Alice Lee, an Alabama lawyer who was a confidante, housemate and gatekeeper for her sister Harper Lee, the elusive author of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” died Nov. 17 at a nursing home in Monroeville, Ala. She was 103.
Her death was confirmed by Tonja Carter, a partner at Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter, the Monroeville law firm where Miss Lee practiced for seven decades. The cause could not immediately be confirmed.
Miss Lee was the oldest sister of Nelle Harper Lee. She was also one of the few intimates the author permitted into her life after the release in 1960 of her first and only published book — the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the noble lawyer Atticus Finch, his abiding devotion to his children and his futile defense of an innocent black man in their Depression-era southern hamlet.
Adapted into a 1962 film starring actor Gregory Peck, “To Kill a Mockingbird” sold tens of millions of copies and catapulted Harper Lee to enduring fame. She suffered in the glare of her celebrity and retreated into an intensely private life. She split her time between Manhattan and Monroeville, where she shared a home with her sister.
Reporters and admirers seeking access to Harper Lee often got no farther than “Miss Alice,” as she was admiringly known in town.
In the 1940s and 1950s, after Harper Lee left the family’s home in Alabama for a literary career in New York, Alice Lee had established herself as a real estate and probate lawyer at the firm where their father, Amasa Coleman Lee, also practiced.
A.C. Lee is widely believed to have inspired the character of Atticus, who imparts on his children, Jem and Scout, such lessons as the nature of a compromise, when the law may be bent and when it must remain rigid, and the wisdom that may be learned, as he put it, by climbing into another person’s skin.
Alice Lee, the author was said to have remarked, was “Atticus in a skirt.”
For many years, she handled Harper Lee’s legal and financial affairs and sometimes spoke on her behalf, courteously turning away interview requests and occasionally responding to the curiosities that swirled around “To Kill a Mockingbird” and it author. Alice Lee was among those interviewed in “Hey, Boo,” a 2010 documentary that took its title from the name of the novel’s mysterious character Arthur “Boo” Radley.
Miss Lee sought to dispel rumors that the writer Truman Capote, a childhood playmate of Harper’s, may have contributed to the authorship of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Truman became very jealous,” she said, “because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not.”
On the perennial question of why Harper Lee had shunned attention, her sister observed that “as time went on, [Harper] said reporters began taking too many liberties with what she said.”
She also offered an answer to the question of why her sister had never published another novel.
“When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more?” Alice Lee told journalist Marja Mills for a 2002 article in the Chicago Tribune. “Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?”
Mills later wrote “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” a 2014 memoir that drew from the author’s experience living for a period near the sisters’ home in Monroeville.
The work initially was billed as an authorized account — a shocking departure from Harper Lee’s decades of carefully guarded privacy. But before and after its publication, Harper Lee disavowed the book, asserting that “rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
Mills suggested that there were many people involved in Harper Lee’s affairs and released an earlier letter from Alice Lee saying that “poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
The book, perhaps reflecting the ongoing fascination with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” became a bestseller. The novel was different things to different readers: a sketch of a bygone era in the American South, a forceful commentary on racial injustice, perhaps a coming-of-age story.
Alice Lee said that Harper’s book was a love story about a father and his children.
Alice Finch Lee, the oldest of four children, was born Sept. 11, 1911, in Bonifay, Fla., and moved with her family to Monroeville as a child. She recalled that her mother, Frances Finch Lee, suffered from a “nervous disorder.”
Alice Lee studied at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., before working for seven years at a local newspaper co-owned by her father. She later obtained a job with the Internal Revenue Service in Birmingham, Ala. Noticing that law degrees helped employees advance, she enrolled in night school to get one. After studying at the Birmingham School of Law, she passed the bar examination in 1943.
“How is a small town going to react to a woman in a law office?” she recalled asking her father, who replied in Atticus-like fashion, “You’ll never know until you try.”
Miss Lee practiced law until she was 100. Harper Lee was said to have driven her sister to work in the latter years of her legal career. As they aged, both sisters lost much of their hearing.
Harper Lee, who lives in Monroeville, is Miss Lee’s only immediate survivor. Her famous book was dedicated to her father and to “Alice, in consideration of Love & Affection.”