MONROEVILLE, Ala. >> Retrace the suddenly tangled legal saga of Harper Lee and her legacy, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and a pivotal moment emerges.
As her longtime protector, older sister and attorney Alice Finch Lee turned 100 and stopped practicing law a couple years ago, another lawyer in Alice’s small firm became the point person for the “Mockingbird” brand.
Tonja Carter had worked in Alice Lee’s office before graduating from the University of Alabama law school in 2006 and becoming Alice Lee’s partner. Her ascendance brought more aggressive legal tactics: A lawsuit over the rights to “Mockingbird.” Another to stop the town museum from selling “Mockingbird” souvenirs. A note telling a longtime friend of Harper Lee to keep his distance.
Carter, 49, soon became known around the sisters’ home county, where she too grew up, for jealously protecting the writer from visitors and perceived threats to her business interests.
And it was Carter who was the lynchpin in the stunning Feb. 3 announcement that a sequel to “Mockingbird,” titled “Go Set a Watchman” would be published, according to the arm of HarperCollins Publishers that announced it. Carter found the unpublished novel, written in the mid-1950s but locked away since, and negotiated the deal, the publisher said.
The news baffled many. Harper Lee has been intensely private in the decades since she picked up honors for her 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner. She had told friends and relatives for years that she didn’t plan to publish another book.
Speculation quickly swirled over whether the elderly writer’s wishes are being honored, particularly after friends and townspeople told The Associated Press they were troubled by her condition when she appeared at her sister’s funeral in November.
But others close to Carter and the Lee sisters cautioned against misreading Carter’s legal maneuvering.
Connie Baggett, a former newspaper reporter and a longtime friend of Carter, said Friday that the attorney was trusted implicitly by Alice Lee and in turn by Harper, whom locals call by her first name, Nelle.
“She’s not some interloper,” said Baggett, who came to know Carter and the Lees during two decades of covering southwest Alabama for the Mobile Press-Register. “She’s been part of the inner circle for years.”
Harper Lee used to split time between New York and Alabama but has lived full-time in Monroeville, halfway between Montgomery and Mobile, since suffering a stroke in 2007. She was last seen publicly at her sister’s funeral, where she talked loudly to herself about seemingly unrelated things in a manner that alarmed those present, according to several who were there but insisted on anonymity for fear of upsetting those close to the family.
But historian Wayne Flynt, another longtime friend of the sisters, said he visited Harper Lee the day before the deal was announced, and found her completely lucid, cracking jokes and discussing the works of C.S. Lewis, though she didn’t mention her own new book.
“This narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady, is just hogwash. It’s just complete bunk,” Flynt said, adding that he has “no reason to question Tonja Carter’s integrity.”
It’s important to note, Flynt said, that “Alice brought her in, kept her as a partner. She let her work increasingly with Nelle.”
The 88-year-old Lee is nearly blind and deaf and lives in an assisted living center in town. Relatives and others close her typically don’t comment about publicly about her in deference to the publicity-shy author’s wishes. Carter fits the mold: She hasn’t responded to interview requests.
With a title taken from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, “Watchman” will be released in July and already is No. 1 on Amazon based on pre-orders. The new book is set about 20 years after “Mockingbird,” in which attorney Atticus Finch defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s.
In the sequel, Finch’s daughter, Scout, returns to her Alabama from New York to confront attitudes and feelings about her childhood home.
“I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of ‘Watchman,'” the author said in a statement relayed through Carter and attributed to her Thursday by the publisher.
Carter handled Alice Lee’s will following her death. Then, as Harper Lee’s attorney, one of their first salvos was a lawsuit in May 2013 against the son-in-law of a former literary agent, which restored control of the copyright for “Mockingbird.”
Carter had signed a document in which Lee had reaffirmed her desire to give away the rights, but Carter also fought to restore those same rights to Lee, according to the complaint filed on Lee’s behalf by a New York law firm.
Lee then sought a trademark for “To Kill A Mockingbird” items, like the knick-knacks sold in a town museum that includes displays about the book. The museum opposed the trademark request, and then it too was sued by Lee, accused of wrongly selling “Mockingbird” memorabilia without authorization and without paying royalties.
Baggett, whose parents were eulogized by Carter and her husband Patrick following their deaths, said the proliferation of “Mockingbird” related products was part of the reason Carter advised Lee to more aggressively protect her interests and income after her sister’s retirement.
“Nelle was fiercely protective of the characters in her book while Alice was handling things,” Baggett said. “As things have unfolded, Tonja took action. I can’t imagine anyone looking out for the interests of the book and for Nelle who wouldn’t do the same.”
The lawsuits were settled, but more controversy erupted last year when author Marja Mills published her book “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” The former Chicago Tribune writer had moved next door to the sisters in 2004 and documented their quiet lives in the city that inspired Maycomb, the setting in the novel.
Harper Lee released a statement through Carter saying the book wasn’t authorized, prompting Alice Lee to send her own hand-written apology to Mills. In it, Alice Lee said Carter had created the statement, and had Harper Lee sign it. “Poor Nelle Lee can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” her sister wrote. “Now she has no memory of the incident.”
Alice Lee describes confronting Carter in the letter, provided to the AP by Mills, and said the whole episode left her “humiliated, embarrassed and upset about the suggestion of the lack of integrity at my office.”
Alice Lee died at 103 on Nov. 17. It was also in the fall, according to the publisher, that Carter found an unpublished manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” attached to an original typescript of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Baggett, who now works for the south Alabama town of Brewton, rejected suggestions by some that Carter was trying to personally profit from legal disputes involving Harper Lee, or the new book.
“I think if there were a motive of greed, family members would have stormed in to put a stop to things,” said Baggett. “I have not seen that happening.”jree
It was Carter who filed Alice Lee’s will in Monroe County Probate Court. Lee left her estate to relatives and made donations to organizations affiliated with the United Methodist Church, in which she was heavily involved.
Harper Lee was among the relatives who signed documents waiving their right to receive notice of probate proceedings about the will, witnessed by Carter and signed by Alice Lee in 2009 while she was still practicing law on a limited basis. Such waivers are common and typically signal that relatives won’t contest the will.
Harper Lee has received honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2001, but even then, she wasn’t much for speaking. Asked to make remarks at the state ceremony, she said simply: “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”
Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; Bill Barrow and Ray Henry in Atlanta; and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.