HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

Today is the 89th birthday of Harper Lee and for a person who has shied away from public attention for the past 55 years, she has gotten plenty. The mail last week included a flyer from Barnes & Noble promoting the novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which is due to be published in July and is already on track to be a best seller. This is an unexpected development inasmuch as part of Harper Lee’s mystique has been the unanswered question as to why she never published anything after her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Amid the instant and far-reaching success of that book and the film based on it, Nelle Harper Lee–her full name–played the role of the public person as demanded by the circumstances. But when she had had enough of that, she decided to become a private person again, avoiding attention and especially attention from the press.

HARPER LEE

HARPER LEE

Being only a casual observer of this phenomenon, I got the idea that she was a recluse. However, I recently was disabused of that idea by reading Marja Mills’ book, The Mockingbird Next Door, published last year. Marja Mills was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, which is Harper Lee’s hometown and the basis for the fictional Maycomb in which the novel is set. Mills was to write about the town in connection with the choice of To Kill a Mockingbird for the “One Book, One Chicago” program in which everyone in the city is encouraged to read and discuss the same book at the same time. Mills interviewed Monroeville residents, including some who knew Harper Lee and her sister, Alice; the writer also took in the character and rhythms of the town. Although she had written to the Lees to explain the purpose of her reporting, she despaired of speaking to Harper Lee and waited to the end of her stay in Monroeville to knock on the sisters’ door. She was greeted by Alice, a practicing attorney although then nearly 90, and was invited into the house. Mills inferred that the reason she wasn’t summarily turned away was that the Lee sisters approved of the book-reading program and the Tribune’s desire to give it context. Mills befriended the two sisters and some of their acquaintances and, partly because of health problems of her own, eventually rented a house next door to the Lees for a protracted period.

ALICE LEE

ALICE LEE/AL.com photo

I learned from Mills’ book that Harper Lee was not a recluse and that, although she dodged most forms of public attention, she was out and about both in New York City, where she maintained an apartment for many years, and in Monroeville and its environs. Mills dealt gingerly with Harper and Alice Lee, realizing that if she over reached with her questions she could be cut off. The result, as one might expect, is a rather superficial work that doesn’t support its idealization of Harper Lee and doesn’t answer the perennial question as to why she never published anything else — until now. In fact, if Harper Lee is the uninteresting woman Mills described–a woman whose idea of a good time was to drive down to the lake and count the ducks–the most salient question might be how she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place. By the time Marja Mills’ book was published, Harper Lee had suffered a stroke and had moved to an assisted-living facility. There was a flurry of news stories to the effect that she claimed that Mills’ book was published without her permission, but it seems unlikely that Mills contrived the relationship she describes. More recently, there has been a lot written about a dispute over whether Harper Lee approved publication of Go Set a Watchman, something that was authorized by Tonja Carter, an attorney who now handles Harper Lee’s affairs. Alice Lee, who had looked after Harper Lee’s interests, died last year at the age of 103.

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played “Scout” Finch in the 1962 film.

The “new” book, if it can be called that, is based on the idea that the adult Jean Marie “Scout” Finch, said to be modeled on Harper Lee herself, returns to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus, said to be modeled on Lee’s own father, who practiced civil law in Monroeville. This novel was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but the publisher Harper Lee submitted it to suggested that she tell the story of racial prejudice, injustice, and small-town mores, through the eyes of the young Scout. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Harper Lee, who could have published this book any time in the past five or six decades, would knowingly approve of its publication now. There are contradictory reports as to whether the author is capable of giving willful consent. The State of Alabama went so far as to investigate Harper Lee’s circumstances to assure that she was not being abused or used in any way and concluded that there was no reason to intervene in her affairs.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

If the atmosphere weren’t murky enough, the Monroe County Historical Museum, in the Lees’ home town, announced last week that it had lost the license to present a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, as it has for the past 26 years on Fridays and Saturdays in April and May. Neither the company that handles the licensing nor the owner of the rights to the stage version would explain that decision, although there is a history of legal dispute between Harper Lee and the museum. The decision would have had a significant economic effect on the town of about 6300 people; the president of the museum estimates that by drawing visitors to the town the play contributes as much as a million dollars a year to the economy. But on Saturday, it was reported that Harper Lee herself–the one who may or may not be competent to make such decisions–had established a non-profit organization that will have permission to produce the play. As much as I would like to read what Harper Lee wrote before her iconic novel, I have an uncomfortable feeling about all this. And given the writer’s track record for privacy and the state of her health, I don’t expect her to say anything to ease my mind.

EDDIE MARSAN

EDDIE MARSAN

I am not oblivious to the expressions of disdain that come over my friends’ faces when I mention that I like to watch Dancing with the Stars. But I am undeterred, because I am still fascinated watching men and women with little or no dance experience take on the rigors of learning and performing demanding routines. Even those who last only a few weeks before being eliminated usually remark that they have achieved things they never would have thought possible. And as interesting as this is with respect to able-bodied people, it rises to the level of inspiring when the dancer has a physical disability. There is no better example of that than Noah Galloway, a contestant in the current season, who lost his left arm and leg while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Sgt. Galloway, who is still in the mix as the season heads into its final weeks, has turned in some thrilling performances with his partner, professional choreographer Sharna Burgess.

