Sunday, August 2, 2015

Protecting Harper Lee

Recently I wrote about my decision to write a true crime novel (later turned into a potboiler) based on murderous 1970s-era preacher from my hometown of Alexander City, Alabama.  I’ve also written about how my efforts were hampered by the fact that Harper Lee once attempted to write about the same subject.

 Back in 2007, my initial foray into research consisted of Googling the name of the preacher, Willie Maxwell, coupled with various search terms that I hoped would return pertinent information.  This little bit of investigative magic yielded an excerpt from a book called Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields.

According to the book, Harper Lee visited Alex City (as it is known to locals) in the 1980s, hoping to write a book about the man accused of killing as many as five of his relatives for insurance money.  The chapter also provided a summary of events surrounding each of the mysterious deaths attributed to Reverend Maxwell. 

Lee remained in Alex City gathering information for close to a year, but no book has yet been published.

I contacted Mr. Shields by email, and he was kind enough to respond to my inquiry.  We discussed the possibility of an interview, but he eventually sent me a copy of his notes instead.  Most of the info Shields shared was that which he included in the book—mainly quotes and background material, most of which appeared to have come from Reverend Maxwell’s lawyer, a man named Tom Radney.  Mr. Shields provided me with the website of Radney’s law practice and suggested I talk to him. 

“The attorney quoted in my book is still alive and quite a story teller.  He’d be worth a visit in person,” he said.

This proved to be an understatement. Tom Radney was arguably the most compelling character in a story filled with intriguing characters.  I’ve written about him before, and he will almost certainly be featured in future posts.  During my interview in the summer of 2008, Radney encouraged me to pick up a copy of Shields’s Mockingbird. 

By then, I’d already read the book.  I held up my copy.  “This one?” I asked.

“That’s the one.  Well, I’m quoted in there.  It got me in trouble.  (Shields) asked me why the book wasn’t coming out and… I said (Lee) had a battle with a bottle of scotch and the scotch won.  Harper has not spoken to me since… That stopped all communication.”  He suggested that other people close to Lee had also stopped speaking to him because of the quote.

This seemed a little harsh to me at the time.  Radney had made an insulting statement, sure, but not an unforgivable one in my opinion. I would soon learn that Harper Lee made a point of cutting people out of her life when they spoke about her in public.  One friend of Lee’s told me, “One of the reasons we’ve been friends this long is because I don’t discuss her with people. It’s kind of a condition of friendship.”

I interviewed a couple of veteran reporters—more friends of Lee—who had originally covered the Maxwell case for the Alexander City Outlook and who were less than thrilled with Shields’s unauthorized biography

“Pathetic,” said one of the reporters when I brought up the subject.

“Riddled with inaccuracies,” said the other. 

I kept the focus on the chapter about Reverend Maxwell, and, in fairness, the only inaccuracy they could point to was the caliber of the gun used to shoot the Reverend.  It was a .25 and not the .45 cited in the book. (269) I checked Shields’s notes.  That particular detail came directly from one of Radney’s quotes.

I’m not a biographer, but it’s not clear to me that every detail of a nonfiction book requires confirming sources.  One of the things I learned while researching The Reverend was that such dedication to truth is rare even in journalism (I found a multitude of errors in newspaper coverage of the Maxwell case), but Shields wasn’t reporting on the Reverend.  He was writing a book about Harper Lee that happened to feature one chapter about a book she had once attempted.

I wondered if the reporters’ hostility toward the book stemmed more from an allegiance to Lee than to a dedication to factual reporting.

I don’t begrudge anyone for protecting a friend and I respect Lee’s right to avoid a constant stream of fans and media personnel hounding her about a book she wrote fifty years ago.  She is entitled to live her life however she chooses. She even has the right to cut a friend out of her life for going off at the mouth, but still I felt sorry for Radney. 

This was his case of a lifetime, and he clearly hoped it would make him famous.  According to Shields, he thought he might get to play the defense counsel in the movie version while Gregory Peck would get the lead. (269)

From my interview with him, I got the impression that he was genuinely sad, not only that the book and film failed to materialize, but for the loss of his friendship with Lee.  He’d made the mistake of saying what was on his mind.

I wondered why Lee’s friends would get upset about inaccuracies in a book while simultaneously refusing to share information about the book’s subject.  They were reporters—people who made their careers getting people to share information—and yet they refused to discuss a person now inextricably linked to the story I wished to tell.  Apparently, the irony didn’t bother them.

Recently ran a piece about about the vulnerability of the elderly to various scams, with a focus on the writers Ann Rule and Harper Lee.  This article is one of many suggesting that Lee’s lawyer and publisher are exploiting her declining condition to generate huge profits.  It is undeniably suspicious: for fifty years Lee refrained from publishing a second book, and then all of a sudden at 89 she decides it’s a good idea to publish some of her early writing.  It made me wonder if her former friends will soon begin speaking out after all, now that she’s opened herself up to new opportunities, and now that she’s most in need of protection. 


  1. Having become tangled up in other people's lives as a consequence of writing & researching biography I totally understand your issues. Good luck with producing a great book about the dastardly Reverend. I'd recommend you ignore HLs bumbling around in the field and continue with your project.

    1. Thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I will definitely keep writing about this. As for HL, don't write her off just yet. Her version may be coming.

  2. When one reads a biography, even an unauthorized one, one reasonably expects that the author uses multiple sources to verify information. As I read Shields' book, I was struck by the inaccuracies related to the Maxwell case, and there are numerous ones in addition to the caliber of the handgun. He states that Harper Lee spent a year at the Horseshoe Bend motel conducting research in the mid-1980s. She did not. She was at the motel in 1978 for approximately four months. Originally from the Alex City area, I returned on April 29th because my father-in-law died. I stayed at the Horseshoe Bend in the room next to Harper Lee for about a month. We spoke every day, sometimes multiple times. She said she had been at the motel about three months when I arrived. We both stayed until near the end of May. She left a couple of days before I did to go to her sister's home in Eufaula.

    Before she left, she invited my husband, his brother and myself into her room for drinks one night. She wanted to talk to me about the Maxwell case since she had learned that I grew up knowing the Burns family. They lived on the Russell property just below our farm. Ophelia (she was married to Bus Burns, Robert Burns' brother, when I knew them) was married to Maxwell at the time of his death and her foster child Shirley, Maxwell's last victim, was a teenager as I was. Shields refers to Shirley as Maxwell's niece at least twice, which is incorrect. She was his last wife's foster daughter. Shields also says that Robert Burns shot Maxwell in the back. He shot him in the face three times (supposedly Maxwell was wearing a bullet-proof vest). Burns stood on the pew in front of Maxwell to shoot him. Burns shot him as he returned to his seat after going up to view the body. By eyewitness accounts, Maxwell slumped backwards in the pew, not as Shields writes "he fell to the floor."

    Considering the multiple inaccurate statements in these few pages of the book, I have to be suspicious of information he presents as facts in the remainder of the book.

  3. Excellent points! Thank you for sharing your story! Feel free to share any other thoughts and memories of this case through the comments section or contact me directly through email.