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Book editor Powell describes Harper Lee’s hometown – in 1977

This illustration of Lee and Capote by George Breisacher ran with the story in 1977.
This illustration of Lee and Capote by George Breisacher ran with the story in 1977.

This is a shortened version of a story originally published July 31, 1977.

“People that write think they have a divine right to say anything they want. They just twist and turn the truth every which way.”

Mary Ida Carter is in the “front room” of the farmhouse she shares with husband Jennings three miles outside Monroeville, Ala., a small town 90 miles south of Montgomery. She stirs the heavy, hay-scented air with a rolled newspaper. Jennings, she explains in hushed tones, is allergic to air conditioning.

Mrs. Carter’s outburst about writers is prompted by a magazine article nephew Truman Capote wrote last winter for McCall’s.

“Truman is a marvel with words,” his aunt says, “but he can’t stick to the truth.”

Capote wrote about the myriad visitors who frequented the Carters’ farm during the Depression – sometimes only for a meal, occasionally to outstay their welcome.

“There never was no convict who escaped from a chain gang that ever sat at our table,” she says. “And that business he wrote about ‘A Christmas Memory’ (Capote’s 1946 short story about fruitcake-making time at another aunt’s house in Monroeville). Truman had as much as any boy in Monroeville could want, and he made out like his family was so poor that we had to go scratching in other people’s yards to get our pecans.”

Mrs. Carter’s irritation with her nephew is laced with affection. But reporters who snoop into town with their niggling questions about Capote are something else. She swears by all things holy she won’t open her mouth.

When her tongue outdistances her intentions and she clamps her lips mid-sentence, Jennings takes the reins and steadily plows to row’s end.

“Oh, hush up, Jennings. Don’t you see she’s writing down every word we say.”

Jennings regards his wife with the patience of a farmer long attuned to vagaries of weather and women.

“All I said was, when the cook didn’t come, the Lees ate watermelon for breakfast.”

The topic has skipped to Harper Lee – Nelle Harper to the Carters – the Monroeville native who wrote the Pulitzer Prize novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Truman and Nelle

Crops and weather. Truman and Nelle Harper. Impossible to discuss one without the other.

Born in New Orleans in 1924, Capote spent most of his first 10 years with Monroeville cousins and aunts, next door neighbors of Harper Lee’s family.

“There was a little cut out through the hedge that separated the lots,” Mrs. Carter remembers. “Even when I was growing up we were at the Lees as much as we were at our own home.”

The bond between the Lees and Faulks continued, so that years after Mary Ida Faulk married Jennings Carter and moved to the country, the young Nelle Harper and Truman kept the hedge neatly gapped.

“I remember once they came over to my mother’s wanting to know if they could lie down on the bed and take a nap together. Mother wouldn’t let them, so they went back over to the Lees and found a bed there.”

Jennings starts to open his mouth.

“Hush up, Jennings. I know what you’re thinking. But it wasn’t anything physical between them. They were just kids. It was an emotional – or mental – attachment they had ...”

This emotional attachment leapt the bounds of a gap in the hedge. Harper Lee immortalized their childhood friendship by using Capote as the model for Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And 12 years earlier, Capote used Nelle Harper as the basis for Idabel Thompkins in his first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.”

“Dill was a curiosity,” Harper Lee wrote in “Mockingbird.” “He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him.”

“That’s Truman for sure,” says Mrs. Carter, who hasn’t read the book since its publication 17 years ago. Then she “read it so fast looking for my kinfolk” she missed some details.

“And Nelle’s right about the size. She was bigger than Truman. Lots bigger. A real tomboy. She tromped in flower beds, and one day she just mopped up the pavement with my son. I could’ve beat her bottom off.”

‘Maycomb’ today

As Capote became Dill, so Monroeville became Maycomb in “Mockingbird.”

