a witness,
who notarised the agreement.
The witness at that meeting was Tonja Carter.
Financial documents related to the case make for remarkable reading. According to statements supplied by the publishers, in the six months to December 2009, Nelle Harper Lee earned $1.688 million royalties for Mockingbird and in the eight months to October 2010, she earned another $816,448. Given that Mockingbird still sells in the order of 800,000 copies a year – it’s on the syllabus in US schools and most Australian and British children read it, too – Harper Lee makes a similar amount annually.
The question for the court was a simple one: why would Harper Lee give the valuable copyright to her only novel away? Her lawyers argued that she had been duped. “Harper Lee had no idea she had assigned her copyright” to Mr Pinkus, they said.
It happened because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to see and read.”
The case was ultimately settled in Harper Lee’s favour and now that she had her copyright back it seems that Harper Lee is keen to make the most of it. Late last year, she – through her lawyer, Tonja Carter – lodged a claim to secure the trademark over the title of her book, so she could create “T-shirts, jackets and hats” with the words “To Kill A Mockingbird” on them.
To say that this action came as a surprise to the Monroe County Heritage Museum is to understate radically. The museum is based at the courthouse in Monroeville. Every year for a quarter of a century, it has staged the Mockingbird play. Local children take the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill. The museum also makes a modest living
from the sale of caps, T-shirts, cup holders and tea towels in the little gift shop.
“We had been selling the merchandise for years and Nelle Harper Lee had never complained,” says the museum’s Executive Director, Stephanie Rogers, who showed The Weekly a letter in which “Nelle” thanks the museum and describes staff as her friends. “I could hardly believe it when I was served with papers, saying she was going to sue. I had to wonder what was behind it.”
Lawyers for Harper Lee argued that the museum had for years been profiting from her intellectual property, making around US$28,000 (A$36,598) a year from the sale of Mockingbird souvenirs and if that didn’t stop, she would sue.
The museum decided to fight and The Weekly understands that its lawyers were just days away from deposing Harper Lee – a move that would have forced her onto the witness stand – when word came from Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris, who is like the town’s mayor, ordering them to settle.
“The word was, this is turning into a freak show,” says one source, who was close to negotiations, but could not comment publicly because the terms of the settlement are confidential. “We are not dragging Harper Lee into court.
It would tear the town apart.”
Settlement was reached, but there have been ramifications. In April, the museum lost the right to put on the Mockingbird play. Townsfolk were devastated. Play season is everyone’s favourite time of year. The regular performances bring tourists, who stay in local hotels and eat at local restaurants. Happily, all was not lost. Tonja Carter’s husband, Patrick Carter, has joined the museum’s board and, in the final week of April, word filtered out that Harper Lee has now also formed a new, non-profit company called the Mockingbird Company, to stage the play and presumably sell the souvenirs.
Judge Norris told The Weekly that he was “tickled” that a solution had been found.
“The details are still to be worked out,” he says, “but Miss Nelle Harper and Ms Tonja Carter, they need to be thanked. They hammered out the agreement to save the day.”
HOW EXACTLY DID Tonja Carter find the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman after all these years? It happened by accident. She had been going through some of Harper Lee’s old things, mainly to check on the state of an original copy of the Mockingbird manuscript, when she happened upon some unfamiliar pages.
Here was Scout, but not as a child. She was speaking as a grown woman. This wasn’t Mockingbird, but a whole new book. According to a statement released through the publishers, Tonja went to the nursing home to ask Harper Lee if the novel was complete and she said, “Complete? I guess so. It was the parent of Mockingbird”.
When did this happen? It’s impossible to know because it seems Ms Carter’s situation does not allow her to observe the most basic Southern courtesies. She does not answer the phone at her office. She does not return messages and won’t respond to emails. Friends say she has been stung by criticism. Few are willing to talk to reporters. The writer, Diane McWhorter, for example, politely declined an invitation to assist with this article, except to say that the narrative that casts “Tonja Carter as Lady Macbeth is all wrong”. The Weekly also tried knocking on Tonja’s door, but nobody was home. Some townsfolk say that Tonja has in fact left Monroeville, which may be right because property records show that she recently purchased a new oceanfront home on the white- sand beach at Gulf Shores, on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tonja’s daughter, Tawny Nicole Carter – who calls her mother “Mommykins” on Facebook – has also hit out at “unflattering and untrue” rumours about Tonja’s influence over Harper Lee. In one post, she described the gossip as “bias and jealousy”. In response to another post, a woman calling herself Teri Brooks Carter – which may in fact be Tonja B. Carter – wrote, “Anyone who knows your momma knows she wouldn’t take advantage of anyone, let alone someone she cares about.”
IT IS SUNDAY morning in Monroeville and the Reverend Francis Turner III of the First United Methodist Church is giving a sermon about the Doubting Thomas.
“Sometimes, like Thomas, we are asked to believe without being able to see for ourselves”, and no kidding, because that’s exactly what is being asked of many in the congregation in matters pertaining to Harper Lee’s new book. Nobody wants to believe that she’s been duped into releasing it.
HarperCollins has been at pains to assure readers that publication is what Harper Lee wants. Back when Watchman was first announced, the publisher released a written statement purportedly from Harper Lee herself which said, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set A Watchman ... I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it ... I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
This statement satisfied precisely nobody, mainly because those words apparently came to HarperCollins from Tonja, who says she visited Harper Lee in the nursing home, jotted them down and passed them on.
