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July 24, 2014

A battle of mockingbirds

I received an advance copy of Marja Mills' "The Mockingbird Next Door" in the mail a couple of months ago, my choice from the Amazon Vine Program, which allows frequent reviewers to read and review books in advance. It was a fairly short book, a quick and easy read. But for anyone interested in Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was a momentous event--the very first time, according to the book's publicity, that the notoriously reclusive Lee had agreed to speak publicly to an author in fifty years. "I'll talk to anybody," Lee once told a friend. "Just not for publication." To journalists who contacted her for an interview, her reply was standard: "Not just no, but hell, no."

According to Mills, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she got to know Lee (always Nelle, never Harper, to her intimates) and her sister Alice while researching an article about the Chicago Public Library's designation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" as its first choice in its Free-for-All reading program. The friendship grew, Mills said, to the point that Nelle and Alice helped her rent the house next door to theirs in Monroeville, Ala., and agreed to sit for hours of informal talks about themselves, largely to counter the lies and half-truths told about them by others.

I found "The Mockingbird Next Door" to be a pleasant and mostly satisfying book. It was definitely the work of a journalist, not a formal biographer or literary scholar. I gave my advance copy to a friend, so I can quote the book only from memory. Most of the book consisted of the placid rounds of Nelle and Alice's lives--feeding ducks in the park, meeting friends for coffee, fishing for catfish, going to services at the Methodist church they attended from childhood, and reading, reading, reading. It was somewhat annoying that Mills kept referring to the great stories the Lee sisters told her, but herself repeated very few if any of them. Still, the book painted a persuasive picture of the sisters--Alice calm and steady, Nelle more mercurial but still likable--even if, in the end, it was more of a snapshot than a full portrait. I assumed Mills was keeping the Lee sisters' stories in an archive for future biographers. I gave the book five stars on Amazon, not because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because I thought it was a valuable source of information for anyone interested in Lee and her only, much beloved, novel.

I did not hear of Lee's disavowal of "The Mockingbird Next Door" until the book's formal release in mid-July, though apparently Lee signed statements as early as 2011 declaring the book a fraud. Newspapers across the English-speaking world have published news articles and essays about the scandal--generally sneering at "The Mockingbird Next Door," which in my opinion is deserved only if Mills is a liar. Lee has gone so far as to say that she left town immediately whenever she heard Mills was coming. Alice has countered her sister's statements, saying that the book and the information inside it are genuine. Nelle pointed out that her sister was 100 in 2011, but others have pointed out that Alice practiced law until she was 102.

If Nelle Harper Lee is telling the truth, this wouldn't be the first time a writer claimed greater friendship with his or her subject than actually existed. (This doesn't seem to be a case of Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes, but Solomon Volkov and Dmitri Shostakovich come to mind.) But it would still be sad and dispiriting, to say the least. One way Mills could dispel the controversy would be to produce the notes and tapes of her talks with the Lee sisters--sooner rather than later.

But what if Lee herself is lying? Then the abyss opens up, and Lee is cast as an unpleasant control freak, if not a monster of willfulness. This is not what we want to think of the woman who wrote one of the loveliest, most touching books of the past century.

What is saddest of all to think is that the key to the controversy is Lee's current, vulnerable state: she has been confined to a wheelchair and a nursing home since 2007, when she suffered a massive stroke, Mills herself refers to Lee's decline at the end of "The Mockingbird Next Door;" There will be a special circle of Hell just for her if she is in any way exploiting it. But is there someone else who is exploiting Lee--someone who might have put a paper in front of her to sign, disavowing Mills' book, for purposes known only to them but which almost certainly have something to do with money?

We may never know the whole truth, and the speculation is saddening in any case. I prefer to hold in my mind the image I gleaned from Mills' book: two elderly sisters, sharing a book-crammed house in the town in which they grew up, living lives that are calm, dignified, and happy.

July 25, 2014

Two of the All-Time Greats

We've lost a lot of illustrious and brilliant people recently--Nadine Gordimer, Lorin Maazel, Johnny Winter, Paul Mazursky. The losses that affected me most personally were those of James Garner and Elaine Stritch. They have both received many eulogies, all more than deserved; this will be more of a personal musing, beginning with my disappointment that they never worked together, at least according to the Oracle of Bacon at the University of Virginia (a search engine that can tell you instantly who has worked with whom in movies and TV). I could see them in a Y2K-vintage sitcom, playing the Bickersons-style grandparents of one of the regular characters. Or a late-70s crime drama, with Garner as a wry, sly private eye and Stritch as a bitchy grande dame who isn't about to reveal what she knows. Or a Fifties Western, with Garner as a wry, sly cowboy and Stritch as a seen-it-all, done-it-all showgirl. But none of it ever happened, and the world is poorer for it, even as it is immeasurably richer for having had James Garner and Elaine Stritch.

For both performers, I have a favorite screen moment, one that sums up their particular strength and appeal in a nutshell. For Garner, it's a moment in "Support Your Local Sheriff," a delightful and underrated comic Western (and one of my father's favorites, incidentally). Garner, as a peace-loving sheriff determined to clean up his town with as little gunplay as possible, is facing down a black-hatted, black-hearted gunslinger.

"Draw!" the gunslinger says.

"Go to hell!" Garner replies, and starts throwing the rocks he had in his pockets, chasing the nonplussed gunslinger out of town. This, for me, sums up Garner's unique charm: he could handle himself in any situation, in ways that perhaps looked ridiculous on their face, but in fact called for considerable resourcefulness, panache, and cojones, to go multilingual on you. In all the history of movies, only Cary Grant was Garner's equal in this regard. But Garner's drily folksy charisma was all his own.

For me, Stritch's crystallizing moment was during her guest appearance as a defense attorney on "Law and Order," for which she won a richly deserved Emmy. In the moment she discovers her client is a liar, she speaks this line: "I am an officer of the court. I cannot and will not perpetrate a fraud upon it."

Not a memorable line, perhaps, except for the way Stritch delivers it. Into those seventeen words, she packs the world-weariness of someone who has seen every possible permutation of human depravity and perversity, combined with a moral and ethical clarity that informs a steely refusal to give in to depravity.

Elaine Stritch saw it all and did it all, told us what she had seen and done, and told of it with an honesty and decency that signified she was someone we could trust and admire at all times. It's hard to think of anything better you can say about anybody.

About July 2014

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