If Alice F. Lee didn’t happen to be Nelle Harper Lee’s sister, lawyer, and roommate, the AP might not have run an obituary on the occasion of her death on Monday at the age of 103. But one of the most remarkable things about Alice is that the AP’s piece hardly mentioned Harper Lee. Alice retired from the law firm she had inherited from her father, A.C. Lee (the model for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch), at the age of 100, which made her Alabama’s oldest working attorney at the time. She was such an important part of the Southern Methodist Church (where she quietly led its move away from institutional racism) that there’s an award named for her. She was a community pioneer, a generous advocate of equality and justice, and a guardian of collective memory.
She was also the protector — and, more important, the public ambassador — of one of the most celebrated and most private authors in the country. In their later years, as Nelle spent more and more time in the family’s Monroeville ranch house, her garrulous older sister helped broker a fragile détente between Harper Lee and the world. But with Alice’s decline a few years ago, the author became not only more isolated — from us and from her sister — but more vulnerable to exploitation.
Three years ago, when Penguin Press acquired Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door, a memoir of her friendship with the Lees in the mid-00s, Harper Lee’s new lawyer, Tonja Carter — Alice’s successor at the family firm — released a statement from Harper Lee denying participation in the book. When the memoir was published this summer and Carter sent another denial, Penguin released a 2011 letter from Alice professing absolute shock at the first denial — and accusing Carter of inducing the incapacitated author to sign it.
The situation is still murky, but the fact is that Alice and Nelle were downright chatty in their later years. Charles Shields, who wrote the ultimately unauthorized 2006 biography Mockingbird, had been corresponding with Alice, mostly on town and family history, before being shut down by Nelle’s agent (who was later sued for taking her copyright). It was in the interest of local history — the original subject of Marja Mills’s book — that Alice opened the Lees’ ranch-house door to that author, then a Chicago Tribune reporter, and broke a longstanding tradition of fleeing at the sight of a notebook. Her sister had written the fictional version of the family’s life — had immortalized its values, as well as the more complicated mores of Monroeville — and was content to leave it at that. But Alice, remembered by all for encyclopedic memory, wanted to preserve the actual facts.
“She was a keeper of history in the way that no one else can be,” says Mills, who plans to attend Alice Lee’s funeral (if permitted). “There was a breadth and depth to her knowledge, even of Nelle’s own girlhood, which she remembered from the perspective of an adult” — being 15 years older than Nelle. When I tried to puzzle out Lee’s tangled affairs earlier this year, the historian and family friend Wayne Flynt theorized on the difference between the sisters’ attitudes. “Alice wanted the family story told,” he told me. “Nelle is afraid that telling the family story will be telling her story.” To the extent that Nelle softened her stance on that — apparently going on the record with Mills in the interest of setting family rumors straight — Alice’s openness and sense of fairness probably had a major influence.
The only bigger influence on Harper Lee than Alice would have been her father; in fact, Nelle was known to call her “Atticus in a skirt.” Alice protected Nelle and her interests, and it was only when her influence faded that Nelle’s agent stepped in to betray her interests — and that, a few years later, Carter pressed a lawsuit against the town museum that betrayed the uneasy piece between Monroeville and its famous author. But in Alice’s decline and death, something else was lost, too — all that history behind To Kill a Mockingbird, from a source at least as reliable as the Harper Lee. Their old friend, Thomas Lane Butts, told the AP that losing Alice was like “the closing of a great library.” It was also the closing of the door between the author and her millions of readers, which was always, even if imperceptibly, ajar.