In the face of mounting disquiet, two of HarperCollins’ senior executives, including the President and Publisher Michael Morrison, in February did what they really should have done before they announced the book and hot-tailed from New York over to Monroeville to speak to Harper Lee themselves.
To their great relief, the meeting went well. “She was in great spirits and we talked about how much we love Go Set
A Watchman,” Michael said in a statement to The New York Times. “It was a great meeting and, as expected, she was humorous, intelligent and gracious.”
The team at Random House Australia, which will publish Watchman on the same day in July as HarperCollins publishes it in the US, has also gone to some lengths to reassure themselves that this is what Harper Lee wants. “We are absolutely sure she consents,” says Random House Australia spokeswoman Peri Wilson, noting that a Managing Director of the UK business, Susan Sandon, recently spent some time with Harper Lee at the nursing home “and she’s clearly delighted about the forthcoming publication.”
Happily for everyone, Susan snapped a photograph, which she shared with The Weekly, adding that the meeting, which coincided with Harper Lee’s 89th birthday celebrations, was an “absolutely amazing privilege. She is very excited about Go Set A Watchman and is delighted that her readers around the world are going to have the chance to encounter Scout once again, all grown up.”
By chance, The Weekly was also in Monroeville in the week of Harper Lee’s 89th birthday. Given how much she loathes the press, it obviously wouldn’t do to go knocking on her door at The Meadows trying to get an interview (“What reasonable recluse wants children peeping through the shutters,” said Atticus, “delivering greetings on the end of a fishing pole, wandering in his collards at night?”)
That said, surely it was okay to deliver a birthday card? There were plenty for sale at the new Walmart on the outskirts of town, but getting through the door at the nursing home proved easier said than done.
There was a black car, marked Security, parked right out front. There was no one sitting in it and all six porch rockers were likewise unoccupied. The front door, when pushed, simply opened. Armed with the birthday card in a lolly-pink envelope, I stepped inside.
There was no entry hall, just a small sitting area with some comfortable chairs and a bookshelf, upon which sat not
a single copy of Mockingbird. Two cleaning ladies were busy with dusters.
“Who you visitin’?” said one.
I explained the situation: I was visiting from Australia. I worked for a magazine. I had a birthday card for Harper Lee.
“You from the administrator?” the cleaner said.
“No, from Australia.”
“Australia? You know that Steve Irwin fellow? I seen him on the TV. You want to see Miss Lee? I don’t think so. Where’s that security guard at?”
A few minutes later, a guard weighing in at around 250 kilograms lumbered down the hall.
“You want what?” he asked.
To give this birthday card to Harper Lee. The guard titled his head for a moment, as if considering the request. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll take it back for you.” He reached out and took the card. I thanked him. Less than 60 seconds later, I was back out on the porch.
A few days later, a reporter from an Alabama newspaper, Connor Sheets, tried much the same trick. He approached the nursing home and upon being turned away, wrote a letter directly to Harper Lee, saying, “I wanted to visit, but a uniformed security guard ... told me no visitors are allowed to speak with you without the express consent of Tonja Carter,” the letter said. “Some folks worry that you are not mentally sound enough to make decisions about your career. Many worry that maybe you are being exploited. No one wants to believe these things ... We are all looking forward to reading the second Harper Lee novel, but only if you really want us to.”
Three days later, Connor Sheets was back in the office when he received an envelope at his desk. He opened it to find his letter to Harper Lee stuffed inside with four new words and one punctuation mark at the bottom:
“Go away! Harper Lee.”
OF ALL THE famous lines spoken by Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, perhaps the most famous is this: “Never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to. Do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, an answer that might wreck your case.”
To this day, barristers from Melbourne to Monroeville and back again will memorise those lines. Bear them in mind, as we finish this tale.
Two weeks after the deal to publish Harper Lee’s second book was announced, the State of Alabama received what it described as an “anonymous complaint” from a doctor who had not treated Harper Lee, but was concerned that she may be a victim of elder abuse.
In Alabama, elder abuse encompasses financial abuse. You can’t take advantage of the frail and elderly.
The state moved quickly, with two separate agencies – the Alabama Department of Human Resources and the Alabama Securities Commission – dispatching two officers to Monroeville to check on Harper Lee.
For townsfolk, it was like when the jury went out in Mockingbird. The whole place fell silent. A little over a week later, the Securities Commission Director, Joseph Borg, released a statement saying the investigation was complete and the file closed.
“Ms Lee, based on our interview with her, was aware that her book was going to be published,” Mr Borg said. “She wanted it published. She made it quite clear she did.”
Intriguing, no? It’s against the law for anyone to comment on what went on in Harper Lee’s room that day, but
it doesn’t take long in Monroeville to find out. The two investigators knocked on Miss Lee’s door and were granted entry. Their first, formal question was, “Do you know your name?”
Miss Lee replied, “Nelle Harper Lee.”
The second question was, “And did you write this book, Watchman?”
“Yes, I did,” Miss Lee replied. “Now get the hell out.”
And so, there you have it.
Does Harper Lee want this book published? Hell, yes. You can take that as read.