MONROEVILLE, Ala. — "Miss Jean Louise, Stand up! Your father’s passin’!” ranks as one of the most famous lines in America’s oeuvre of movies made from books.
I sat in the same courtroom balcony in this small town which Nelle Harper Lee used as the fictional setting Maycomb for her 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her only book.
The Rev. Sykes, relegated to the balcony with other blacks, utters that line as the 8-year-old’s father, defense attorney Atticus Finch (actor Gregory Peck) departs after losing a 1930’s era trial where his client, a black man, is convicted of raping a white woman.
Miss Jean Louise, whose innocent voice narrates the movie, is nicknamed Scout.
I visited during the annual Alabama Writer’s Symposium, sponsored by Alabama Center for the Arts and other literary organizations.
Schmoozing at this event, I heard for the first time speculation that Harper Lee’s real-life older sister Alice, a local attorney still practicing law at the age of 101, might have been the basis for the Finch character, and not their father-attorney Amasa Lee, usually cited for that honor.
If true, that change upends decades of literary scholarship. Nelle Harper Lee, a law school dropout, dedicated her book to both her sister and her father.
“Alice is Atticus Finch in a skirt,” the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, a local minister and close family friend, told interviewer Ben Raines in 2011.
Alice was a trailblazer, a woman practicing law in Alabama before World War II. The Alabama Bar magazine recently featured Alice, citing her stellar reputation for assisting the less fortunate. Alice represents her younger sister, known locally as Miss Nelle, in legal matters, and acts as gatekeeper to this day.
“Things I have done have been good for other people. I’ve tried to be a good citizen in my community,” Alice was quoted in a 2011 Al.com interview.
Harper Lee 87, gave her last interview in 1964, expressing her disgust at journalists she said misquoted her. Neither she nor Alice ever married.
In 2012, Harper Lee astonished everyone by appearing unannounced at the annual Symposium luncheon I attended. But, alas, this year she did not attend.
Monroeville citizens join in what the Rev. Butts told me is a “gentle conspiracy” to conceal the location of Harper Lee’s residence, her present whereabouts and the condition of her health.
Her last public appearance was 2007 at the White House when President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Upward of 30,000 visitors annually, drawn by Harper Lee’s universal themes of honor, devotion to family and adolescent coming-of-age, visit the 1903 courthouse, which has been converted into the Monroe County Heritage Museum, where one could easily spend a day viewing videos and very well-done exhibits.
One evening after a symposium-sponsored dinner on the courthouse front lawn of friend chicken, fried okra, cornbread and peach cobbler, we attended the annual all-volunteer production of “Mockingbird” in play form, which sells out almost instantly.
The first act is held outdoors on the side lawn; and although the actors are all local amateurs, they deliver a first-class job.
With typical Southern hospitality, the sound technician invited us before the performance to ride around town with him in a 1927 Ford truck, a delightful adventure. The truck later ambled through the outdoor play as part of a scene. The second act, the trial, is acted inside the 1903 courthouse-museum.
Unlike most museums worldwide where visitors can’t touch anything, inside the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which is free, visitors can sit in the “real” judge’s seat, the witness stand or at the plaintiff/prosecution and defense tables, which the movie modeled.
Upward of 30,000 visitors annually from around the world make a pilgrimage to what, in 1997, the Alabama legislature designated “Alabama’s literary capital.”
The 1962 film, nominated for eight Oscars, was not filmed here. Artisans constructed an exact replica of the town street and the courthouse on a Hollywood movie lot.