EDDIE MARSAN and ROB BRYDON

EDDIE MARSAN and ROB BRYDON

This potential we human beings have for resiliency despite even catastrophic illness and injury was the theme of The Best of Men, a 2012 BBC television movie about Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who fled the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and settled in England where he was given charge of servicemen who were hospitalized with spinal injuries. Dr. Guttmann found that care of these men consisted of making them as comfortable as possible until they died. This approach exacerbated the pessimism, depression, and anger that naturally accompanied such injuries. Dr. Guttmann proposed that physical activity, not maintenance care, was what these men needed, and that it would help them to take their places in the mainstream of society. Over the objections of some of his colleagues and staff, he got the men involved in vigorous activity such as basketball and javelin throwing and even took them on jaunts to a local pub. When World War II was over, Dr. Guttmann organized national wheelchair sports competitions which eventually evolved into the Paralympic Games. The closing credits note that Dr. Guttmann, who became a British citizen, was knighted for his achievements.

Dr. LUDWIG GUTMANN

Dr. LUDWIG GUTMANN

This film has an excellent cast, led by the veteran actor Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttman; Rob Brydon as Corporal Wynne Bowen, whose dark humor masks his insecurity about his ability to relate sexually to his wife; and David Proud as Jeremy, whose circumstances are complicated by a disappointed father who would consign him to a nursing home.

“Oh, bother!”

April 3, 2015

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When a young new colleague arrived at my workplace, his name caught my attention. His first name is Sterling. He is the second person of that name that I’ve worked with, but the first instance goes back at least 35 years. Sterling is not a name I associate with men in their twenties. However, I checked on a web site that tracks the frequency of male names, and I found that Sterling has been making a comeback. Its popularity peaked in the 1890s when it ranked 388th out of 1,000 boys’ names. It went into a steady decline after that until the 1960s, when it ranked 497th. Then it had a resurgence and was 512th in the 1980s. Then there was a precipitous drop to 872nd place by 2008, and then a very sharp revival that carried it to 684th place in 2012 — the last year for which figures are available. To put these rankings in real terms, when the name Sterling was at its peak of popularity just before the turn of the 20th century, it was pinned on about 122 of every million babies born.

Sterling-Holloway

There were two well-known actors named Sterling. One was Sterling Hayden whose career stretched from 1941 to 1982. My new co-worker’s full name is very similar to that of the second actor, Sterling Holloway. He was named after his father, Sterling Price Holloway, who ran a grocery store in Cedartown, in northwestern Georgia, and served as mayor there in 1912. He in turn was named after Sterling Price, a lawyer and slave-holding tobacco planter in Missouri. He served as governor of the state from 1853 to 1857 and as a member of Congress. Price was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War and a Confederate Army major general during the Civil War. I gather he was much more successful in the first war than in the latter. After the Civil War, he led his troops into Mexico and was rebuffed when he tried to enlist in the service of the colonial Emperor Maximillian. That episode inspired the 1969 movie “The Undefeated” which starred John Wayne and Rock Hudson. But I digress.

STERLING PRICE

STERLING PRICE

I first became aware of Sterling Holloway when he had a recurring role as Waldo Binney, the next-door neighbor to Chester A. Riley and his family in the television series “The Life of Riley.” Holloway had an odd voice and an unconventional appearance, and Waldo Binney was a quirky character, so he quickly became a favorite of mine. I didn’t know when he appeared in “The Life of Riley” in 1953-1956 that he had been a professional actor since 1926, when he appeared in a silent film called “The Battling Kangaroo.” He eventually performed either on screen or as a voice actor in at least 177 film and television properties as well as commercials, stage productions, radio shows, and recordings. In 1975 he shared a Grammy Award for the best recording for children, “Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too.” Working for Walt Disney Studios, he lent his high-pitched voice to Mr. Stork in “Dumbo,” Adult Flower in “Bambi,” the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland,” Kaa in “The Jungle Book,” Roquefort in “The Aristocats,” and Winnie-the-Pooh in several films, TV shows, and recordings.

GEORGE REEVES and STERLING HOLLOWAY in an episode of the TV series "The Amazing Adventures of Superman."

GEORGE REEVES and STERLING HOLLOWAY in an episode of the TV series “The Amazing Adventures of Superman.”

Holloway’s off-beat voice lent itself very well to certain kinds of songs, and he introduced two standards — “I’ll Take Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery” — while he was appearing on Broadway in “Garrick Gaieties,” a revue by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, in 1925 and 1926. You can see Holloway’s touching performance of the song “The End of a Perfect Day” in the 1940 film “Remember the Night” by clicking HERE. The song was written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. I understand NBC owns the rights to this film.

You can hear Holloway’s voice-over in a Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial from the 1950s by clicking HERE.