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it,” she writes. “In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, again after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

Today Monroeville’s streets are paved, and a new courthouse sits on the live oak-shaded square (though the old, sagging one still stands). Vanity Fair plant employees have increased the population from 4,800 in 1970 to more than 6,000 today. The hedge that separated the Lee and Faulk houses is gone, as are the houses themselves. Garrett’s Dairy Dream has replaced the Lee house.

There is an air about the town, though, especially in mid-summer, that could convince a visitor that ladies still bathe twice a day.

But Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister and 15 years her senior, winces at any similarities. “As far as I’m concerned Nelle just sat down and wrote a book.”

Alice Lee is a Monroeville attorney whose voice rides a pogo stick of deep South inflection. “She made the book so believable that people don’t want to believe it didn’t happen.”

Capote has said the book’s episodes about Boo Radley, the town recluse whom Dill and Scout tried to lure from his house, are “quite literally true.”

Creative loneliness

Capote, apparently, was an early dreamer.

Scout, the young narrator of “Mockingbird,” says of Dill, “Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions. He could add and subtract faster than lightning, but he preferred his own twilight world...”

“Add and subtract.” Mrs. Carter slaps her knee. “Truman never passed an arithmetic test in his life. He never even memorized his multiplication tables. But he always toted a dictionary in his pants pocket. He’d sit in the top of a tree and write stories all day long.”

When it came to numbers, Nelle Harper had no edge on her friend.

“I don’t think she ever passed algebra,” says Mrs. Gladys Burkette, Miss Lee’s high school English teacher. “I believe they just gave it to her to get her out.”

Her writing talent, however, is another story. “She showed distinct promise when she was in school ... She had a brilliant mind – almost total retention. I knew she was gifted. I never had to require Nelle Harper to read.”

Capote credits the “strange loneliness” produced by towns like Monroeville as increasing creativity.

“In a way,” he has said, “I used up some of my loneliness by writing. The same thing has worked for a great many Southern community authors. The geographic isolation tends to sharpen talent.”

Later, he wrote, “The reading I did on my own was of greater importance than my official education, which was a waste and ended when I was seventeen, the age at which I applied for and received a job at The New Yorker magazine.”

(The New Yorker hired him first as an accountant – until it was discovered he couldn’t add – then shifted him to the mailroom.)

Elusive Nelle

Miss Lee, following in the tradition of her father, Amasa Lee – whom even Alice Lee admits was the model for “Mockingbird” ’s sage hero Atticus Finch – studied law at the University of Alabama.

From Alabama she went to New York, where she worked in an airline reservations department.

Capote, meanwhile, had been publishing short pieces since he was 17. “Other Voices, Other Rooms” appeared at age 24, followed by “The Grass Harp” three years later, and in 1958, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

While it’s easy to trace Capote through reviews, interviews and TV appearances, Nelle Harper is elusive.

Not until December 1961, a few months after her book won the Pulitzer, is there anything to bridge the gap between the Monroeville flower tromper and the New York author. That month, McCall’s ran a reminiscence by Miss Lee, “Christmas to Me,” in which she recalls a Christmas day in New York a few years earlier. A landmark day, it turned out, in her writing career.

Miss Lee was the guest of close friends, fellow New Yorkers – a married couple and their two sons. She tried to suppress her disappointment as gifts piled at everyone’s feet but her own.

Finally, her hostess said, “We haven’t forgotten you. Look on the tree.”

On the tree was an envelope addressed to Harper. Her friends had written a check that would support her for one year to write whatever she pleased.

“They wanted to show their faith in me the best way they knew how. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassment of a regular job.”

Going home

The result of their faith, of course, was “Mockingbird,” published when Harper Lee was 34. If success came late, it came brilliantly.

Miss Lee returned to Monroeville for an autograph party. “I’m not like Thomas Wolfe,” she said. “I can go home again.”

But, according to Mrs. Carter, the Monroeville townspeople “didn’t notice it much.”

