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05.03.12

Harper Lee Makes a Surprise Appearance at an Alabama Literary Luncheon

The publicity-shy author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ made a surprise appearance last week at the South Alabama Writers’ Symposium, which was honoring Fannie Flagg with the Harper Lee Award. Harper Lee got one too.

Harper Lee went out for lunch last Friday. One day shy of her 86th birthday, wearing a white T-shirt with flowers on the front and black-and-white checked piping around the collar and sleeves, black-and-white plaid pants, and black canvas sneakers, she turned up unexpectedly at the Community House, a rental party space near the golf course in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

There, the South Alabama Writers' Symposium was giving out its Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year. The arrival of Lee, in a wheelchair after a stroke some years back, caused a stir, albeit a quiet one. There was an elated hum in the room, but the guests restrained themselves. Lee is not a recluse, but she famously stopped granting interviews in 1964.

That morning, George Lendegger, a sponsor of the event and former owner of the local paper mill, said he'd been by to see Nelle (that is the novelist's first name, which she left off when she published her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird). When he told her he was in town to present the Harper Lee award, she asked, “Well, do I get one?”

And sure enough, Harper Lee got a Harper Lee award, a foot-tall bronze replica of the top of the old Monroe County courthouse, the place where young Nelle Harper sat in the balcony and watched her lawyer-father at work. After Lendegger walked the award over to her and it was plunked down on the table, the crowd of about 175 stood up and clapped. Harper Lee did not speak, but she did beam.

The lunch—consisting of salad, roast beef, potatoes, and yellow cake with chocolate frosting—was catered by Radley’s Grille, the largest restaurant in the town of 7,000. And yes, that’s Radley as in Boo Radley.

The official recipient of this year's Harper Lee Award was Fannie Flagg, a TV personality (she co-hosted Candid Camera with Alan Funt and was a regular on the Match Game) who began writing fiction in the 80s. She described an accidental encounter she had with Lee.

He said, ‘This is my friend from Monroeville, Nelle Harper Lee.’ Telling the story 27 years later, Flagg said, ‘I knew not to jump.’

In 1985 Flagg was living in a "tragic" New York apartment on the Upper West Side and trying to write a novel. It was not going well.

She was running out of money and thought she'd have to go back to working in television. Discouraged, she decided to pack it in. That same day, she was walking to a chiropractor on West 85th Street when a crazy man walked right up to her and said, "You're ugly." Stumbling into the chiropractor's office, she complained of her treatment to the receptionist, saying, “I'm from Alabama, where we have better manners." The receptionist, a young man named Jay Sawyer, said, "I'm from Alabama too." He told Flagg he had an extra ticket to see Eudora Welty at the 92nd Street Y the following week and invited her to use it.

After the event, Sawyer was standing on the street with a woman Flagg took to be an aunt. He said, "This is my friend from Monroeville, Nelle Harper Lee." As she told the story 27 years later, Flagg said, "I knew not to jump." But, "almost fainting," she managed to muster a "How do you do?" She was invited to join them for drinks, and "I got to know the most intelligent woman I have ever met in my life." Flagg told Lee what she was working on, to which the novelist replied, "Sounds rather interesting. Keep trying."

She kept trying. Two years and many rejections later, Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, was accepted at Random House. The story was set in a small town in Alabama in the 20s and featured a character named Idgie Threadgoode who wore overalls and refused to behave like a proper lady, not unlike Scout Finch.

Video screenshot

Barack Obama's introduction to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Flagg’s editor called her one day to say they had received the first quote for book’s dust jacket. She read it to her over the phone: “Idgie Threadegoode is a true original. Huckleberry Finn would have tried to marry her.”

"Well, that's very generous, loving, and kind," Flagg remembers saying. "Who is it from, a relative of yours?" No, it was from Harper Lee.

"She was an angel to me twice," Flagg said. "Meeting her was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, I admire her dignity, her incredible mind, and talent.”

And with that, Harper Lee received another standing ovation. Some pictures followed. The Harper Lee Award left the room under the arm of a relative. Miss Lee was wheeled out the door. And everyone in the room had their own Harper Lee story.