1963 Chicago Press Call
< 1963 Chicago Press Call >

(Miss Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the most durable bestseller of the decade—Mockingbird has been on the list two years—flew into Chicago recently for a one-day stint to help promote the movie adaptation of her popular novel. What follows is an account of the flood of questions the noted writer must endure all in the name of publicity.)

At 10 A.M., eleven members of the local press gathered in a plush suite at the Ambassador East to meet Miss Lee. Fifteen minutes later the local public relations man for the movie, all a-smile, came bouncing in to announce, "Miss Hunter will be down in just a few minutes."

"Miss Hunter? asked a scribe who looked like S.J. Perelman. What's this Miss Hunter stuff?"

PR MAN (embarrassed): "Oh, Ross Hunter is a big man on our lot, so I always think of him." He laughs nervously. "But you don't have to mention that." He tittered again, then launched into the anthem of the hour. "I wanna say a few words about To Kill a Mockingbird, it is such a beautifully done picture. But I'm not talking as a press agent now. So believe me when I say it's one of my favorite pictures of all time."

Moments later, Harper Lee arrived. She is 36-years-old, tall, and a few [pounds on the wrong side of Metrecal. She has dark, short-cut, uncurled hair; bright, twinkling eyes; a gracious manner; and Mint Julep diction.

REPORTER: Have you seen the movie?

MISS LEE: Yes. Six times. (It was soon learned that she feels the film did justice to the book, and though she did not have script approval, she enjoyed the celluloid treatment with "unbridled pleasure.")

REPORTER: What's going to happen when it's shown in the South?

MISS LEE: I don't know. But I wondered the same thing when the book was published. But the publisher said not to worry, because no one can read down there.

PR MAN: It opened in Florida -

MISS LEE: Phil, honey - that's not the South.

REPORTER: One of your sisters is a lawyer. Is she a criminal lawyer?

MISS LEE (deadpan): She s not a criminal, no.

REPORTER:You studied law, too, didn't you?

MISS LEE: Yes. For three years. I had to study something in college, and I grew up in a legal household. (Her father, like the hero of Mockingbird, is also a lawyer—ed.) The minute, though, that I started to study law, I loathed it. I always wanted to be a writer.

REPORTER: How did the lawyers you know like the book ?

MISS LEE: Southern lawyers don't read novels much.

REPORTER: I understand that Gregory Peck, after seeing his straight dramatic performance in Mockingbird, says he will no longer do romantic leads.

MISS LEE: Maybe he liked himself in glasses.

REPORTER: When you wrote the book, did you hold yourself back?

MISS LEE (patiently): Well, sir, in the book I tried to give a sense of proportion to life in the South, that there isn't a lynching before every breakfast. I think that Southerners react with the same kind of horror as other people do about the injustice in their land. In Mississippi, people were so revolted by what happened, they were so stunned, I don't think it will happen again.

REPORTER: If you wanted to be a writer, why did you study law?

MISS LEE: I think you should always do the opposite thing from what you want to do. If you have a job writing during the day, I think it's too hard to try and write four hours when you go home. So dig ditches for a living, anything. A change of pace is good.

REPORTER: Do you find it difficult to write ?

MISS LEE: I've found it difficult in terms of time. A lot of people like to drop around and visit now. I'm drinking more coffee than ever.

REPORTER: Do you find your second novel coming slow?

MISS LEE: Well, I hope to live to see it published.

REPORTER: How long have you been working on it?

MISS LEE: I've spent one and a half years on it now. Mockingbird took two and a half years of writing.

REPORTER: What's the premise of your new book?

MISS LEE: That's a large question for so early in the morning.

REPORTER: Is there a part for Gregory Peck in the next one?

MISS LEE ( Mona Lisa smile): Just a bit part. He might be a guest star.

REPORTER: Who are your favorite writers?

MISS LEE: Oh, mostly 19th Century, rather than 20th Century, writers. Charles Lamb, Jane Austin, Thackeray—(She laughs)—all that crowd.

REPORTER: What was your motive for writing a book like Mockingbird?

MISS LEE (a wry grin creasing her thin, pale lips): To satisfy the obligation of my contract at Lippincott.

REPORTER: What do you think of the Freedom Riders ?

MISS LEE: I don't think this business of getting on buses and flaunting state laws does much of anything. Except getting a lot of publicity, and violence. I think Reverend King and the NAACP are going about it in exactly the right way. The people in the South may not like it, but they respect it.

REPORTER : (cub variety): I came in late, so maybe you've already been asked this question, but I'd like to know if your book is an indictment against a group in society.

