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Reclusive Harper Lee speaks to British reporter -- about ducks

June 29, 2010 |  6:39 am
Harperlee_2005
Saying thank you for a box of chocolates doesn't normally make headlines, but a British reporter's brief encounter with Harper Lee has made it newsworthy. Although Lee once palled around with Truman Capote -- they grew up together in Alabama -- she avoided the spotlight as much as he embraced it. Now 84, Lee lives quietly in a small Alabama town, 50 years after the publication of her famous novel.

That book, of course, is "To Kill a Mockingbird," the widely read tale of the segregation-era South featuring young Scout and her highly moral father, Atticus Finch. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, was made into a film starring Gregory Peck (nominated for eight Oscars, it won three) and in a 1999 survey by Library Journal was deemed "The Best Novel of the Century."

After the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Lee declined to publish again. She has rarely granted interviews and has turned down most appearance requests. So when she recently spoke to a reporter for the Daily Mail, it's no wonder that the literary world paid attention -- even if what she said revealed little.

"Thank you so much," Lee said as the reporter presented a box of chocolates. "You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it." And that was it -- the reported had agreed to not discuss "To Kill A Mockingbird" at all.

The book's 50th anniversary, which is officially July 11, will continue to focus attention on Lee and her book. The documentary "Hey, Boo," which features fans and friends talking about "To Kill a Mockingbird," is accompanied by the book, "Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' " In it, Oprah Winfrey says, "I knew 20 minutes into the conversation that I would never be able to convince her to do an interview and it is not my style to push. ... She said to me, 'I already said everything I needed to say. … You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn't be doing an interview because I am really Boo.' I knew that was the end of it. I just enjoyed the lunch."

In 2005, Lee made one of her rare public appearances, here in Los Angeles. She traveled by train at the request of Veronique Peck, Gregory's second wife, to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award as part of a fundraising celebration. The Pecks were longtime supporters of the L.A. Public Library and its foundation and had remained friends with Lee; a grandson is named Harper. More than $700,000 was raised at the event, and more than 600 supporters turned out.

After Lee was presented the award by Brock Peters, the actor who played the black man falsely accused of rape in the film, she hesitated. "Her lips moved as she looked around the plaza with a faint air of alarm," our reporter wrote. "Veronique Peck whispered to her, and Lee bent to the microphone for her only remarks of the evening: 'I'll say it again,' she said. 'Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.'"

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Actress Annette Bening with Harper Lee at the Richard Riordan Central Library on May 19, 2005. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times


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