MONROEVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - 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 trademark.
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 The cookbook was withdrawn.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 October 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 November 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 settlement.
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 further.
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 Internet.
That did it, he said. “She hated being commercialized.”
Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther