By Laura Stassi Jeffrey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 30, 2010; F05
A thunderstorm has been chasing us down I-65 from Montgomery, threatening to reach Monroeville before we do. But we reach the historic town square first, and as soon as my brother-in-law has pulled into a parking space, I scramble out of the back seat and sprint to the steps of the Old Monroe County Courthouse. This is probably the best place to get to know Monroeville, Ala., the town where my mother grew up with "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee.
Lee set her best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in a fictional Southern town called Maycomb, and she has said that the story could have taken place anywhere. But "Mockingbird" mirrors Lee's Depression-era childhood in Monroeville. The protagonist of the 1960 novel is Scout Finch, a 9-year-old tomboy whose attorney father is defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Scout's best friend is Dill, the boy who lives next door with his relatives, and Scout and Dill have all kinds of adventures with Scout's brother, Jem.
In real life, Lee was a tomboy, her father was a lawyer, and she had an older brother (as well as two older sisters). She lived in a house on South Alabama Avenue, near the courthouse, and her best friend was Truman Persons, who lived next door with his Faulk kin. Truman moved in when he was 6, after his parents divorced, but he left town four years later, after his mother remarried. His stepfather adopted him, and he became Truman Capote.
I open the creaky wooden door of the white-domed, red-brick courthouse and step inside. Built in 1903, it was used for official county business until 1963, when a replacement was built next door. The old courthouse is now home to the Monroe County Heritage Museums, a consortium that includes the Old Monroe County Courthouse Museum.
My Granddaddy Watson, the longtime sheriff of Monroe County, had an office on the first floor of this building. Now, the first floor houses an exhibit about the building and the Monroeville community, a tourist information center, memorabilia from a 1930s law office and a gift shop with books, and arts and crafts created by Southerners.
On the second floor is an exhibit that pays tribute to Lee. Everyone in Monroeville knows the author by her first name, Nelle, which she dropped from her byline. The photos and memorabilia in this exhibit are interesting, but more noteworthy to me are Lee's own comments about "Mockingbird." For decades, the reclusive author has steadfastly refused to answer questions about her sole novel, to cooperate with biographers or to grant interviews. Apparently, though, she wasn't always so reclusive. For example, she told a UPI reporter in the early '60s that she did not consider "Mockingbird" to be a liberal or a conservative tale; she just hoped it was thought of as a "good book."
Also on the second floor is the elliptical courtroom itself, where Lee's father practiced law. (So did my Uncle Buddy, decades after A.C. Lee.) If you've seen the 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," you'll get a sense of deja vu as you look up to the courtroom's balcony, the only place where black spectators were allowed. The courtroom was meticulously re-created for the movie's scenes where Gregory Peck, as lawyer Atticus Finch, defends an innocent Tom Robinson. And one of the film's three Academy Awards was for art direction and set decoration.
Another upstairs exhibit includes letters, postcards and photos detailing Truman Capote's Monroeville connection. But you can probably get a better understanding of Lee's work with Capote on his 1966 book "In Cold Blood" by reading Charles J. Shields's biography of Lee. Capote credited Lee as his research assistant, but Shields presents a compelling case that it was more of a writing partnership and that Capote wasn't more generous in acknowledging Lee's contributions because he was jealous of her Pulitzer.
Our tour of the courthouse museum complete, we walk over to the Old City Cafe, on Claiborne Street. After lunch, with the weather temporarily cooperating, we use a map we picked up at the courthouse to take a walking tour of this town of about 7,000.
This proves to be an exercise for our imaginations as well as our bodies because, sadly, much of my mother's and Lee's Monroeville no longer exists. The house where Lee lived as a child -- and where my mother once listened to records and danced with a group of older kids that included Lee and Capote -- is gone. In fact, A.C. Lee had already sold the house before "Mockingbird" was published. Occupying the land now is a small eatery called Mel's Dairy Dream. The stone wall that separated the Lee and Faulk homes remains, but the Faulk house is also gone, lost to a fire years ago.
Gone, too, is the house of teacher Gladys Watson, Lee's role model and a cousin of my granddaddy's; even the Wee Diner, where Peck ate with Lee when the actor came to town in 1961 to research his Oscar-winning role. Among the buildings still standing, but empty, are those that housed the Monroe County Bank, where Lee's father kept an office, and the Monroe Journal, the newspaper that Lee's father once owned.
Lee reportedly has given generously to the First United Methodist Church here, but I wonder why she has not gotten involved in efforts to preserve the town itself. For many years, she divided her time between New York City and Monroeville, but the 84-year-old author now lives here permanently.
Lee has shunned publicity for decades, although she did travel to Washington in 2007 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I hope she won't be a no-show at the 50th anniversary celebration of her book's publication. Several events are planned for July 8-11, including panel discussions featuring Southern scholars and writers; outdoor readings; docent-led walking tours; showings of the "Mockingbird" movie and of a documentary funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation; and dinner at the C.L. Hybart House Museum and Cultural Center, a restored 1920s house that now hosts weddings and special events. Lee and Capote visited the residents of the house before leaving on one of their trips to Kansas for "In Cold Blood" in late 1959 or early 1960.
I've been debating whether I should make an effort to meet Lee while I'm in Monroeville. I could ask for an introduction from my Aunt Carolyn, who occasionally chauffeurs Lee around town on errands. But Aunt Carolyn is busy with last-minute details for a big church potluck, and I don't want to bother her. I could just stop by the assisted living facility where Lee now lives, and identify myself as Betty Watson's daughter. But that seems intrusive. So several of us make plans to have dinner at David's Catfish House, where Lee and her 99-year-old sister frequently eat.
Then Curtis, Aunt Mary Jane's new boyfriend who's visiting from California, points out that the catfish house doesn't serve alcohol, and this is a family reunion, after all. So we make other dinner reservations, and I decide to leave Nelle Harper Lee alone, as she undoubtedly prefers.
Jeffrey is a freelance writer and the author of several books for young readers.