MISS LEE: (nonplused): The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.

REPORTER: What do you think of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin?

MISS LEE: I told you before I read 19th Century literature. I don't read Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

REPORTER: Were the characters in the book based on real people?

MISS LEE: No, but the people at home think so. The beauty of it, though, is that no two people come up with the same identification. They never think of themselves as being portrayed in the book. They try to identify others whom they know as characters.

REPORTER : (grinning slyly): What with royalties and a sale to the movies, you must be getting awfully rich.

MISS LEE: No, not rich. You know that program we have at Cape Canaveral? I'm paying for it. Ninety-five percent of the earnings disappeared in taxes.

REPORTER: What is your opinion of Governor Barnett's failure to obey a federal directive?

MISS LEE: I have no opinion. That's for the court to decide. I presume the gentleman is innocent until proven guilty. But I presume he'll be proven guilty. I think he was wrong.

REPORTER: What do you think of Chicago ?

MISS LEE: Well, the telephone operator woke me up today and said, 'Good morning, Miss Lee. It's eight o'clock, and three below zero.'

REPORTER: How did you feel when you found out you were going to receive the Pulitzer Prize?

MISS LEE: I didn't find out I was going to receive it. I found out I had received it. And I nearly dropped dead.

REPORTER: Will success spoil Harper Lee?

MISS LEE: She's too old.

REPORTER: How do you feel about your second novel?

MISS LEE: I'm scared.

REPORTER: Don't some people presume the name 'Harper Lee' belongs to a man?

MISS LEE: Yes. Recently I received an invitation to speak at Yale University, and was told I could stay in the men's dormitory. But I declined that part of the invitation. (She smiled) With reluctance.

The press conference now over, Miss, Lee left. The PR man, though, stayed. Quickly cornering several members of the Fourth Estate, he forgot the song he had been singing an hour earlier and, smiling brightly, he began crooning new lyrics: "We need a lot of help, you know. So give us all you can, will yah, huh."

After lunch, there was a "literary tea" in Miss Lee's honor. It was held in a small, but ornate room in the Ambassador East. The room is titled Bath, a horrendous misnomer. Only about twenty people showed up, and women predominated, ripe in years, rich in garnish Expensive perfume filled the air. Interesting conversation did not.

The gathering was limited to only one hour, with the kick-off at three o'clock. Everyone showed up late. Giggled one refugee from Elizabeth Arden's: "Oh, my dear, but you know it's a social faux pas to be on time."

Ann Landers came in. Ann said she was sorry she was late, but her daughter had just given birth to her first child. Grandma is shapely and petite (an inch or two under five feet), damned cute, and any, healthy male can see she's got a good counsel or two left in her.

A man from Variety, the Show Biz bible, also dropped in. He didn't have many questions, but the ones he did have were gems of ignorance:

''How many books have you written?"

"Mockingbird was my first,'' said Miss Lee, not even blinking.

''Have you done any screenplays?"

She shook her head.

"Well," he beamed, glad to offer advice to a struggling writer, "you probably should. After all, the movies are a good marketplace, a place for your work to be seen. You can get more work that way."

Civil war did not break out. Miss Lee just smiled, the patient smile a sympathetic teacher might bestow on a retarded student.

Upstream, two women were discussing the weather with Miss Lee, when a middle aged woman came sailing into the room, clutching a paperback edition of Mockingbird, and made a beeline for the novelist.

Enroute, she nodded to an acquaintance and trilled, with all her dentures shining, brightly, "Isn't this simply marvelous!"

Then she was introduced to Miss Lee. Miss Lee was pleased to meet her.

"Isn't this marvelous!" chirped the woman.

Miss Lee didn't say.

The woman asked the noted writer to autograph her paperback, which looked like it had never been opened. After Miss Lee had finished, a society woman was brought over to have a picture taken with her.

"Say soda water," suggested the Pulitzer winner, hoping to make the society dame smile for the little mocking birdie.

'Say SEX!" roared the pride of the 400. And everyone grinned like they had just spotted something interesting in a keyhole.

Minutes later, the "tea" dripped to an end.

After Harper Lee departed, a gal reporter asked one of the most elegantly dressed guests if she had enjoyed herself. The woman nodded slowly, her well painted features blase. Then, a moment later, her bored expression erupted into one of anticipatory glee.

"Now" she cooed, grinning and heading for the door, "back to my poodle."

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This was published in Rogue December 1963, Volume 8 Number 12.

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I am always interested in reading and writing about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jane Kansas + kansas at chebucto.ca Last revised 25 May 2004.