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Killing the Mocking Bird?

The reclusive Harper Lee turns her hometown against herself with notice to a museum over use of her famous work.

Written by Reuters | Published: November 10, 2013 3:22:39 am

Harper Lee was once universally revered by her hometown of Monroeville,Alabama,but a legal battle over the shrine it built to honour 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 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. “She just detested the attention of people who just wanted to be friends,” said George Jones,91,who went to school with Lee.

The legal dispute has formed a cloud over the woman known as “Miss Nelle”. 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. “Now,you can ask me anything you want,” said the owner of Radley’s Fountain Grille,named for the mysterious neighbour in the Pulitzer-prize-winning book about racial discrimination in the American South. “She always complained about the cottage industry around her work,but she never raised an issue with the museum,he said.

Attorneys for Lee accuse the local museum of violating her right to profit from her sole work,which has sold more than 30 million copies and is still required reading for two-thirds of American schools. In 20 years,the museum has never paid a licensing fee to the author.

The museum says that’s because she never requested it.

In the giftshop,a To Fill a Mockingbird cookbook is joined by similarly branded T-shirts,kitchen towels,soaps and posters. Walls of the tiny upstairs display rooms are covered with mementos of Lee and next-door-neighbour Truman Capote.

Photos,artefacts and hand-written notes tell of two childhoods that produced writers who hit the literary scene in the 1960s.

Lee’s lawyers are seeking a trademark application for the book,which the museum has challenged on the grounds of long-time practice,although it says it is willing to give Lee a share of the profits.

The dispute has turned some longtime fans of the book against her. Jones,a museum volunteer,can recite the local inspiration for every character in the book; the father of the boy who was the source for Boo Radley allegedly chained him to his bed as a teenager. Yet Jones describes Lee as “a grumpy old woman who could do a lot more for this town”.

Some fear the lawsuit could shut down the museum,which relies on the gift shop to fund its educational programmes for schoolchildren,and potentially hurt local businesses that depend on the steady trickle of tourists. “Without tourism,I don’t know what the town would do,” said Nathan Carter,a cousin of Capote.

A historic marker and a mural of the novel’s three principal child characters — Scout,Jem and Dill — are all that is left of the street that kindled the imaginations of two writers. Old memories of Lee are warm. As a kid,Lee protected Capote from bullies. Other locals remember anonymous gifts for people with injured children or fees for camps for underprivileged children.

Miss Nelle would often visit Monroeville from New York and sign books,until someone sold an autographed book on the Internet. That did it,Jones said. “She hated being commercialised.”

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