Saturday, August 26, 2006

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28 1926 in Monroeville Alabama, a city of about 7,000 people in Monroe County, which has about 24,000 people. Monroeville is in southwest Alabama, about halfway between Montgomery and Mobile.

She is the youngest of four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee. Harper Lee attended Huntingdon College 1944-45, studied law at University of Alabama 1945-49, and studied one year at Oxford University. In the 1950s she worked as a reservation clerk with Eastern Air Lines and BOAC in New York City.

In order to concentrate on writing Harper Lee gave up her position with the airline and moved into a cold-water apartment with makeshift furniture. Her father's sudden illness forced her to divide her time between New York and Monroeville, a practice she has continued.

In 1957 Miss Lee submitted the manuscript of her novel to the J. B. Lippincott Company. She was told that her novel consisted of a series of short stories strung together, and she was urged to re-write it. For the next two and a half years she re-worked the manuscript with the help of her editor, Tay Hohoff, and in 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was published, her only published book. On May 29 1961 the Alabama Legislature passed a resolution to congratulate Miss Lee on her success. That year she had two articles published: Love--In Other Words in Vogue, and Christmas To Me in McCalls. "Christmas To Me" is the story of Harper Lee receiving the gift of a year's time for writing from friends. When Children Discover America was published in 1965.

In June of 1966, Harper Lee was one of two persons named by President Johnson to the National Council of Arts. Also named to the 26 member council was artist Richard Diebenkorn Jr.

In the same year, on November 28th, Truman Capote held his fabulous and flawless Black and White Dance in honour of Katherine Graham. In Cold Blood had been published in January, with its dedication to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee. The 480 invitations included one to her.

Miss Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama. She presented the essay Romance and High Adventure. Most of what has been published on the doings of Miss Lee in the last many years is speculation. Apparently she still plays golf, and there are various stories of her writing her memoirs. An article in the Standard Times reported that Miss Lee was working on a book about the Reverend Maxwell of Alexander City, Alabama. He was a local black preacher who murdered several family members in order to collect their life insurance, and who was murdered at the funeral of his last victim.

In his book Lost Friendships Donald Windham reported that in 1984 Miss Lee attended a dinner at his place after the memorial for Truman Capote. She came with Alvin and Marie Dewey, who she had met when in Kansas with Capote to do research for In Cold Blood.

Windham cooked chicken breasts in butter. He reported that Miss said that it had been fifteen years since she and Capote had been in touch.

Miss Lee has received a number of honorary doctorates, perhaps four. In 1990 she was one of five recipients at the University of Alabama. She did not speak or give an interview.

In 1997 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Spring Hill College in Mobile Alabama. Professor Margaret Davis told Miss Lee she was being honored for her "lyrical elegance, her portrayal of human strength, and wisdom." Miss Lee did not speak to the cheering and applauding audience; Colman McCarthy, another degree recipient did. A photograph of a radiant Miss Lee appeared in the Mobile Register on May 12, 1997.

There is a small piece of newer writing by Miss Lee through the Other Works link.

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Amasa Coleman Lee
Harper Lee's father was born on July 19 1880, in Georgiana, Butler County, son of Cader Alexander V. and Theodosia H. Windham Lee. Theodosia (in some sources spelled Theodocia) was originally from Dale County. She lived for over 50 years in Jackson County, Florida, and died in May 1933. Cader and Theodosia had at least eight other children, including Arthur.

A.C. Lee grew up in Florida, and came to Monroe County in 1902. (One source says 1910). He first worked as a bookkeeper, and was admitted to the bar in 1915. Amasa Lee was a valued citizen of Monroeville. He practiced law, was a member of the State Legislature from 1926 to 1938, and edited The Monroe Journal from 1929 to 1947.

In 1961 A.C. Lee was reported in the Monroe Journal as being busy autographing copies of To Kill a Mockingbird for Monroeville friends and neighbors. Some of them asked him to sign his name, "Atticus Finch". Gregory Peck visited Monroeville in January 1962, and said of A.C. Lee, "Mr. Lee is a beautiful man--and I am very proud to have known him."

Mr. Lee said of Harper that, "It was my plans for her to become a member of our law firm--but it just wasn't meant to be. She went to New York to become a writer." He died in the early morning of Palm Sunday, April 15 1962 at the age of 81. In his memory, J.B. Lippincott donated 300 books to the Monroe County Library. An editorial in The Monroe Journal of April 19 said he was "a warm, friendly and good citizen who served his family, his community, his county and his state extremely well in many varied capacities." Alice Finch Lee was the Executrix of his estate.

