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R.I.P. Nelle Harper Lee (1926 – 2016)

President George W. Bush shares a moment with author Harper Lee Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, prior to presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

The American South lost an authentic legend when Nelle Harper Lee died Friday morning, February 19th, at the assisted living facility where she lived in Monroeville, AL.

She was admired throughout the world for her novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and she was cherished by her many friends in Alabama. I was not one of them. Never saw her except in photographs. I did, however, hear a number of rollicking Nelle Lee stories during the late 1980s when I worked for the Montgomery Advertiser and the Alabama Journal, the morning and afternoon daily newspapers in Montgomery.

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee

A few old time newspaper people were then still around who had worked at the Montgomery papers during her time working there in the late 1940s. Their anecdotes reflected affection and admiration for Nelle Lee, but also revealed a much more interesting character than one might guess from some of her press and from the several sweet-little-old-white-haired-lady photographs taken of Miss Lee her during the last 10 years.

The daughter of a crusty old Alabama newspaper owner and lawyer, she was a real newspaper reporter: she loved to smoke cigarettes and drink distilled spirits and cuss. She had a delightfully wicked sense of humor and a talent for the spontaneous, merciless quip.

The late Darryl Gates, an Alabama Journal editor, told me several Nelle Lee stories. Here are a couple I liked best:

A man named Grover Cleveland Hall, Jr. was an editor on the Montgomery daily papers for 25 years. A solid editor, Hall was also known as a flashy dresser, who considered himself something of a bon vivant and handy with the ladies. Nelle Lee said of Hall: “He’s the only man I know that can strut sitting down.”

Another story involved a long-serving member of the U.S. Congress from Alabama. The lawmaker was at home in Alabama when Nelle Lee went to interview him. While sitting with her in his Montgomery office, the arrogant old fool exposed himself and, with a lecherous grin, asked, “What do you think?

“I’ve seen better,” was Harper Lee’s quick response.

R.I.P.: Nelle Harper Lee, one of our most beloved writers and a strong, courageous Southern woman.

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