(WOMENSENEWS)–My phone rang at the Best Western.
“Yes, this is Marja.”
“This is Harper Lee. You’ve made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet.”
It was as if I had answered the phone and heard “Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.” I felt my adrenaline spike. With effort, I kept my speaking voice from going up a couple of octaves.
“That would be wonderful.”
The voice on the other end was slightly husky and almost musical, her Alabama accent undiminished by the years in New York City. She didn’t sound the least bit shy.
This was not to be an interview for my newspaper story, she said, but a chance to visit.
“Would 11 a.m. be all right? At the Best Western?”
“That would be great. Whatever works best for you.”
“All right, then. I’ll see you at 11.”
I hung up the phone and collected myself.
That night, in bed, I opened the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” again. I slipped under the covers and into the cadence of her prose and the pace of life in 1930s Maycomb.
No matter what the parameters were, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with this mysterious literary legend, this woman whose book had meant the world to so many millions of people for so many years. And I never expected to actually be able to speak with her, anyway; so many reporters, year after year, had come to Monroeville, Ala., before me and left with nothing to write except more stories about hunting for Lee.
The next morning, I went over my notes. I imagined she might want to know who had spoken with me. The knock came at the appointed time. I opened the door to my motel room. The light was harsh compared with the dark room. I blinked. Everything about the woman before me looked solid and practical: the short white hair, the large glasses, the black sneakers fastened with wide Velcro straps. Her bangs were cut high and straight across her forehead. She was solidly built and on the tall side. She wore a simple white cotton blouse over casual tan pants. She had on a bit of lipstick but otherwise no makeup or jewelry.
“Hello,” I said. “Please come in.”
“Miss Mills.” She smiled and stepped into the coolness of the room. I closed the door.
Based on what I’d read, I expected either someone of great reserve or perhaps someone angry about my being in town and unafraid to express her displeasure. She was neither. Her voice had a pleasant lilt, and although she was reserved while we exchanged greetings, as soon as we began talking she came across as down-to-earth and self-assured. She repeated nearly word for word what she had said on the phone. “Well, you’ve made quite an impression on Miss Alice,” referring to her older sister Alice.
“She was wonderful.”
“I understand you had quite a conversation.”
“We did. I just wrote her a note.” I nodded toward the desk.
Alice had filled her in on our conversations. Before we began talking in earnest, she was very clear: This would not be an interview. “Just a visit.”
She asked about the specifics of my stay, including where I had gone, who had spoken with me and what they had said. I didn’t feel I was being grilled; her tone was conversational. I did want to know what she thought of Monroeville today.
“I read that when they were going to film the movie, they decided Monroeville had changed too much from the ’30s for them to film here.”
She made a face, as if she had tasted something sour. There was something childlike in her expressions, not childish but animated, spontaneous in an appealing way. At the same time she spoke with an almost formal grammar.
“This is not the Monroeville in which I grew up. I don’t like it one bit.” She was not one to equivocate, clearly.
We spoke at some length about how the character of the town had changed. She also echoed Alice’s comments about the continual attention she received and the toll it took on both of them. As she put it, “Forty years of this gets to be a bit much.”
She was a woman of formidable intellect. I would have loved to hear her expound on any number of topics. But I trod carefully that first day. I was concerned about her famously private nature. Yet here she was, putting me at ease. I came to realize later that she set the tone of any conversation.
Mayor Daley wasn’t the only prominent Chicagoan to have proclaimed his love of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Oprah Winfrey spoke of the influence the novel, one of her favorites, had on her. I’d heard she’d wanted to pick the novel for her immensely popular televised book club but that the novelist declined.
Lee confirmed this. “I met her. We had lunch together.” The two discussed Winfrey’s request over lunch in New York at the Waldorf Astoria, she said. Lee declined her request but was impressed by Winfrey’s knowledge of her characters and her passion for the book.
“What did you think of her?” I asked.
“Well, for a girl, a black girl, growing up in poverty in Mississippi when she did to accomplish what she has . . .” Her voice trailed off. “It is remarkable.”
Winfrey had been a cultural force as long as I could remember. It was easy to forget–unless you remembered the place and era in which Winfrey grew up–how unlikely it was at the time that she would become a cultural figure of influence and wealth beyond all imagining.
I was surprised, once again, that she seemed in no hurry to leave. When she did stand to say goodbye, I thanked her and she wished me safe travels. But she had one last surprise.
She hugged me. I hoped I didn’t look startled. And then she was gone.
Marja Mills is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a staff Pulitzer Prize winner for a 2001 series about O’Hare Airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” is her first book.
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