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Alice Finch Lee
Alice Lee, a sister of Harper Lee, graduated from high school in 1929, and like Harper Lee, attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery. As the effects of the depression continued, Alice Lee returned to Monroeville and with her father and nephew bought into The Monroe Journal, a weekly newspaper in Monroeville. She wrote stories, proof read and helped with the printing. She is listed in a history of The Monroe Journal as having been an associate editor and partner of the paper from 1929 to 1947.

In 1937 Alice Lee went to Birmingham and worked for the Internal Revenue Service. At night she went to the University of Alabama, and then the Birmingham School of Law. She was admitted to the bar on August 10 1943, and her father invited her back to Monroeville to practice with him. Said Alice Lee,

"I had to answer two questions. If you grow up in a little town, you're always Mr. Lee's little girl. Would I have an identity as Alice Lee, or would I be Mr. Lee's little girl? My father felt I had been gone long enough for people to accept me for myself when I came back.

"And the second question was: How would people in a rural area react to a woman in the law? My father was a very gentle person and a wise person. He smiled when I voiced this question and said: You'll never know until you try it.

"I came home in January of 1944 and have been here ever since, and I have never felt any degree of discrimination in my profession. Not from the judges who sat here, or the lawyers who practiced here. "They accepted me as another lawyer, and I think that says something about the community and the people here. But my father was a beloved person here, and the fact that I was his daughter... well, his reputation probably made it easier for me."

Much of Alice Lee's life has been spent in work for the Methodist church. She was the first woman to be head of the administrative board of her hometown Methodist church, and the first woman to chair the Alabama-West Florida Council on Ministries of the Methodist Church.

"I was reared in a home where the church was part of the way of life in that home," she said. "It's a very satisfying thing, personally, to make that kind of commitment to the church."

After 32 years of guiding Monroeville as a part of the Planning Commission, Alice Lee stepped down, and on February 16 1998 was presented with a proclamation from the Monroeville City Council during a reception in her honor at the Water Tower Conference Center.

"Alice Lee has been a Rock of Gibraltar for this commission,'' said Armistead Harper, a 21-year member of the commission. "She has guided this board with her wisdom, fairness and intelligence. When we needed proper guidance for Monroeville, we got it from Alice Lee,'' Harper said. "Because of her knowledge of the historic background of Monroeville and her legal background, she could recognize problems we would face and find a fair solution.''

About retirement, Alice Lee said: "I'm not worried about retirement. I can't knit, I can't sew, I can't do handwork. I have worked all my life and never had time to do these things. But there are lots of unread things that must just be marvelous. If my sight holds out, I'm going to read some of those books I never got around to. I'm just going to have a great time. I've enjoyed all aspects of life, and retirement will just be another aspect, and I expect to enjoy it. I've had a great life. It hasn't been an exciting life, from the viewpoint of those who like action, but it's been a fulfilling experience. If I did it over again, it probably wouldn't be a bit different."

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Frances Cunningham Finch Lee
Harper Lee's mother was a member of a Virginia family who came to Monroe County and founded Finchburg. She met her husband when he worked for the Flat Creek Mill Company at Finchburg. Frances and Amasa may have married in 1912. They lived in Bonifay, Florida before their return to Monroe County in 1913. She died on June 2 1951 in hospital in Selma. She had one sister.

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Louise Lee Conner
Harper Lee's sister, Louise, lives in Eufaula, Barbour County, Alabama. Her husband, Hank, died from complications arising from an aortic aneurysm. The notice of her father's death in The Monroe Journal listed Louise as having two children: Edwin Lee and Little Hank. Notice of her grandmother's death in 1933 said that she went with A.C. Lee to the funeral in Florida.

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Edwin Coleman Lee
Harper Lee's brother was born in October of 1920. He died suddenly, of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 12, 1951 at Maxwell Field Air Force Base, in Montgomery. Major Lee was a member of the Air Force Reserve, and had only recently been called back into active duty. He was reported to have been an outstanding high school athlete, and to have graduated in industrial engineering at Auburn. He served in World War II. Prior to being called back to active duty he served as a district supervisor of the Veteran's Training Program for twelve Southwest Alabama counties. He was married to Sara Anne McCall and had two children, Mary McCall and Edwin Coleman.

Friday, June 03, 2005

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