| MONROEVILLE, Ala.
MONROEVILLE, Ala. Nov 2 Harper Lee was once
universally revered by her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, but
a legal battle over the shrine it built to honor her literary
legacy is dividing the small southern city.
The 87-year-old author recently filed a lawsuit against the
local museum dedicated to her still-popular 1960 bestseller, "To
Kill a Mockingbird," in a dispute over a merchandising
Exhibits there celebrate Lee's achievements, as does an
annual play based on the book, while Lee leads a sheltered life
at an assisted living home on the edge of town. The townspeople
have shielded her from strangers since she moved back from New
York a few years ago.
"She just detested the attention of people who just wanted
to be friends because she wrote the book," said George Jones,
91, who went to school with Lee.
The legal dispute has formed a cloud over the woman known as
"Miss Nelle" after her given name. Lee isn't talking, but some
locals who once were fiercely protective of her are.
"A year ago, I would not have given you the time of day to
talk about Miss Nelle," said Sam Therrell, 79, a longtime board
member of the museum who knew Lee for many years. "Now, you can
ask me anything you want," said the owner of Radley's Fountain
Grille, named for the mysterious neighbor in the
Pulitzer-prize-winning book about the Jim Crow era of racial
discrimination in the American South.
"She always complained about the cottage industry that had
arisen around her work," but she never raised an issue with the
museum, he said, except on one occasion when a cookbook was
issued in 2001 using the name of Calpurnia, a key character in
the book. The cookbook was withdrawn.
Attorneys for Lee accuse the local museum of violating her
right to profit from her sole work, which they say has sold more
than 30 million copies and is still required reading for
two-thirds of American schools.
In 20 years, the museum, which operates several historic
sites in the area, has never paid a licensing fee to the author
for using the book title and a mockingbird image on merchandise.
The museum says that's because she never requested it.
Monroe County Heritage Museum Executive Director Stephanie
Rogers, who was served with the legal papers on Oct. 15, said
she was stunned. "The last time we heard from her was in 2010,
when her note called us friends."
In the giftshop, a "To Fill a Mockingbird" cookbook is
joined by similarly branded T-shirts, kitchen towels, soaps and
posters. Walls of the tiny upstairs display rooms are covered
with mementos of Lee and next-door-neighbor Truman Capote.
Photos, artifacts and hand-written notes tell of two
childhoods that produced writers who hit the literary scene in
the 1960s: Capote with "In Cold Blood," Lee with her dramatic
portrayal of racial injustice.
Lee's lawyers are seeking a trademark application for the
book, which the museum has challenged on the grounds of
long-time practice, although it says it is willing to give Lee a
share of the profits.
The U.S. Trademark office is expected to make a decision on
Nov. 7, 2014.
The dispute has turned some longtime fans of the book
against her. Jones, a museum volunteer, can recite the local
inspiration for every character in the book; the father of the
boy who was the source for Boo Radley allegedly chained him to
his bed as a teenager. Yet Jones describes Lee as "a grumpy old
woman who could do a lot more for this town."
Some fear the lawsuit could shut down the museum, which
relies on the gift shop to fund its educational programs for
schoolchildren, and potentially hurt local businesses that
depend on the steady trickle of tourists.
"Without tourism, I don't know what the town would do," said
Nathan Carter, a cousin of Capote and a former museum employee.
Monroeville, surrounded by cotton fields, is built around
the courthouse square, dominated by the museum. Next to it is a
theater stage with permanent sets, where the play is put on each
spring. The oval courthouse itself was replicated as a setting
for the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall.
Where the Lee and Capote houses once stood, a block off the
square, Mel's Dairy Dream now sells popsicles.
A historic marker and a mural of the novel's three principal
child characters - Scout, Jem and Dill - standing next to an old
tree is all that is left of the street that kindled the
imaginations of two writers.
For years, Nelle's sister, Alice Lee, represented her. "Miss
Alice" practiced law until age 100 in a room above a local bank.
Since Alice's retreat into a nursing home, Harper Lee has
battled a variety of legal issues, including the son-in-law of
her first agent who was accused of trying to trick her into
signing away her original copyright. They recently reached a
In Monroeville, the only active lawyer remaining in the
venerable law firm of Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter is Tonya
Carter. Old friends described getting notes from her saying they
could no longer visit Miss Nelle because of her infirmities. "It
hurt," said Therrell. "I took her and Miss Alice my potato soup
every Thursday for years."
Carter did not respond to requests seeking comment for this
article. An attorney for Lee in New York confirmed that the law
firm spoke frequently with her, but declined to discuss the case
A friend who still visits Lee defends Carter's move, saying
Lee is forced to live in a smaller world: she is nearly blind,
has suffered a stroke and "can't hear thunder."
Old memories of Lee are warm. As a kid, Lee protected Capote
from bullies, according to Jones. Other locals remember
anonymous gifts for people with injured children or fees for
camps for underprivileged children that were believed to have
come from Lee; her trademark filigreed stationary gave away her
identity, he said.
Miss Nelle would often visit Monroeville from New York to
see family and friends and spend hours signing the books of
townspeople, until someone sold an autographed book on the
That did it, he said. "She hated being commercialized."
(Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)