Author's Note: I went to Alabama three times to do research on the Harper Lee biography for young readers. This week’s blog is mostly about the first time I traveled to Alabama with my sister, Keely Madden, in the spring of 2007. In her hometown, Harper Lee is often referred to as “Nelle.” These blogs first appeared on Penguin's USA blog.
MISS ALICE LEE
Miss Alice is the older sister of Harper Lee who still works three days a week at the law office in Monroeville, Alabama. She will be 98 on September 11th. I had contacted her about an interview, and I received a call from her secretary on our first morning in Monroeville. The secretary said that Miss Alice would not be talking to me out respect for her sister. I said that I understood, and I asked if I might bring my children's novels to the law office, which was located in a bank building off the town square. The secretary said that would be fine and that she would be there all day.
Our plan was to drop my children's books off with the secretary to give to the Lee sisters and then leave immediately. Maybe they would see from my books (akin to Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables) that I wasn't out to write a sensational biography. Yet, when we arrived at the law office about an hour later, the secretary was no where around. Only Miss Alice Lee was there. I was terrified, and so was my sister, Keely. Miss Alice is also deaf and so did not hear us. We stood in the hallway within her sight range debating what to do. I felt sick to my stomach.
After a few tense moments of deliberating, we just decided to leave the books on the secretary's desk. It was then Miss Alice Lee looked up and saw us. Her white hair up in neat bun, she wore a lavender suit and tennis shoes. A flash of concern crossed her face, and I explained who we were and that we were not staying but only wanted to drop off the books. She looked at me carefully and said, "I will give these books to my sister, Nelle Harper, but she is suffering from macular degeneration and cannot read them."
I said, "They are for you too." Then she smiled and we said good-bye.
We got outside and breathed in the warm April sunshine, our hearts pounding. We later learned that there is a saying in the town of Monroeville: "If you don't know something, go ask Alice." She's been working at the law office since 1943."
MR. GEORGE THOMAS JONES
We met George Thomas Jones on Tuesday evening in his home. He is the town historian and newspaper columnist, whose columns have been made into books, "Happenings in Old Monroeville, Volumes One and Two." He was born in 1922 and moved to Monroeville in 1926 and was about three years ahead of Harper Lee in school. He has also been caring for his wife, Louise, who has been bedridden for fifteen years with Parkinson's disease. Louise and Harper Lee were good friends and played golf together. Bunny Hines, the librarian, remarked about him, "George Thomas Jones will have a jewel in his crown!"
Jones' mother started the lunchroom program at school. She made ham, pimento, and banana & peanut butter sandwiches. Baby Ruth candy bars cost a nickel. Vegetable soup and crackers were ten cents. She knew the country kids couldn't go home for lunch, and she felt the school needed a lunchroom, so she set up one in the school basement.
Sitting in his living room, we were transported back to the days of old Monroeville. He told of us childhood games like "Hot Grease in the Kitchen" and watching "Nelle" take on three boys on the playground after a hair-pulling incident.
But one of the funniest stories was a memory of Truman Capote. "I was a soda jerk at a local drugstore, and Truman was two years younger than me. He was a short runty kid with long yellow hair. He came in one day and said, ‘Boy I sure would like something good but y'all ain't got it.'"
I said, "Truman, what do you want? I'll fix you anything you want."
Truman said, "Fine! Fix me a Broadway Flip!"
Jones admitted he had no idea what a "Broadway Flip" was, which embarrassed him, but all he could think to say was, "‘Boy, I'll flip you!' And I flipped him off the stool. He flew out of here so fast."
We must have talked for at least two hours that night, and Jones became a friend over the next two years. When I didn't know the answer to something, he would reply by email in lightning speed. And if he didn't know the answer, he would go dig it up. The gift of this book was that the majority of people I interviewed and got to know were in their 80s and 90s.
Jane Ellen Clark, the curator at the Monroe County Heritage Museum, told me that I had to interview Jennings Carter, the likely inspiration for Jem Finch, since Carter, his cousin, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee played together constantly as children. She said she got chills the first time she met him because she noticed that his arm was broken in the same place as Jem's arm.
We met Jennings Carter in Clark's office, and like she said, his left arm hung shorter and seemed to be at a ninety-degree angle to his body. He had a shy smile and right away said, "I don't know what I can tell you that hasn't been said."
I asked about the games he'd play with Truman and Nelle. He said the Truman and Nelle loved to read the comics with Truman's elderly cousin, Sook, and sometimes Sook would get the word wrong, but she never minded if they corrected her. Jennings said that Sook did send a fruitcake to President Roosevelt, but that he never wrote back.
