Admirers treasure letters from Harper Lee

To the outside world, Harper Lee, who died on Friday at the age of 89, appeared to be something of a hermit — an unfounded reputation, folks who knew her say.

“Most people had the impression she was a recluse, but that’s just not true,” said the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, a friend of Lee’s in Monroeville, Ala., for the last 35 years. “She was shy, but the only time she really secluded herself was to get out of the limelight.”

The “limelight,” in this case, being the worldwide acclaim that immediately greeted the publication of Lee’s first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1960. A Pulitzer Prize followed, then 40 million copies sold, and for the next half-century, besotted fans of Atticus, Jem and Scout trooped to little Monroeville (the model for “Mockingbird’s” fictional town of Maycomb) in hopes of seeing or talking to Lee. But she steadfastly refused to make public appearances or give any interviews, a policy she maintained even after “Go Set a Watchman,” her long-lost-and-then-found “second” novel (she actually wrote it first, in 1957) was published to a frenzy of attention last July.

But that doesn’t mean Lee wasn’t communicating with people all along, usually in writing. On Friday, Georgia Center for the Book director Joe Davich was simultaneously mourning Lee’s passing and celebrating the day in 2006 when a letter from her arrived out-of-the-blue.

Charles Shields was coming to town to discuss his bestselling new biography, “Mockingbird — A Portrait of Harper Lee,” and Davich decided to see if Lee might want to come to the event being held before a big crowd at The Carter Center.

“I wrote a letter and I didn’t even have her address, so I sent it ‘General Delivery,’ Monroeville, Ala.,’” Davich recalled with a chuckle. “It was like casting bread on the water. Then, about two weeks later, I go up to my office and my secretary is looking at me and she says in a kind of strange tone, ‘Uh, there’s an envelope on your desk.’

“I saw the return address and I about passed out,” Davich said.

In the two-page handwritten letter, Lee charmingly apologized for her slanting penmanship (“My eyes are failing and I can’t type anymore.”) and admitted she “didn’t care for” Shields’s book. Despite turning down the invitation, she said she hoped the Center for the Book did well and that “you continue doing what you do,” Davich recalled. She even appeared to wink at her own “reclusive” reputation, writing that she was “sure this book will be a bestseller if you wear a sandwich board” proclaiming its subject matter.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” Davich said. The letter is now framed and hanging on his living room wall.

Author Mark Childress also received the occasional letter from his fellow Monroeville native — often it was one of his own letters that she annotated and sent back to him, Childress recalled Friday in an email from Hanoi, where he’d just landed and learned of Lee’s death.

An acclaimed author himself of over a half-dozen novels, including “Crazy in Alabama,” Childress early on worked as a journalist around the South (including a stint as regional editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

“When I was a young reporter who happened to come from Monroeville, every editor who ever hired me tried to get me to get the most ‘ungettable’ interview in the world, with Miss Nelle,” Childress said, referring to Lee as her hometown always did. “I knew her a little bit, and I tried. She would send my letters back with ‘Hell No’ scrawled across the top.”

But later on when he published a novel, “she was incredibly generous and helpful, and wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received.”

Even in death, Lee knew just how to handle the “limelight,” Childress pointed out.

“I really think she was a genius,” he said. “She said what she had to say and then stepped off the stage — a supreme act of artistic self-confidence that in this case, I think, was well-deserved.

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