Friday, March 26, 2010

Hollywood Visits Monroeville, Alabama

All Photos Contributed by the Alabama Department of Tourism. Click any photo to enlarge

Excerpts From: UPclose: Harper Lee by Kerry Madden, published by Viking
Tourism Attraction: Monroe County Heritage Museum
Location: Monroeville, Alabama
Photos: Peggy Collins, Photo Editor, Alabama Tourism Department

Nelle Harper Lee certainly lives a fortunate life, but not because of the incredible commercial and literary success of her classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Rather, she is fortunate because her biggest hero in life was her father, A.C. Lee. She didn’t have to look to famous movie stars, big-time sports celebrities, or even brilliant but distant writers for her role models in life; she grew up with a hero who lived right in her home and happened to be her father.

Fortunately for us, a part of her father came alive not just in the novel but on the big screen in the character of Atticus Finch, thanks to her incredible writing and Gregory Peck’s amazing acting skills. When her father passed away, Harper Lee gave Gregory Peck her father’s pocket watch as a thank you. No other gesture could have been more profound or heartfelt.

Indeed, the story of To Kill A Mockingbird was so special that Hollywood took great care in its production, unlike many other rushed adaptations of popular novels. As many may know, the fictional town of Maycomb was inspired by Ms. Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The following excerpts from Kerry Madden’s biography UPclose: Harper Lee show just how deep the connection was between Monroeville and the novel.

That connection is far from lost today, as Monroeville holds an annual literary festival and play in honor of the novel and movie. The play is performed in the actual courthouse and outdoor settings that inspired the classic novel. Many of the photos that you see in this feature come from that performance and the real courthouse. Please learn more about this amazing literary tourism opportunity following the excerpts.

From UPclose: Harper Lee
The film’s art director, Henry Bumstead, decided that he needed to make a trip to Monroeville to study the town in order to create the right tone for the film. Nelle met him there to show him the sights, and afterward, he wrote a letter to Pakula describing his visit. Bumstead won an Oscar for his set designs of the film. He donated the following letter, written in November 1961, and all his film storyboards to the Old County Courthouse Museum in Monroeville before his death in 2006.

Dear Alan,
I arrived here in Monroeville this afternoon after a very interesting and beautiful drive from Montgomery. Although this is my first visit to Alabama, I have worked in the South a number a times. During my drive I was very much impressed by the lack of traffic, the beautiful countryside, and the character of the negro shacks that dot the terrain.

Harper Lee was there to meet me, and she is a most charming person. She insisted I call her Nelle—feel like I’ve known her for years. Little wonder she was able to write such a successful novel.

Monroeville is a beautiful little town of about 2500 inhabitants. It’s small in size, but large in Southern character. I’m so happy that you made it possible for me to visit the area before designing To Kill A Mockingbird. Most of the houses are of wood, one story, and set up on brick piles. Almost every house has a porch and a swing hanging from the rafters. Believe me, it’s a much more relaxed life than we live in Hollywood.

So far I have seen all the types of buildings that we need for our residential street, but they are scattered throughout the town, so it would have been impossible for us to shoot the picture here in Monroeville. Therefore, I feel that the freeway houses we purchased for our southern street, with sufficient remodeling, will better suit our purposes. I have also photographed a wonderful Boo Radley home, which we can duplicate on our street.

I have also visited the old courthouse square and the interior of the courtroom Nelle wrote about. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am by the architecture and the little touches that will add to our set. Old potbellied stoves still heat the courtroom and beside each one stands a tub filled with coal. Nelle says we should have a block of ice on the exterior of the courthouse steps when we shoot this sequence. It seems people chip off a piece of the ice to take into the courtroom with them to munch on and try to keep cool. It reminded me of my “youth” when I used to follow the wagon to get ice chips.

Nelle is really amused at my picture taking, and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see. She says she didn’t know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with, “I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of door knobs, houses, wagons, collards etc. Can we take time for lunch today?”

The way people look at me around town they must think I’m a Hollywood producer rather than an art director. Nelle warned me about this—that they knew someone from Hollywood was in town, but they didn’t know who I was or what I did.