"I imagine the White House must get a lot of presents at Christmas," Jennings smiled. "We were in a dry county, but Jenny kept the best whiskey in the house. Sook never had to go to the bootlegger the way Truman said."
He talked about the apple tree that divided the Lee and Faulk properties. "Jenny Faulk (where Truman lived) and Nelle's mother shared a border in their yards. An apple tree was on that border. Each claimed the apples and would kick them into their own yards."
Carter said that Nelle was just another kid. "We didn't even know she was a girl. She was courageous. She would ball up her fists and hit you like a man." He and Truman used to go riding on a mule, and when I asked the mule's name, he said with a grin, "Nelle."
I asked him about his arm, and he said he broke it falling off a roof when he was twelve. He said that when they were kids that Saturday sometimes meant a double feature. Sook would give Nelle, Jennings and Truman "Jenny's store money" for the movie (a dime each). Jenny also was an artist but her drawings burned in a house fire. Carter said, "The fire was on the coldest night of the year." I couldn't help thinking it was like Miss Maudie's fire.
"The Yankees hit the consonants, but Southerners hit the vowels," was how A.B. Blass described the difference in speech between the North and South.
MR. A.B. BLASS
Our interview with A.B. Blass went for six hours. It started with dinner at the Radley Café and a trip to the town square. In the South, a story takes as long as it takes. That is the way it was with Blass, too, a childhood friend of Harper Lee's.
Even as adults, Blass and Harper Lee swapped stories whenever she came home from New York. She liked to work at her father's office in the mornings, and when she'd see Blass leave his hardware store, she'd call out, "A.B.!" and he'd say, "Nelle Lee!" And the two of them would have coffee and catch up on gossip.
As a high school boy, the clock tower of the courthouse proved irresistible to Blass. He explained that a man who "liked a drink" happened to be in charge of winding the clock. Blass said, "The man gave me the key to go up there if I'd wind it up for him. Well, this one time I got this idea to add an extra gong after clock struck midnight. I hit the bell with a heavy piece of metal. The next day at church everybody was saying, "Did you hear the clock struck 13 times last night?" Blass did it again the following week, and the old clock man said to him, "A.B., I need the key back. Clock is broke, striking 13 times, upsetting folks."
Blass told him, "I'll fix it for you." He quit striking the clock.
He was in charge of the annual Christmas Parade in the 1950s, and the local black high school had marched without incident for years until the KKK tried to make it "Whites Only." Instead of caving into the KKK's demands, Bass canceled the parade. That night, the KKK rode in their cars to Blass's house. They circled the house with their inside car lights on, so Blass and his family could see them in their robes. His wife and daughters were crying in terror. Blass called police departments in three different counties, but no one would come out.
Finally, they went away, but the next morning, Harper Lee's father, Mr. A.C. Lee came up to Blass and said, "Son, you did the right thing. You stand by your guns. It'll be all right."
TWO ALABAMA GIRLS: ARTELIA BENDOLPH and HARPER LEE
Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, and Artelia Bendolph was born on August 7, 1927. I am fairly sure they never met though they grew up just thirty miles from each other in the Black Belt of Alabama. Harper Lee came from Monroeville. Artelia Bendolph was raised in Gee's Bend, a place accessible by a ten-minute ferry ride or an hour over rough back roads to Camden.
Harper Lee was known as "Nelle," but I don't know if Bendolph had a nickname or not. There is not much written about her. She wasn't famous. The picture of her is more famous than she ever was. I know that she left Gee's Bend for Mobile approximately the same time Lee left Monroeville for New York City. Lee moved to New York to become a writer. Bendolph left to find a job in Mobile to send money home.
Harper Lee was white.
Artelia Bendolph was black.
Sometimes when you write a story, you have to cut the parts that you really want to keep. During the final editing stages, I had to cut out the story of Artelia Bendolph and the Gee's Bend section, but I couldn't get this picture of her out of my head. Arthur Rothstein took the picture of her in 1937. He was an official photographer for the Farm Security Administration, under President Roosevelt, and his job was to travel with other photographers during the Great Depression to take pictures of the rural poor.
In 1962, approximately during the same time as Hollywood began shooting the film of To Kill A Mockingbird, the Gee's Bend ferry service was stopped by local white officials hoping to discourage civil rights protests. The ferry's closure isolated all Gee's Bend residents from their jobs, emergency services, shopping, and most significantly, voting. P.C. "Lummie" Jenkins, the sheriff of Wilcox County, said, "We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black."
The ferry was closed for 44 years and reopened in 2006. About a month ago, I decided to take the ferry from Camden to Gee's Bend to see what it looked like and to meet some of the women quilters, who continue to make extraordinary quilts in a little trailer. The sunlight hit the Alabama River as the ferry made its crossing. I think I went looking for my next story.