If you’re a literate adult (or near-adult), you’ve probably read To Kill a Mockingbird, or at least rolled your eyes when some new conversational partner enthusiastically told you at a party that his or her favorite book ever is To Kill a Mockingbird, which personal revelation you probably took to mean that the person you were talking to was, when it comes to reading, a one-trick pony. Don’t worry, though — Truman Capote was just as dismissive of his good friend Harper Lee’s one and only published novel, and he totally wasn’t a big-time asshole.
Whether or not you consider To Kill a Mockingbird a triumph of American fiction, it remains an important mainstay in school curricula across the country, so much so that it has continued to churn up a lot of royalty money for its now-87-year-old author. Those royalties are at the center of a new lawsuit the ordinarily reclusive Lee has filed against a literary agent named Samuel Pinkus, who Lee alleges of duping her into signing over the copyright of To Kill a Mockingbird to him back in 2007 when Lee was nearly blind and staying in an assisted-living facility to recover from a recent stroke.
The suit claims that Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee’s longtime agent Eugene Winick, exploited Lee’s failing health to secure himself “irrevocable” interest in the income derived from To Kill a Mockingbird. Pinkus had begun diverting his father-in-law’s clients into his own company when Winick’s health failed five years earlier, and the To Kill a Mockingbird royalties must have seemed like a reliable revenue stream. Lee’s lawyer Gloria Phares has said that Pinkus knew full-well that he was taking advantage of Lee when he engineered the rights transfers, claiming, “Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.” The suit adds that Pinkus has avoided paying legal fees he owed to Winick’s company for royalties that Pinkus allegedly misappropriated.
Phares contends that Lee has no memory of signing the transfer, and although the To Kill a Mockingbird rights were reassigned to Lee last year when she took legal action, Pinkus was still getting royalties this year. According to the Guardian, the suit marks an unusual foray into the spotlight for Lee, who currently lives in the deep south and delights in the way young people have delighted in her book. “They always see new things in it,” Lee told the New York Times in 2006, “And the way they relate it to their lives now is really quite incredible.”
Image via AP, Jamie Martin