“I remember walking down the street the day she was in the bookstore autographing, and Nelle came running out to me and said, ‘Why don’t you drag somebody in here. Nobody wants to buy my book.’ 

What people did notice, a year later, was Gregory Peck, Hollywood’s choice to portray “Mockingbird” ’s Atticus Finch, the attorney who defended the black man unjustly accused of raping a white girl.

Peck stayed at Monroeville’s LaSalle Hotel while stills were shot inside the Monroeville Courthouse where the climactic trial was set.

“People went on over Gregory Peck more than they ever did over Nelle,” Mrs. Carter says. “All the women acted like nuts. They lined up in front of the hotel and plastered their noses flat on the hotel window just to get a look at him.”

Peck won the Oscar (for best actor) and the affection of Harper Lee. When Amasa Lee died, Miss Lee presented Peck her father’s gold pocket watch.

On an adventure

Soon after the book’s publication, Newsweek reported Miss Lee as “stealing time from a new novel-in-progress” to answer her fan mail.

But when Capote decided to write his account of the Kansas Clutter murder, “In Cold Blood,” he invited Harper Lee along as assistant researcher.

“When he first called me,” she said, “he said it would be a tremendously involved job and would take two people.” Capote’s version, however, is that Miss Lee “had been thinking about doing a nonfiction book and wanted to learn my techniques of reportage, so she asked to come along.”

Whichever, the two friends, by now in their mid-30s, set off on another adventure.

“One of Capote’s wisest moves was taking Harper Lee with him to help break the ice (in Kansas),” writes William Nance, author of “The Worlds of Truman Capote.”

However, Capote downplays her role, saying she “simply did not help me that much. She’s the first to admit it.”

Capote did express his gratitude to Miss Lee by dedicating “In Cold Blood” to her.

‘Original hippie’

If Miss Lee had plans to write a nonfiction book – or another novel – she hasn’t done so. Some people – even her sister – say “Nelle Harper’s lazy.”

“She and Alice do the strangest things,” Mrs. Carter says. “When Nelle comes to visit, they always go up to the hotel for breakfast. Won’t even drink a cup of coffee in their own home.”

“Nelle was an original hippie,” says childhood friend Mary Smith Steiner. “She wore blue jeans before blue jeans were in.”

Mrs. Steiner remembers that soon after “Mockingbird” received the Pulitzer, Nelle Harper was invited to the White House to have dinner with President Kennedy.

“She just went into Lazenby’s (a Monroeville mercantile company), and got a dress off the rack. They sold feed and seed in the front of the store and dresses in the back, and Nelle thought that was good enough for her.”

If Monroevillians think Nelle Harper tromps off the beaten path, the whole world deems Capote “weird.”

When he spoke at the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival in May, a reporter described his voice – more celebrated than his prose – as “recognizable as a whining mammy cat – fragile yet somehow strong, condescending but commanding, a rather freakish effect devoid of gruff bass notes, almost as if the transition of adolescence has never visited his vocal chords.”

“Truman is happy,” Harper Lee once said. “But there’s only one thing worse than promises unkept – that’s promises kept. But not for Truman. He knows what he wants and he keeps himself straight. And if it’s not the way he likes it, he’ll arrange it so it is.”

Her admiration for him echoes an earlier passage she wrote in “Mockingbird.”

Scout receives a letter from Dill early one summer and is crushed that he won’t be visiting his aunts and cousins in Maycomb. She says, “I had never thought about it, but summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel. With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable. I stayed miserable for two days.”

In his introduction to “Other Rooms, Other Voices,” Capote wrote. “And now as I come upon the forlorn mill with its sagging silver-grey timbers, the remembered shock of the snakebite returned; and other memories too – of Idabel, or rather the girl who was the counterpart of Idabel, and how we used to wade and swim in pure waters, where fat speckled fish lolled in sunlit pools...”

A small Alabama town in the summertime. A gap in the hedge. Truman and Nelle Harper ...

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