Alice Finch Lee had neither the fame nor the notoriety of Truman Capote and Harper Lee, who grew up in the same tiny Alabama town where she was born. But she was a legend in her own right.
She practiced law in Monroeville, Ala., for seven decades, starting in the early 1940s when few professions welcomed women, and did not retire until she reached 100. Her encyclopedic knowledge and integrity were so well known that any time there was a dispute the solution was “Go ask Alice.”
“Miss Alice,” as everyone called her, was best known for the role she played in the life of one resident — her celebrated baby sister, Harper, whom she called Nelle. One of literature’s most admired and private figures, Harper Lee wrote the classic 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which helped raise the nation’s consciousness of racism. She dedicated the Pulitzer Prize-winning book to her father and Alice.
Alice Lee, who spent much of her long life shielding her sister from a prying public, died Monday in Monroeville of natural causes. She was 103.
Like her sister, she was inspired by their father, Amasa Coleman Lee. A country lawyer, he was Harper’s model for Atticus Finch, the morally steadfast protagonist who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
“Nelle would call her sister ‘Atticus in a skirt.’ That says a lot about Alice — and Nelle’s affection and respect for her,” said Marja Mills, whose memoir about living next door to the Lee sisters was published this year.
“Harper Lee made famous the world over the life of a principled small-town attorney in Alabama, and Alice lived it,” Mills said.
A leader in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Alice Lee quietly but firmly helped guide it through the discord of the civil rights era.
Thomas Lane Butts, a retired Monroeville minister who knew Lee for 50 years, recalled last week a tense church meeting in Montgomery in the 1960s, when a report opposing segregation was on the table. “Several racist ministers lined up to speak,” he said. “Before they could get up ... Miss Alice rose and gave a five-word speech: ‘I move the previous question.’ Everyone applauded. It was so voted. The speeches died in the pockets of the racists.”
That was the first speech Lee ever made on the conference floor, Butts said. She later became the first woman to lead the conference, which named an award in her honor.
With similar tact, Lee acted as gatekeeper for her famous sister, who stopped giving interviews in 1964. Where her sister was known to turn down requests with a surly “Hell, no!” Lee was more polite, even if the answer was the same.
She generally refused to talk about her sister but made an exception when batting down rumors, particularly speculation that Capote, a childhood friend, was the true author of “Mockingbird.”
“That’s the biggest lie ever told,” Lee told Newsday in 2002 of the rumor. Capote, she said, was just jealous of her sister because he never won a Pulitzer.
She also addressed the question of why her sister never wrote another novel.
“When you have hit the pinnacle,” she told Mills for a 2002 Chicago Tribune article, “how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?”
Earlier this year, both sisters were in the news when Mills’ book, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” was released. Mills, who was the Lees’ neighbor for 18 months starting in 2004, said she had written the book with the sisters’ consent and encouragement. But Harper Lee denied she had cooperated with the writer.
“Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” the author said in a statement issued by the lawyer who took over from her sister.
In response, Mills released a letter she received from Alice Lee. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Lee wrote. “Now she has no memory of the incident.’ ”
The controversy was one of several that beset her sister in recent years, including her charges that a local museum was exploiting her fame by selling souvenirs related to her popular novel.
Butts, the retired minister, said the problems “never would have developed if Alice was still handling things. Her sister adored her.”
Capote, who spent childhood summers with relatives next door to the Lees, once said that the two sisters were “as alike as a giraffe and a hippopotamus.”
Harper was a tomboy with a rebellious streak. Fifteen years her senior, Alice, who was born in Monroeville on Sept. 11, 1911, was more deliberate. Of the family’s four children, who included brother Edwin and sister Louise, she was most suited to follow in their lawyer father’s footsteps.
“She was a grade-getter, conservative, and the essence of fact,” biographer Charles J. Shields wrote in his 2006 book “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.”
She attended Women’s College of Alabama in Montgomery for a year until the 1929 stock market crash forced her to return home. She became her father’s right hand and, at 19, associate editor of the local newspaper, of which he was part-owner.
In 1937 she left Monroeville for Birmingham, where she worked as a clerk for the newly formed Social Security Administration. When one of her father’s law partners died, he urged her to consider taking the man’s place. After completing night classes at Birmingham School of Law, she passed the bar in 1943 and joined Bugg, Barnett & Lee, where she specialized in real estate and probate law.
Never married, she shared a modest brick house with her sister until health problems sent them into separate care facilities. Harper Lee, who is 88 and partly paralyzed from a 2007 stroke, is her only immediate survivor.
Lee said she lived a long life because “I don’t do anything to bring on dying.” She was an insatiable reader, especially of British history, and had so many books that she was known to stow them in her oven.
At 100, she put herself to sleep by reciting the names of all the presidents of the United States. If she was still awake when she got to Obama, she started on the vice presidents. If that didn’t work, she launched into the first ladies and the governors of Alabama. She could even recite Alabama’s 67 counties and knew the license plate tag numbers for each one.
“She was as bright as you could be,” Butts said, “right up to the end.”