Sunday, June 30, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt fifteen)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Whatever had Lee spooked, she found a familiar way of handling that stress and all the others: the shortage of facts, the lack of an ideal protagonist, his unfamiliarity with the lives of African Americans, a certain uncomfortable moral muddiness concerning black criminality in a criminally racist society, and a related discomfort with her own deep delight in the self-serving mythologies of the southern gentry. Lee’s drinking had become something of a scandal, not an overtly public lone, but family and friends had long taken notice. The daughter of one of the driest men in Monroe County, whose oldest sister wouldn’t even consume caffeine, had grown into a woman who couldn’t say no to scotch or vodka, or failing that, to whatever happened to be on hand. When she drank too much, Lee had been known to blow raspberries at formal dinners in the presence of strangers and to return angrily to parties she’d been asked to leave to plead for just one more drink. Lee’s friends understood that alcohol had the power to turn their brilliant Jekyll into an unpredictable Hyde, and a few of them—Truman Capote, Tom Radney, and, most transgressively, one of her pastors in Monroeville—had even committed what amounted to a cardinal sin in the Church of Harper Lee, by letting slip to the press that she had a drinking problem. Radney, in particular, had offered, on the record, too candid an explanation for the delayed publication of The Reverend: “I think she’s fighting a battle between the book and a bottle of scotch. And the scotch is winning.”

Like Mockingbird, and writing more generally, drinking was an off-limits topic for Lee, and broaching it could leave those formerly close to her excommunicated, or at least estranged. Lee had drifted away from one friend in New York, Isabelle Holland, after she became an evangelist for Alcoholics Anonymous. Holland’s mother had been the last of seven generations to live in Tennessee; she sent her son to a boarding school in the old state but sent her daughter to one in the old country. Belle, as she was known, had expected to be a Henry James heroine in England but instead found no friends. When she came back to America, she moved to New York, where she became the publicity manager at Lippincott. Holland handled press for To Kill a Mockingbird and went on to write many novels of her own. Her own writing had improved in sobriety, and when she tried convincing Lee the same could be true for her, their friendship grew strained.

Lee had met another champion of Alcoholics Anonymous in Alex City. Along with bringing honor to the state of Alabama in the form of parks and postage stamps, Judge C. J. Coley, the once-sodden son of stern Presbyterian parents, had brought AA to his hometown, convening a meeting so filled with prominent men that it had its own cachet around town. “Anything worthwhile in my life,” the judge said forty years into his sobriety, “can be traced to a decision to climb out of the bottle.” For now, though, Lee was still deep inside it.

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