Yesterday afternoon the news was around town that that man from Hollywood was taking pictures in Mrs. Skinner’s collard patch. They couldn’t understand it because the opinion is that there are much better collard patches around town than Mrs. Skinner’s. It seems that after giving me permission to photograph her collards she rushed to the phone to give out the news. I must admit that when I confessed that I had never seen a collard, both Mrs. Skinner and her colored help looked at me with raised eyebrows.

Nelle says the exterior of Mrs. Dubose’s house should have paint that is peeling. Also, the interior should have dark woodwork, Victorian furniture, and be grim. Her house would be wired for electricity but she would still be using oil lamps—to save money, so Nelle says. Boo Radley’s house should look like it had never been painted—almost haunted.

Other items will be useful—the streets should be dirt, and there are no lamp posts as we know them today. The lamps hung from telephone poles. Also, in 1932 they were still using wooden stoves for their cooking and heating.

The almond trees that line some of the streets are beautiful, but I felt we could get the same character by using white oaks. There are no mailboxes on the houses—seems people go to town to the main post office to pick up their mail.

We photographed some negro shacks, which will be of great help when we come to do the exterior of Tom Robinson’s shack. Many of the shacks are located in areas covered with pine trees so we could do this sequence on the upper Lake section of the lot where we have pine trees.
We also photographed some back porches that will come in handy when we do the back of Boo Radley’s. All in all, certainly feel this trip will be of tremendous help in the designing of the picture. Again, my thanks to you. Warmest regards,
Henry Bumstead

. . . In January 1962, Peck visited Monroeville to soak up local color and see the town. He also wanted to do some research and meet with Nelle and A.C. While Bumstead’s visit had sparked curiosity, Peck’s threw the town into a tailspin. The famous actor was spotted all over Monroeville, from the Wee Diner on Pineville Road to the La Salle Hotel to a local bank where a clerk refused to cash Peck’s check because he had no identification on him. A manager intervened on his behalf.

It was just fine for a hometown girl to write a pretty good novel, but for Gregory Peck to visit? Now, that was big news! High school girls went out driving to try to find where the handsome movie star was staying. One girl, Martha Louise Jones Moorer, got lucky and met him:

We checked the local hotel and found out that they had left, so since there was only one other we tried it. We recognized cars I suppose . . . anyway we decided which room they had to be in so one of the gals dared me to knock on the door and get Mr. Peck’s autograph. I did and Nelle answered the door, not even hello, but “Martha Louise, what are you doing here?”
I timidly said I just wanted his autograph. Nelle was just about to slam the door in my face, but he was sitting just inside the door and said he would be happy to give me his autograph. I still have it!
--Excerpted from UP Close: Harper Lee Cporyright 2009 by Kerry Madden
For a new classic novel about another incredible place to visit, please read the SELTI feature "Find Comfort in Warm Springs, Georgia" here: Comfort is a great educational novel for teachers interested in discussing anti-bullying, disability awareness, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Tourism Guide
All great biographies answer questions, and this one answered several burning questions of mine. Number One: how could an author refuse to discuss—since 1964—her one and only novel that also became one of the greatest novels of American literature? Number Two (maybe Number One): How could anyone, however famous, turn down an interview with Oprah? In a publishing world where marketing and media hype are so important to success, turning down Oprah is practically an unforgivable sacrilege. It’s almost a slap in the face to all aspiring authors and even some bestselling ones, I’m sure.

Who is this lady? Is she selfish? Reclusive? No social charms perhaps, so better off staying away from media interviews? As I read this biography, all of these potential explanations fell through. Ms. Lee is still active in too many charitable and community efforts to be described as selfish. Without her social charms, her good friend Truman Capote would never have gained the access he needed to write his classic book In Cold Blood. She has made successful public appearances since but simply not discussed her novel during those appearances.

She lives a common life, visiting local diners and the local Wal-Mart. Too many people admire her personally for her to be standoffish. The citizens of Monroeville are certainly protective of her privacy, even though many would surely make financial gain for doing otherwise. But you don’t do that to a friend. So what could be the reason for her reluctance to discuss her novel?

