Town dependent on fame of Harper Lee book stung by museum lawsuit

Sat Nov 2, 2013 2:37pm EDT
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By Verna Gates

MONROEVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - Harper Lee was once universally revered by her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, but a legal battle over the shrine it built to honor her literary legacy is dividing the small southern city.

The 87-year-old author recently filed a lawsuit against the local museum dedicated to her still-popular 1960 bestseller, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in a dispute over a merchandising trademark.

Exhibits there celebrate Lee's achievements, as does an annual play based on the book, while Lee leads a sheltered life at an assisted living home on the edge of town. The townspeople have shielded her from strangers since she moved back from New York a few years ago.

"She just detested the attention of people who just wanted to be friends because she wrote the book," said George Jones, 91, who went to school with Lee.

The legal dispute has formed a cloud over the woman known as "Miss Nelle" after her given name. Lee isn't talking, but some locals who once were fiercely protective of her are.

"A year ago, I would not have given you the time of day to talk about Miss Nelle," said Sam Therrell, 79, a longtime board member of the museum who knew Lee for many years. "Now, you can ask me anything you want," said the owner of Radley's Fountain Grille, named for the mysterious neighbor in the Pulitzer-prize-winning book about the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination in the American South.

"She always complained about the cottage industry that had arisen around her work," but she never raised an issue with the museum, he said, except on one occasion when a cookbook was issued in 2001 using the name of Calpurnia, a key character in the book. The cookbook was withdrawn.

Attorneys for Lee accuse the local museum of violating her right to profit from her sole work, which they say has sold more than 30 million copies and is still required reading for two-thirds of American schools.   Continued...

Drink coasters are shown for sale in the gift shop of the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, Alabama October 23, 2013. Harper Lee, the 87-year-old author of the still-popular 1960 bestseller, "To Kill a Mockingbird", recently filed a lawsuit against the museum dedicated to her novel in a dispute over a merchandising trademark. Photo taken October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Verna Gates