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“Go Set a Watchman” might be ultimate ‘victimless crime’

Authorized or not, "Watchman" is set to bring big bucks to Harper Lee and a lot of other people.

President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Harper Lee during a ceremony Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, in the East Room.

According to Bloomberg Business, Nelle Harper Lee’s newly released book “Go Set a Watchman”  is Harper-Collins’ most pre-ordered book ever. Harper-Collins is selling the book for around $20 in bookstores across the country. At that price, its first run printing of 2 million books, if sold out, could pour $40 million into their coffers.

I would wish that not a single copy is sold until the circumstances surrounding its “discovery” and publication have been brought into the light of day, and I do not mean a “light” shined on the situation by lawyer Tonja Carter.

Nelle Harper Lee, a private person

Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, lived much of her life in New York City, where she maintained the self-imposed, relatively publicity-free lifestyle of her choice. She has been described by others as “not a recluse, just a very private person.” In her own words, she has discussed the overwhelming effects on her life resulting from the unexpected sensation caused by her book. She rarely granted interviews and maintained close relationships only with people who respected her wishes is this area. According to her literary agent and publisher, Lee has not spoken to the press since 1964.

In 2007 Lee, now 89, suffered a severe stroke, which reportedly left her hard of hearing and nearly blind. Lee returned to live in her hometown of Monroeville, AL. There, her older sister Alice Finch Lee, a lawyer,  saw to Lee’s legal and financial affairs until she retired in 2011 at the age of 100. Alice died in 2014. Tonja Carter had worked in the law firm before graduating from law school in 2006 and becoming a partner. As Alice aged, Carter picked up her slack in the Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter law firm. When Alice retired, Carter became Harper Lee’s primary caretaker.

The “story” about the story

It was Carter who “stumbled” upon the manuscript in August 2014, three months before Alice’s death, while going through the Lee sisters’ joint safety deposit box and after hearing her family talk about a possible second novel. “Go Set a Watchman” was completed in 1957,  years before “Mockingbird.” The manuscript underwent several revisions under editorial supervision before the book was rewritten from a different viewpoint and published as “to Kill a Mockingbird.” Considering that the “Watchman” manuscript was bound up with the original “Mockingbird” manuscript in the deposit box, it seems unlikely that “Watchman” was ever ‘lost,’ as Carter now tells the story. Even if it were lost, Nell and Alice had plenty of time to ferret it out, had they been so inclined, long before reaching the point that Carter became the caretaker.

In fact, according to Sotheby’s, one of its agents visited the box in October 2011 with Carter and Samuel Pinkus, who was Lee’s literary agent at the time, reading and discussing the Watchman manuscript. Carter says she was not in the room and knew nothing of the manuscript, though Pinkus also claims that he and Carter visited the safety box a second time and that both of them knew of the manuscript’s existence.

Carter denies the claims of Sotheby and Pinkus, saying that she revisited the box in August 2014, having gotten the idea from discussion with Lee’s friends that there might be a second book revolving around a character that did not make it to the final edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It must also be stated that Carter brought and won a lawsuit against Pinkus on behalf of Lee’s estate in 2013, in which the author alleged that Pinkus had her sign over “Mockingbird’s” copyright to his company. Lee’s complaint stated that, due to macular degeneration, she was incapable of signing documents because it is “difficult for her to read documents not printed in very large type.”

Public fears and dollar signs

When the news of the “Watchman” book deal broke this past February, many wondered whether Lee was capable of consenting to the publishing contract and feared that she had been manipulated. Harper Lee was last seen in public at her sister’s funeral in 2014. Carter restricts Lee’s visitors and is, reportedly, almost always present when Lee has visitors. Even officials of Harper-Collins admit that they have agreed to this deal without having spoken, even once, directly to Nelle Harper Lee. All of their communications with her have been through Carter or Lee’s current literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg. I imagine that McGraw-Hill, publisher of Clifford Irving’s biography of Howard Hughes, could give them a few pointers on vetting sources.

Friends who discount the questions swirling around the publication of “Watchman” point out that both Alice Lee and Harper Lee had known Carter for years, considered her a friend and trusted her implicitly. Others might say that those are three important elements in the success of any nefarious scheme.

Responding to an anonymous complaint of elder abuse, the Alabama Securities Commission investigated and concluded that Lee wanted to publish the book. The Securities Commission, really?

On February 3rd, Harper-Collins posted a press release about the Watchman manuscript containing this statement from Harper Lee: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”  Statement supplied by Tonja Carter.

Deception or perception?

Lee and her lawyer sister had this manuscript in their possession for decades, during which Lee eschewed any desire to publish anything, ever again. Nothing about this scenario goes to allay the fear of many that a sick old woman is being manipulated, by lawyers, agents, publishers, and other beneficiaries, into a position that contradicts her  decades-long stance. Namely, that she did not wish to write and publish anything, ever again.

Additionally, there is the fact that the “Watchman” portrayal of Atticus Finch may not be the one that Harper Lee would have the public remember. Any author is entitled to have the last, well-reasoned word on how, when and whether or not his creation is presented to readers. Nelle Harper Lee is not just ‘any’ author.

On June 30th a photograph of Harper Lee surfaced in the media. The frail looking author is said to be discussing her upcoming book with her longtime friend and benefactor Joy Brown and documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy. The trio were photographed at The Prop & Gavel restaurant in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., on June 30. The image shows Murphy showing Lee a hardcover copy of her new book.  The Prop & Gavel is a failed restaurant owned by Tonja Carter and her husband, which has been shown as ‘temporarily closed’ on its website page for quite some time, but is apparently gearing up to reopen most any day now.

Through Alice’s looking glass

In 2011 after much going back and forth as to whether Alice and Harper had known and cooperated in the writing of “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Alice learned that Tonja Carter had written a letter denying that Harper knew of the book, and had Harper sign it. Alice, saying that they were aware of the book, wrote an apology letter, stating, “ Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.” Additionally, Alice wrote, “I am humiliated, embarrassed and upset about the suggestion of lack of integrity at my office. I am waiting for the other shoe to fall…”

On Monday, July 13th, 2015, The Guardian carried a story about Carter’s hinting that she may have uncovered a third novel tucked away in this miraculous safety deposit box. She says that “at Nelle’s direction, experts are being invited to examine and authenticate” all the documents.

I think I just heard another shoe fall.

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