A picture slowly began to emerge. We live in an age when what celebrities wear, who they are currently dating, and what exclusive celebrity parties they have recently attended all often distract from their artistic work. Harper Lee has a love of writing deeper than most of us would imagine. In fact, her love of literature led her to make a firm decision decades ago: that the best way for us to get the full impact of her writing is to read her book. She refused, almost presciently considering what was soon to come in levels of media hype everywhere, to allow a personality cult image of herself to ever develop and overshadow her beloved work. She has succeeded. While other celebrities strive hard to build the all-important personality cult image deemed necessary for success, Harper Lee seems to disdain such efforts out of principle. (Sometimes I wonder if celebrities agree to get divorced simply to get their names in the tabloids again, don’t you? The messier the divorce, the more coverage they get—maybe even enough for an inane reality show.)

Rather than a slap in the face, this decision is actually one of the most beautiful lessons aspiring writers could ever learn: that the craft of writing should be so loved and respected that personal fame and attention, even for the most deserving work, should never eclipse the universal giving nature of literature. Those who write do so not to gain personal fame or fortune but to share their soul with the world through their words. By refusing to discuss her novel, Ms. Lee has guaranteed that our attention—even after all these years—has never shifted from the original inspiring message of her novel. That message is as universal today as it was in the early 1960’s: that fighting for what is right, not only when it’s not popular but also when you know that you probably won’t win, is still worth fighting for. That is what Atticus taught us. That is why he was a hero.

Can I not learn that on my own just as well—or even better—by reading the novel than by having Harper Lee tell me in an interview? Isn’t the experience of reading the novel more profoundly pure than seeing it discussed?

As you can imagine, writing a biography of a famous person who has refused to discuss her most important work for over forty years was quite a difficult task. At first, I felt for Kerry as I read the biography. How was she going to do this? In a sense, the biography also had a pureness to it because Kerry had to approach the whole thing without the benefit of interviewing the main subject. She had to go to the town, interview friends and locals, pore over the research. She had to think hard and write even better.

For those literary fans who got the message of To Kill A Mockingbird, this biography is a fascinating read that brings you into the making of the novel, movie, and person. There are so many amazing parts of this biography that I would like to share with you, but I’ll follow Harper’s lead: read the book!
I can say that Monroeville is still very much alive with the spirit of the classic story. Just visit some of the links below to learn more about the town that inspired Maycomb and the novel that captured all of our hearts. Imagine stepping into the actual courtroom that inspired Harper Lee; you can only do this in Monroeville at the Old Courthouse Museum, a spectacular attraction that makes the novel come alive before your eyes. Hollywood replicated this courtroom for the classic movie, and stepping into the real thing is quite an overwhelming experience.

Monroeville has also recently joined the Southern Literary Trail, a partnership between Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that has connected many classic literary tourism attractions together through a central website with links. I strongly recommend a visit to the Southern Literary Trail. One example of their listed attractions is in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama: the former home of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in beautiful Old Cloverdale. I also took a virtual tour of Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, through that site (I’m planning a real trip, but this is one of the many valuable features that allows a literary tourist to learn about a site before visiting). Even Shelby Foote, a favorite writer of mine when I was a boy, is represented in the project. There are many more literary tourism destinations involved with the Southern Literary Trail, so please check it out at: You will be excited at what you find there. Alabama is well represented, along with Monroeville, the official Literary Capital of Alabama. Indeed, so many high-profile writers have connections to this small Alabama town that many have said: "It must be the water," a phrase that inspired the fountain, seen right, at the Alabama Center for the Literary Arts.

After declining an interview request from Oprah in 2006, Ms. Lee did send an open, gracious letter to her. Oprah published the short letter in her magazine. Of course, Ms. Lee did not discuss the novel. Even so, the letter still created lots of media hype—but hardly any of it was about the novel itself; rather, the coverage mostly focused on the reclusive nature of Ms. Lee’s life and what a scoop Oprah had achieved. If anyone deserved such a scoop, it was Oprah. Even as the Queen of Daytime TV, Oprah shares an incredible passion with Ms. Lee for reading, and she has done as much or more as anyone to promote reading.

