Harper Lee raises her low profile for a friend

Special to The Times

In the old days, when armies of college grads would troop off to write the Great American Novel -- before everyone switched to screenplays -- there was something they didn't know: It had already been written.

"To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize, and the huzzahs just kept coming. Nearly 40 years later, Harper Lee's poignant book about the transcendence of character over conformity in the blindly racist South of the 1930s was voted the best novel of the century by librarians around the country in a 1999 survey by Library Journal.

So Lee was a logical choice to be honored at the Los Angeles Public Library's 10th annual awards dinner Thursday evening. But that far from guaranteed an appearance by the literary icon. Lee, 79, abhors the limelight. She stopped talking to the press a few years after her novel was published and turns down most requests for appearances.

But Los Angeles had an ace in the hole -- the unlikely helping hand of Hollywood, which isn't known for its delicate touch in adapting books. The 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," though, was an exception. The movie, which Universal is reissuing in a commemorative DVD in September, won Gregory Peck an Oscar for his starring role as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch as well as the lifelong friendship of the elusive Lee.

So when his widow, Veronique Peck, invited her to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award, Lee did. She traveled to L.A. by train from the home she shares with her sister in Monroeville, Ala. -- an ear condition prevents her from flying, according to Peck.

With short white hair and glasses, Lee cut a slight figure in a black pants suit at Thursday's event. She kept her typical low profile, talking very little, making no speeches.

In the years following the film, Lee stayed in touch with Peck and his family through phone calls, letters and occasional visits. They became so close that the Pecks' 5-year-old grandson, Harper Peck Voll, was named after Lee. "She understands human nature and your place in it," said son Anthony Peck. "She is as smart and intuitive a lady as there is. There's no dissembling with her."

"She's like a national treasure," Veronique Peck said. "She's someone who has made a difference ... with this book. The book is still as strong as it ever was, and so is the film. All the kids in the United States read this book and see the film in the seventh and eighth grades and write papers and essays. My husband used to get thousands and thousands of letters from teachers who would send them to him."

Atticus Finch, she said, "was his favorite role, and he felt that in his professional life, it was probably the best performance he ever gave."

In the last two years alone, more than a million copies of "Mockingbird" have been sold, according to publisher HarperCollins. After the widespread praise her first book received, Lee never wrote another one.

As she told Roy Newquist in 1964 for "Counterpoint," his book of conversations with authors: "I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

The library's award dinner began with cocktails in the Maguire Gardens of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, which drew more than 600 supporters who raised $700,000 for computers, computer training and literacy programs. Guests later walked across the street to City National Plaza, where a dinner alfresco awaited them.

Later, Annette Bening expressed the gathering's love for books with a quote from "Mockingbird": "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."

Then "Mockingbird" costar Brock Peters, who played the black man accused of rape by a white woman, presented the award to Lee, who was helped to the stage by the Pecks.

Her lips moved as she looked around the plaza with a faint air of alarm. Veronique Peck whispered to her, and Lee bent to the microphone for her only remarks of the evening: "I'll say it again," she said. "Thank you all from the bottom of my heart."

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