Monthly Archives: September 2015

Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote— Together Again, In this New Novel for Young Adults

Novel (ages 8-12)

TRU & NELLE by G. Neri

Coming March 1, 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

1432221127817“If you’ve ever wanted to run through the backyards of dusty old Maycomb, Alabama in search of high adventure and mystery, just like Scout, Dill, and Jem, then this is your chance. It’s all here! Greg Neri has recreated the childhoods of Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Jennings Carter— the real-life models for the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird— and spun new adventures for them. You’ll join these three friends as they really lived, and help them figure out a case that has the whole town baffled. I hope you’re up for some fun!” — Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Tru & Nelle is a wonderfully imaginative re-creation of the childhoods of two great American writers, but even more, it is a novel that affirms the mysterious and glorious ways that friendship reaches across boundaries of all sorts to claim unexpected kinship.”—Gary D. Schmidt, author of Newbery Honor books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars

Truman Capote and Harper Lee: Best Friends

Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee grew up next door to each other in Monroeville, Alabama with only a stone wall separating their yards. At the time, Truman’s last name was Persons, and his parents had left him at his aunts’ home while they partied and moved around. Later, his mother remarried a Cuban businessman with the surname, Capote.

Truman was a lonely little boy. He and Nelle were the only kids of their type in town: very bright and tremendous readers. As a result they became fast friends. Also, as a neighbor said, “Truman was too soft for the boys, and Nelle was too tough for the girls.”

In Nelle’s tree house they wrote stories together, mainly about the people they spied on. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle based the character of Dill on Truman. (Remember, Dill said his parents didn’t want him.) Truman based the character of Isobel on Nelle in his novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

When Truman went to Kansas to investigate the murders of a farm family for what became one of the best pieces of crime nonfiction of the 20th century, In Cold Blood, he asked Nelle to accompany him. Like they children they had been, they went on a big adventure together that involved snooping and writing.

How Gregory Peck Saved “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Film

The director who purchased the film rights to To Kill a Mockingbird, Alan Pakula, had a tough time getting any major studio interested. First, the story seemed too small and regional: racism in a Southern town. Audiences wanted movie Westerns with mountains and Indians and shoot-outs. Second, a few studio offers came with strings attached: Bing Crosby should be Atticus. No, Rock Hudson.

tumblr_mdfqgibK5W1r3vyizo1_500Finally, Gregory Peck read the novel and called Pakula to say he’d stayed up most of the night finishing it. Couldn’t put it down. If Pakula wanted him, Peck was in. When financing became a problem, Peck staked a lot of his own money in the production, with the provision that he would have creative control over the final editing.

To save money, Pakula cast Broadway actors, not film stars. An additional advantage was that they were unknown to film audiences: more like ordinary people. And for the parts of Scout and Jem, he decided on two kids from Birmingham who spoke with Alabama accents. (The actor who played Bob Ewell was a Southerner too, and not much different from his character!)

Peck was always proudest of his role as Atticus Finch. His belief in the power of a humble man doing what’s fair and right has been born out over the years, too. In a survey of film heroes by the American Film Institute, Atticus was voted #1 out of 100. Not the Terminator, not Superman, not John Wayne, but a small town lawyer who followed his conscience.

Little-Known Facts About Harper Lee

Boo Radley was modeled after a young man named Arthur Bouleware, who lived on Harper Lee’s street, Alabama Avenue in Monroeville, Alabama. His father did indeed force Arthur to stay in the house for most of his adult life, as a punishment for having been arrested. Arthur was carried out dead at 40 from tuberculosis.

The novel’s Tom Robinson trial isn’t based on the notorious trial of the Scottsboro boys, as many scholars have maintained. It’s loosely adapted from the trial of a black man in Monroeville, Walter Lett, who was accused of raping Naomi Lowery, a poor white woman in her 20s. Lett was sentenced to death, but the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. The order came too late. Lett, locked in a cell near the electric chair and fearful was certified insane. He died from tuberculosis in an Alabama state sanitarium.

