At first, the Mockingbird Players were disappointed. Just once, they wanted Harper Lee to come see what her hometown acting troupe was doing with her novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
This spring, she could have seen the town police investigator playing Boo Radley, the reclusive guardian angel of the book-turned-two-act-play--or the role of the wise father, Atticus, in the hands of the pastor at the local Church of the Nazarene. She could have absorbed all this while sitting inside the county courthouse of her childhood, the same 1903 vintage building with the curved balcony and pressed-tin ceiling that was replicated by Hollywood for the movie.
But as in all matters Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 73, resolutely dodges publicity. And after nine sold-out seasons, the Mockingbird Players have learned that there is one person in town they may never get to entertain: its most sought-after resident.
For nearly 40 years, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the woman always described as its "elusive author" have exerted a hypnotic pull. Readers around the world have become familiar with the story: the doomed defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in a well-meaning but cowardly southern town of the 1930s. The fascination has spilled over to include Lee's home town of 7,000, hidden in the timberlands and cotton fields halfway between Montgomery and Mobile--and now a new spot on the literary mystery tour.
"The reporters always coming to town, it's amazing. They figure she's going to talk to them," said Kathy McCoy, 44, who directs the play and heads the Monroe County Heritage Museum, housed in the old courthouse, which draws 20,000 visitors a year. "For others, it's like the hope--if they make the trek to Mecca, to Monroeville, 'We might see her, we might catch her eye.' I really don't know what to tell them. We call them the Mockingbird groupies."
In today's Monroeville, an ice cream hut called Mel's Dairy Dream is about all one gets to see at the site of Lee's girlhood home. The house was torn down long ago, to everyone's eternal regret.
But the old town square she explored barefoot and in overalls still stands, with the red-brick courthouse with the clock chimes and the hardware stores, even if much of the business has shifted out to the highway. In this plain former cotton-trading center, since the 1930s the home of the Vanity Fair underwear factories, residents acknowledge a new-found specialness: They live in the official "Literary Capital of Alabama."
Lee's book offers not only a big story, but also many small vivid moments of childhood in a voice that rings so true it has captivated a fresh batch of fans in Britain, Germany and Japan.
Long ago, townspeople here managed to overcome whatever injured feelings they harbored over Lee's depiction. Everyone could see that Maycomb was to Monroeville what Scout Finch was to Harper Lee; in other words, there was little difference.
Warming up to the novel no doubt got easier here after it won the Pulitzer Prize, actor Gregory Peck showed up for a week to research his Oscar-winning turn as Atticus, and the years brought only new luster to its popularity--and Monroeville's image as a fledgling tourist attraction.
In 1997, boosters easily persuaded state legislators to declare the town the "Literary Capital" of the state. That was for spawning both Lee and the colorful author Truman Capote ("In Cold Blood"), who stayed here occasionally with relatives and, of course, turned up as Dill in "The 'Bird," as some folks call it.
Although Lee's courthouse case was fictional, or at most an amalgam of several cases burned into her memory, the town has been haunted recently by at least one racial incident, its news value given shape by the echoes of "Mockingbird." In a case witheringly dissected in the book "Circumstantial Evidence" by Pete Early, a black lumberman from Monroeville spent six years on Alabama's death row for the 1986 slaying of a young white woman--despite overwhelming evidence he had been at an all-day fish fry. He eventually was released.
And even as the Mockingbird Players were performing their annual tribute last month, the local Monroe Journal was full of indignant letters to the editor about a recent Ku Klux Klan incident in nearby Uriah. But residents say those things, though unfortunate, are not reflective of Monroeville; they could have happened anywhere, not just the setting for "Mockingbird."
"The thing about it, the book could've been about any small town in the South at the time," said resident A.B. Blass Jr., 72, the court clerk in the play, who has memories of touch-football games with Lee in the town square. "There was a group trying to be good, and then a group of, well, I hate to call them rednecks. Transition was a long time in coming, but it came."
Today, in deference to their bashful celebrity, there are no blazing billboards welcoming visitors to the home of Harper Lee, only a gray mockingbird on the Chamber of Commerce sign, a couple of murals of "Mockingbird" scenes painted on the sides of buildings, a Maycomb Antique Mall, a Radley's Deli.
Residents sometimes are torn between wanting to protect Lee, who is often out and about, while still appearing friendly and helpful to visitors pelting them with questions. The first thing they feel they can safely divulge is that around here, she is known as Nelle (pronounced "Nail"), which is her first name and the one she always preferred. Her older sister, Alice, who still practices tax law at the age of 87, is called "Miss Alice."
Together, the Lee sisters share an unassuming brick house near the junior high school, with the author spending far less time in recent years at her other, New York home. Traffic in Monroeville has increased accordingly. Although friends say Nelle gets upset when reporters try to badger her sister, Alice Lee seems perfectly capable of handling things. She deflects all questions about her famous sibling with a cheery "That's a big no-no."
Perhaps because Harper Lee has been so silent for so long--nothing much since interviews in the early 1960s--reporters tend to see her as a career challenge. They want to know why she never published another novel. They also want her to sit down for an exclusive interview, her first in decades. Recently, the crew of a top network newsmagazine angered some residents, and likely squandered their chances, when they showed up with lights and cameras at the early Sunday service at the Methodist church, hoping in vain to catch her entry.
So stubbornly has Lee resisted all advances--becoming in legend the southern female counterpart to author J.D. Salinger's skittish Yankee recluse--that outsiders imagine her shuttered away in a ramshackle house, not unlike her fearful character Boo Radley. But nothing could be further from the truth.
On any given day, the world-famous literary recluse can be seen eating a hamburger at McDonald's, or fighting with her sister over who gets to pick up the check at David's Catfish House. She also enjoys playing golf. She can do all these things because few people outside Monroeville know what she looks like. Snapshots from the early 1960s show a pleasant woman with short dark hair waving a cigarette.
"As far as being rich and fancy, Nelle's not," said her cousin Richard Williams, 63, who owns Williams Pharmacy in the town square. "I call her my rich kinfolk, but you wouldn't think she had a nickel."
As family, Williams has not shied from asking the million-dollar question: "I asked her, 'When are you going to come out with another book?' And she said, 'Richard, when you're at the top, there's only one way to go.' "
Perhaps Lee feared she could never duplicate the poignance of her first set of characters, chief among them Atticus Finch, based on her own father, Amasa. Although a tax lawyer, not a criminal lawyer, Amasa Lee was known for his dark suits and pocket watch, his kindly air and the principled editorials he wrote as editor of the Monroe Journal.
"It was all a tribute to her daddy," Blass said.
Perhaps she figured it was enough to write a single, luminous, nearly perfect novel that 40 years later still draws carloads of "Mockingbird groupies" to her town.
Or maybe she has a surprise yet.
"I know for a fact she has been working on a new book for at least 12 years," said Tom Radney, a lawyer in Alexander City, Ala., who lent her his files on a case involving at least six deaths, a black minister, some insurance policies, and voodoo. "She called me at Christmas and said, 'You won't believe it, but I'm working on that book.' "
CAPTION: Harper Lee's beloved novel created a cottage industry in Monroeville, Ala.
CAPTION: The Mockingbird Players perform a stage version of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the 1903 county courthouse in Monroeville, Ala.