What remarkably opposite paths these two women have taken in sharing their inspiring genius and passion with the world! I would have been very intrigued to see these two women talk based just on that. With Oprah’s incredible life story starting in Mississippi and Ms. Lee’s story starting in Alabama, there would be plenty for them to discuss without ever touching the novel.

Here’s an idea, Oprah: why not do one of your shows in the Monroe County courtroom? There’s plenty of room for an audience, and it would be one of the most inspiring venues for literature that your show has ever broadcast from. Ms. Lee might not show up for an interview, but I’m sure that Kerry would be glad to fill in; the two of you could swap stories about how insanely difficult it is to get an interview with the elusive Harper Lee. Kerry’s biography of Lee is part of Penguin’s Up Close series and is aimed at young adults, so invite some teenagers along as guests. Kerry also does workshops to help young adults with creative writing and teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It would be an experience that the teenagers would never forget and spotlight the value of reading classic literature for young adults everywhere. I’ll bet you would enjoy doing a show in the same room that inspired the novel that gave us Atticus Finch.

Kerry, seen left, has also written a wonderful young adult fictional series based on the real Maggie Valley in North Carolina (I’m still reading Lousiana’s Song for the next feature, Kerry). Find out more about the Maggie Valley series on Kerry’s website at the link below, and stay tuned for an upcoming excerpt here. I’ve already picked out the excerpt, but I want to finish the whole series before writing the article.

A special thanks to Peggy Collins, Photo Editor for the Alabama Tourism Department, for providing all of the photos for this feature (except for Kerry's profile photo). Photography is a major element of this project, and since I am not a professional photographer, the aid of many talented tourism officials, media staff, and even local professional photographers have been invaluable to each feature. My thanks to all of you who have helped. I am often amazed at how these photos end up fitting perfectly with the stories and excerpts, and I cannot imagine any of the features without them. A special thanks to my partner, Patricia Neely-Dorsey, for encouraging me to make photography such an important part of the features. Patricia is the author of Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A Life in Poems, one of the most heartwarming books I've read in a long time. Learn more about her and the Tupelo connection in the December Stories By Month in the top left.

Tourism Links

Monroe County Heritage Museum

Kerry Madden’s homepage (learn more about UPclose: Harper Lee and the Maggie Valley series)

Monroe County Chamber of Commerce (learn about motels, restaurants, and shopping)

Pub. Date: March 2009
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Format: Hardcover, 224pp
Age Range: Young Adult
Series: Up Close Series
ISBN-13: 9780670010950
ISBN: 0670010952

Buy a copy of UPclose: Harper Lee at Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, AL

Viking (publisher of UPclose: Harper Lee)

Official State of Alabama Tourism Web Site (learn about all of Alabama’s attractions)

Alabama Center for the Literary Arts (located in Monroeville)

See Scout Finch all grown up!

Patricia Neely-Dorsey found me from Mississippi through a link put up by the Alabama Writers Forum, the state-wide literary arts organization. They are a great resource site and community for writers and literary fans, regardless of your state.

SELTI is an interactive community, so feel free to join the blog by clicking “Follow” in the top left. You might have to register for a free Google account, but that only requires a simple username and password. Plus, once you have a Google username, you can follow many fascinating blogs from one place, as I do, and post comments on the features that you like best. There is also a Facebook version of SELTI that allows email notifications whenever a new feature is published and provides a quick summary and link to all of the features. Please post your comments on the features and tourism locations to help guide other literary fans out there. And feel free to recommend any of your favorite literary tourism experiences as a way of sharing with others. Here is the Facebook link to SELTI: Facebook is a great way to share this site with your friends by using the Invite People To Join feature. Just don't bother trying to "friend" Harper Lee, but there is a Facebook fan page:


  1. One of my all time favorite books. You did a wonder job on this. Thanks.

  2. Wonderful piece. Well-written and the pics nicely enhance the narrative. You bring the book, the era, the setting and even the reclusive author alive. Thanks for posting this. Makes me want to head back down South for a visit.