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"JUST DIDN'T LIKE FAME"

“She wasn’t really a recluse”: Rare video shows a warm and friendly side to Harper Lee

By Jennifer Chang

When discussing the late, great Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19, most seem to use the word “reclusive.” The To Kill a Mockingbird author rarely granted interviews (she turned down Oprah: “Honey, I already said everything I had to say”) and Time magazine even named her to its Top 10 Most Reclusive Celebrities list.

But people in her Alabama community remember a different Harper Lee. Before her stroke in 2007, she made public appearances that advocated for education or civil rights, but they received little fanfare. Lee also faithfully attended an annual lunch at the University of Alabama for the winners of a high-school essay contest for many years, always making time to meet fans and sign books for students. Her librarian handler at university events called her “just a very regular woman” and said talking with her was “like spending time with an aunt.”

In a rare video of the author in 2006, attending the festivities for her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Birmingham Pledge Foundation, Lee is seen hugging and chatting with her young fans (from 1:33 to 1:48). YouTube user and blogger HarperLeeSpeaks was present and writes, “She wasn’t really a recluse, she just didn’t like fame.”

At 2:57 is a brief, indistinct recording of Lee’s voice as she delivers a simple acceptance speech: “I had a speech prepared, but my heart is too full to make it. All I can say is thank you, all of you, for one of the greatest days of my life. Thank you.”

Her voice can also be heard in the video below, from a radio interview she gave 42 years earlier, in 1964. The excerpt starts at 2:11. There’s also a brief interview at 1:30 with her wonderfully raspy-voiced elder sister and caregiver, Alice Finch Lee, who died in 2014 at the age of 103.