Alabama hometown a refuge for Harper Lee

Posted at 7:22 PM, Feb 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-19 19:22:47-05

MONROEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — This south Alabama town with a domed courthouse and tree-lined streets served as both a literary inspiration and a place of refuge for "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee.

Lee tweaked names and locations in her hometown of Monroeville to come up with the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The same town appears in her novel "Go Set a Watchman," released last year. Residents easily point out locations depicted in both books, including the historic Monroe County Courthouse where Lee as a child would watch her father practice law, much like the fictionalized Scout and Atticus Finch.

But above all, Monroeville was simply home to Lee, who died Friday at age 89. She had lived in an assisted living facility there for years as her health worsened. Two black bows hung on the doors of the old courthouse— now a museum — after her death.

Here, before a stroke and failing hearing and eyesight limited her mobility, Lee wasn't the hermit often depicted by news outlets. Instead, she was the woman in the pew at the First United Methodist Church, the shopper on the bread aisle at the grocery store, the golfer who enjoyed playing around with sister Alice Finch Lee, who died in 2014 at age 103.

Connie Baggett, who met Lee while working as a newspaper reporter in the region for years, said the author typically was friendly and chatty as long as she knew the conversation wasn't for an interview.

"She was in no way reclusive. She went golfing, she went to church, she went to parties with friends. She, when she was able, went to the casino in Atmore quite often," Baggett said Friday. "But she did not like publicity; she didn't like reporters. She was an intensely private person."

Neighbors knew all about Lee's dislike for the media and for surprise visitors, so they would rarely direct outsiders to the red-brick home where she lived with her sister for years when not in New York. People who knew Lee best typically wouldn't discuss her life out of respect for her wishes and fear of being shut out of a tight loop of friends.

But Lee's relationship with Monroeville also could be tense. She was known to speak up if she thought someone was trying to appropriate her book or its characters, and she had a court fight with the town's museum over its use of "Mockingbird."

Wayne Flynt, a Lee friend and historian, said those mixed feelings were evident when he visited Lee last week.

"She was coming up on 90 in a couple of months and we talked about her birthday, and I said my wife was going to bring a cake and we were going to put 90 candles on it and burn down the entire town of Monroeville as she tried to blow out the candles," Flynt said. "She laughed. She chortled. She giggled. Given her love-hate relationship with Monroeville, you can certainly appreciate the possibility of burning down the entire town of Monroeville on her 90th birthday."

Yet Lee was perfectly at ease and happy during a luncheon held last summer in the days before the release of "Watchman," said Alabama tourism director Lee Sentell, who attended the event and drove Lee home afterward to The Meadows, the senior center where she lived.

"The thing I remember most is that she was asked whether she expected 'Watchman' to be published and she said, 'Well of course I did, don't be silly,'" Sentell said. "She was in very good form, animated and happy to be around people she knew and liked."

The Rev. Thomas Butts, who had known Lee since the early 1980s, said she had a bright personality that could "light up a room."

"She was the only person I knew who could do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. She was a very smart lady," he said.

Monroeville, a city of about 6,300 located 90 miles north of Mobile, is where Lee and childhood friend Truman Capote spent summer days together, much as Lee's character Scout Finch and her friend Dill did. It's also where her father, A.C. Lee, worked as an attorney and became her model for fictional lawyer Atticus Finch.

In the years after the publication of "Mockingbird' the town's identity became intertwined with its most famous resident.

Nathan Carter, director of sites at the museum, said Friday afternoon that it was too soon to tell what impact the author's death could have on the city and its identity.

"We would certainly hope that, you know, Monroeville might continue to be a destination for people, but now to honor her memory," Carter said in the museum's restored courtroom. "Just remember her fondly and enjoy the words she worked so hard to put on paper."

Tim McKenzie, chairman of the museum's board of directors, said some visitors just come and sit in the courtroom.

"I've had it described to me as like a religious experience or something," he said.

"'To Kill A Mockingbird' has impacted people around the world," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement. "It is because of Harper Lee that the world knows about her special hometown of Monroeville ...."


Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler contributed to this report from Montgomery. Reeves reported from Birmingham.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.