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04.01.12

Harper Lee’s Sister, Alice, Is 100, Still Practices Law, and Remembers Everything

Centenarian Alice Lee is the oldest lawyer still practicing in Alabama. Featured in a documentary about her sister that airs on PBS Monday night, she talked to The Daily Beast about everything from Truman Capote to what it takes to fall asleep at night.

On a warm day last September, in a concrete bank building not far from the center of Monroeville, Ala., a party was held in the conference room at the law offices of Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter. Thirty people had been invited. Pink punch in punch glasses and coffee cups lined one of the conference tables, platters of food, another. And seated at a table in the corner was the reason for the celebration: the firm's senior partner, the oldest practicing attorney in the state, Alice Finch Lee, was turning 100. Guests included a judge, the head of the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce, and Harry Rankins, who mows her lawn. They lined up to write in a guest book and pay their respects. Miss Alice, as she is known, has a sister 15 years her junior. Nelle Harper Lee is a novelist and known outside the family as Harper Lee.

I was among the guests at Miss Alice’s party having completed the documentary Hey, Boo:  Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (which airs Monday at 10 p.m. on PBS's American Masters). Harper Lee famously stopped granting interviews in 1964. But her older sister agreed, after some persuasion, to talk with me. She said that Nelle Harper  “grew up quite the little tomboy” and later became a novelist who “did not think that a writer needed to be recognized in person and it bothered her when she became too familiar.”

Harper Lee dedicated her first and only novel to her older sister and her father, “in consideration of Love & Affection.”  Not a recluse but not much for public appearances, she did not attend Miss Alice’s office party. There would be a family-only gathering two days later at the golf club.

Miss Alice is a tiny bird of a woman, with straight white hair that stops just above her jaw line, parted on the side and held back with a bobby pin. Her face is a thin oval with a pointy nose. She has smiling blue eyes behind square gray glasses and a ladylike grin that punctuates most of her encounters. She wore a salmon pink blazer with black piping on the collar, a matching skirt, hemmed below the knee, and pair of white Reebok sneakers. She is adorable, like a living Roz Chast cartoon character.

Miss Alice’s hearing is all but gone these days and so the guests, one by one, sidled in close to say happy birthday, hug, kiss, or clutch her hand. A yellow legal pad was on hand. Some wrote notes, watched while she read them and looked into her eyes. “We love you,” ”You are a great example,” “Are you tired?” “Do you need to use the restroom?” the pad said.

Asked how she got this far,
Miss Alice said, ‘I don’t
do anything to bring on dying.
I live day by day.’

“When I was little, I was a great paper-doll cutter-outer,” Miss Alice remembered not too long ago. “We would make whole paper-doll houses and paper-doll families. Children did not have many store-bought toys then. They made their own recreations, and it was not difficult to do.”

She grew up a few doors away on South Alabama Avenue. The Lee family house has been gone for decades, replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a take-out shack, but Miss Alice’s 72-year-old nephew, Hank Conner, can recall every inch of it. Mr. Conner took time away from the festivities to walk its footprint. He remembered the chinaberry tree and treehouse in the backyard, the wall he sat on while waiting for his granddaddy, Amasa Coleman Lee, the original Lee in Miss Alice’s law firm, to come home from work. He also remembered the Victrola in the living room and his other aunt, Nelle Harper, playing the original cast album from Annie Get Your Gun.

Conner pointed to the empty lot next door where another novelist, Truman Capote, the inspiration for Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird, spent much of his childhood playing with his tomboy friend, Nelle. The only remnants of that era are the stone wall that once divided the two houses, an empty goldfish pond, and Capote’s aunt’s camellia bushes.

Later on, Conner recalled, manuscripts arrived at the house, addressed to Miss Alice. They were from New York, where her younger sister was living, writing by night and working by day as an airline ticket reservationist for British Overseas Airline Corporation (BOAC). “Alice is a very good editor and a very good copy editor,” he said.

When I interviewed her, Miss Alice was 98. Because she is deaf, on-camera questioning presented challenges. She needed to be able to see my lips up close. On the screen you cannot see it but there was only about 12 inches of space between my face and hers. The interview went on for five hours and Miss Alice never flagged. 

The topics ranged from her sister’s vivid imagination to Truman Capote’s intense jealousy “because Nelle Harper won the Pulitzer and he did not.”

Asked to account for his aunt’s longevity, Conner said, “Southerners are always attributing things–good and bad–to genes and breeding. Miss Alice comes from good stock.”

Asked how she got this far, Miss Alice said, “I don’t do anything to bring on dying.
I live day by day.”

It took longer than she planned to become a lawyer. The Depression forced her to drop out of Montgomery’s Huntington College after one year. Her parents could not afford the tuition. “People think this is the first time this country’s ever been through anything like this, but I can assure them there has,” she said. Miss Alice moved home and worked at the Monroe Journal until 1937. Then she got a job in the brand new Social Security office in Birmingham and went to school at night.

After Alice Finch Lee passed the bar exam in the summer of 1943, her father asked if she would like to join his firm. “He wasn’t pushing or anything,” she remembered, “He was just being like he’d always been: ‘Do your own thing but do it well.’ ” Miss Alice says she had two questions: “When you grow up in one town, you are always Mr. Lee’s little girl. ‘Would I be an adult separate and apart from you?’ Daddy said, ‘I think you’ve been gone long enough for that not to happen.’ ”

Her second question was: “How is a small town going to react to a woman in a law office? There were not many around those days. And my father smiled and said, ‘You’ll never know until you try.’ ”

Miss Alice has been at her desk at Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter ever since and, nearly everyone who has bought property or drawn up a will in Monroe County has relied on her services.

Her memory is sharp. She does the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle every week and effortlessly tutored an out-of-town visitor in Alabama history, politics, and soil. She sleeps well at night, thanks to some routine bedtime exercises: she recites the names of all the presidents of the United States. If not asleep by the time she gets to Obama, she moves on to list all 53 governors or all 67 counties of Alabama. If still awake, she goes to work on all the vice presidents of the United States or all the first ladies—of Alabama.

She is still a voracious reader of American biographies and history, England between the world wars, and anything about the Mitford sisters. She is keen on splashy criminal proceedings. Recent fascinations include the trials and tribulations of the Brooke Astor estate and Professor Amy Bishop’s murder trial.

At the party, everyone sang happy birthday. Miss Alice blew out one candle in the shape of 100 with three puffs. Not long after the cake was served, the food was put away. Vases of flowers and gifts of chocolate were packed up. Then, it was back to work. The office had been closed for only two hours.

According to her law partner Tonja Carter, Miss Alice has declared there will be no more parties–not until she’s 105.