Harper Lee at an event at the University of Alabama in 1992. (Birmingham Post Herald/Basha )
Who would have predicted that, in her late 80s, Harper Lee would have to file suit to get the control of "To Kill a Mockingbird" returned to her?
According to a lawsuit filed in May, Lee, in failing health, had been "duped" into assigning the copyright of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to her literary agent, a lawyer.
That's no small thing: A half century after its publication, "To Kill a Mockingbird" still sells more than 750,000 copies a year. In one typical six-month period in 2009, its royalties amounted to more than $1.6 million.
Lee, however, has been living modestly, in quiet seclusion, in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Occasionally she could be spotted feeding ducks or playing quarter slots at a nearby casino. She is now in an assisted living facility, with vision problems, hearing loss, and, according to one friend, paralysis on her left side and a failing short-term memory. She suffered a stroke in 2007.
It was then, in this depleted condition, that she signed away the rights to her novel, the only one she ever wrote. Lee "didn't remember things, and would sign almost anything anybody put in front of her," one friend tells Mark Seal, whose article about the case, "To Steal a Mockingbird?," appears in the August issue of Vanity Fair. A snippet of the 11-page story is online.
Seal explains how Lee wound up with a literary agent who, according to the suit, took advantage of her. Lee's original agent was a trusted friend and important reader of "To Kill a Mockingbird" when it was still a work in progress. After he passed away, longtime literary agency M&O took over her account -- but when the principal agent there, getting older, suffered from ill health, his son-in-law, Samuel L. Pinkus, began acting in ways that may have been unscrupulous.
One of the things Pinkus did was start his own agency, Veritas Media, Inc., taking some accounts with him -- including that of Harper Lee. A lawsuit regarding which agency owes who a percentage of royalties was settled in favor of M&O for a total of more than $700,000.
In Lee's suit, Pinkus is accused of using various shell accounts to move royalties around. Various people see Pinkus in different ways -- he was devoted to Lee, or he was a clown, or he was very savvy. Seal's story makes it seem that moving the money may have had something to do with the M&O lawsuit.
Untangling the legal threads spins a fascinating story, and Seal's account sorts them out in a way that seems to make sense. Most interestingly, his piece gives a portrait of Lee through a handful of intimates who are willing and able to talk about her. Lee's seclusion included spending lots of time in New York, right in the heart of publishing, without being much recognized.
Pinkus signed the rights of "To Kill a Mockingbird" back to Harper Lee, now 87, earlier this year. The lawsuit filed on her behalf seeks return of the royalties paid to his company in the five years he held the copyright, along with unspecified damages.