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Archive for Sunday, April 3, 2005

To Kill a Mockingbird’ author helped Truman Capote break the ice in Kansas

April 3, 2005

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Opinions vary about Truman Capote and his book, but another writer, who published a novel in the same time period, receives almost universal praise in Holcomb and Garden City for her talent and her presence.

Nelle Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Capote's childhood friend, accompanied him to Kansas in 1959, in his words as "an assistant researchist."

Lee and Capote have a history of showing up in each other's literature. She inspired a character in his first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms." He was the basis for one in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and is thought to have helped significantly during the writing process.

The contribution she made to "In Cold Blood" was less direct.

More than for her writing ability, Capote brought Lee along for her personality.

"In the end, I did not go alone," Capote told George Plimpton in 1966 for a New York Times article. "I went with a lifelong friend, Harper Lee. She is a gifted woman, courageous and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour."

Clearly, Capote understood that her approachable demeanor could temper his flamboyance.

He was right.

During her two months with him, Lee helped Capote make important alliances within the region.

"She was extremely helpful in the beginning, when we weren't making much headway with the townspeople, by making friends with the wives of the people I wanted to meet," he told Plimpton.

Even those who never took a shine to Capote could appreciate Lee.

In Plimpton's 1997 book, "Truman Capote," Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Harold Nye attacks Capote for his attitude and tendency to wear feminine clothes, yet describes Lee as an "absolutely fantastic lady."

"I really liked her very much," he went on.

Dolores Hope, a former reporter for the Garden City Telegram, got to know Lee and Capote when she and her husband, attorney Clifford Hope Jr., invited the authors for Christmas dinner in 1959. They have maintained a loose relationship with Lee through the years and visited her in Monroeville, Ala., in the 1990s.

Dolores Hope described Lee's motherly attitude toward Capote in Kansas as "almost like if you have a child who doesn't behave well."

Lee's only novel was published in 1960. She won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1961.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" continues to be widely read, especially in schools, for its depiction of southern racism.

That many Finney County residents, particularly those who remember the Clutter murders personally, prefer Lee's book, is hardly a wonder.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is an inspirational work of fiction set in a world far removed from their own, not the haunting retelling of a local tragedy.

Considered something of a recluse, Lee, 78, reportedly divides her time between New York and her hometown of Monroeville.

As she has many times before, Lee turned down a request in November for an interview regarding her "In Cold Blood" experience, saying in a handwritten letter, "I don't care to go over again what's been gone over again and again for 40 years."

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