The events surrounding Lett were carried in the Monroeville Journal, Lee’s hometown newspaper, when her father was editor-publisher in the 1930s. Harper Lee was Scout’s age at the time.

In 1959, Harper Lee was so fed up with revising the third draft of To Kill a Mockingbird— or Atticus, as she was calling it— that she threw the manuscript out the window of her apartment in New York into the snow. She called her editor, Tay Hohoff to say she couldn’t go on. Hohoff told her to march outside, pick up the pages, and keep working because the novel was as much a product of Hohoff’s guidance as Lee’s talent.

In Kansas a few months later, Harper Lee and Truman Capote depended on their ingenuity to outwit other reporters covering the Clutter family murders. They befriended the lead detective on the case, Alvin Dewey, who surreptitiously gave them items from the confidential files of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and access to the killers. The result was Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Gregory Peck, who had creative control over the filming in 1962 of “To Kill a Mockingbird” wrote a long, point-by-point memo to the director, Alan Pakula, arguing that certain scenes needed to be recut to make Atticus’s role more important than the children’s.

In the spring of 1963 when the film premiered at the Melba Theater in Birmingham, Alabama, a crowd arrived to catch a glimpse of child stars playing Scout and Jem. Apparently, the movie’s message about bigotry didn’t impress the city’s leaders, however. A few weeks later, Sheriff “Bull” Connor waged war on civil rights demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses.

Lee remained Capote’s steadfast friend until the late 1970s when his alcohol and drug abuse became uncontrollable.

Fifteen years ago, a first edition To Kill a Mockingbird in a “very good” condition was worth about $2,500. Today, it would bring over $10,000. A presentation copy was bought at auction not long ago for $12,650.

To Kill a Mockingbird consistently ranks in the top half of the “100 Most Often Banned Books” according to the American Library Association. Some school boards and parents have objected to the language; others don’t believe Tom Robinson’s trial for rape is a fit subject for young readers.

The Kindly Judge Who Should Have Sent Boo Radley to Jail

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In his youth, Judge Murdock McCorvey Fountain “Judge Mick” was a rootin‘-tootin‘ sheriff who got nicked in the forehead by a bullet during a gunfight. But as a silver-haired judge in his 50s, Judge Mick was known to a decent man who thought the best of people. Everyone in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama knew him.

Consequently, when some boys were hauled before him arrested for vandalism, destruction of public property, breaking and entering, and disturbing the peace, Judge Mick wasn’t eager to send them away for a year in the reformatory. But he did. Except for a boy named Arthur Bouleware. Arthur’s father intervened.

Judge, if you remand custody of my son to me, I swear he’ll never bother anyone in this town again.

So Judge Mick sent Arthur home with his father. As punishment, Mr. Bouleware pulled Arthur out of high school and grounded him indefinitely. For a football player, this was a disaster. Moreover, Mr. Bouleware kept his son at home month after month, year after year, until Arthur was too frightened to be seen in public.

Arthur never left that house until he was carried out on a stretcher, dead at 40 from tuberculosis. He’s buried next to his father in Monroeville.

And that sad young man was the model for Boo Radley.

Why A.C. Lee was the Model for Atticus Finch

When Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was a young attorney, newly admitted to the bar, a judge appointed him to defend two black men accused of murdering a white man. It was a botched robbery, actually. The storekeeper they robbed was elderly and died from a blow to the head.

AC Lee young attorney copyA.C. had almost no time to prepare. Still, he raised five serious objections at the trial, the first being that the dead man’s son was on the jury! The judge overruled each objection. Lee did the best he could, but this was “Negro law,” as it was referred to in the South: a kind of pantomime of a real justice. Both of A.C.’s clients were hanged.

About two weeks later, the dead man’s other son in upstate New York received a package. Inside were the scalps of the two hanged man with a note:

Justice has been done in Alabama.
Mr. Lee never took another criminal case. He would not participate in courthouse shams involving the poor, the frightened, and the hapless. But he had stood up in the name of justice. As Atticus said to the jury, “In the name of God, do your duty.”