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To Steal A Mockingbird?

Illustration for article titled To Steal A Mockingbird?

Ugliness in the literary world. This one involves Harper Lee. Mark Seal has the sordid details in a story for Vanity Fair:

The old lady played the quarter slots. She would roll up and down the rows of jangling slot machines in her wheelchair until she sensed a likely jackpot. Then she would feed quarters for hours, reveling in the anonymity of the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel, a high-rise, Vegas-style gambling establishment about an hour south of her hometown, Monroeville, Alabama. In the gaudy confines of the American Indian casino, she felt safe; nobody seemed to recognize her or give a good goddamn about that book of hers.

That is how Harper Lee, the fiercely private author of To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, who had refused to give a substantive interview since 1964, spent her sunset years. Often at her back, pushing her wheelchair, was her Methodist minister and close friend, Thomas Lane Butts, who drove me to Wind Creek one evening in May to visit the scene where what is shaping up to be one of the most disturbing chapters in American letters began.

“I used to take Harper Lee down here until she got too old to play,” said the refined, white-haired reverend, stopping beside a corner slot machine, where in early May 2007, he said, he had found the writer gambling in the company of her local attorney, Tonja Carter, “who was handing her money,” and a visitor from New York in a “sport shirt with the tail hanging out,” whose name was Samuel L. Pinkus.

“That’s my agent,” Lee told her friend.

According to Butts, he walked over and extended his hand, but Pinkus ignored it. Instead, he playfully reached into the pocket of the reverend’s sport coat and snatched out a voucher for roughly $100—Butts’s winnings for the evening.

“I’m taking this,” he said.

“You’re a real carpetbagger, aren’t you?,” Butts told him.

“And you’re a redneck, aren’t you?” said Pinkus.

“I certainly am and proud of it,” said Butts.

The reverend then watched Carter and Pinkus escort Lee to dinner at Fire, the casino’s glass-walled steak house. Around this time, according to a lawsuit filed by Lee in May, Pinkus did to her pretty much what he had done in jest to Butts. Only, instead of a casino voucher, Pinkus allegedly had Lee sign over to him the copyright of her perennial jackpot of a novel.

“Have you seen the lawsuit?,” Reverend Butts asked me. “It’s the darnedest thing.”

Filed in New York District Court, the suit names Pinkus, his wife, former TV-news writer Leigh Ann Winick, and Gerald Posner, a Miami-based attorney and investigative journalist with a questionable reputation, as defendants. It claims that Pinkus “engaged in a scheme to dupe Harper Lee, then 80-years-old with declining hearing and eye sight, into assigning her valuable TKAM [To Kill a Mockingbird] copyright to [Pinkus’s company] for no consideration,” and then created shell companies and bank accounts to which the book’s royalties were funneled. (The defendants are not accused of stealing her royalties.)

As the emerging scandal rocked the publishing world, I flew to Monroeville and stood in its former county courthouse, now a museum devoted to the town’s two literary sensations, Harper Lee and Truman Capote, who were childhood neighbors and lifelong friends. Upstairs in the museum is the courtroom where Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman “A. C.” Lee, tried his cases, and where Harper, as a child, and the character Scout in her novel, watched adoringly from the balcony. Lee thinly disguised Monroeville in the book as Maycomb, “a tired old town…. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.” She gave her father the name Atticus Finch.

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