C&B Notes

Harper Lee, Crimson Tide Enthusiast

Harper Lee may not have written another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, but she did write lots of letters.  One of her favorite topics evidently was Alabama football.  Who knew that we could like her even more – Roll Tide!

On a pleasant evening in the spring of 1963, the world’s most famous author felt inspired to write. The pages that came from her typewriter would be saved for decades with a note in blue ink: “Wonderful letter from Nelle Harper Lee.”  It had been three years since the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and several months since the release of the movie adaptation, when the young Pulitzer Prize winner found herself preoccupied with another deeply Southern topic.  At the moment when it must have felt like everyone in her life was waiting to read anything else she had written, Harper Lee finally had something to write about: the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.

She was working with rich material. Lee had become transfixed by a scandal that appeared to implicate the legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant—a story rife with corruption, bias, rivalry, peculiarities of state politics, moral quandaries and a healthy dose of the absurd. This was the essence of college football captured in one neat letter. And it happened to be written by a great American novelist who typed her name and return address on the back of the envelope:

“Lee
Monroeville
Alabama”

Harper Lee might not be the first Alabamian who comes to mind as someone who loved Alabama’s football team. In fact she might be the last. But as she once put it: “I was a rabid football fan long before I was a writer.”  Like most rabid fans, she watched every Alabama game. Unlike most of her kind, she once skipped the Cannes Film Festival to meet Bryant. “Bear talked about literature, and I talked about football,” Lee said at the time. She was so interested in hearing people talk about football that she even listened to ESPN host Paul Finebaum’s radio show.  “I would say it wasn’t an interest but a passion,” said Tonja Carter, her attorney. “Most of the fall schedule was built around watching the games on TV.”  This passion was such a powerful force in the lives of Nelle Harper and Alice Lee that the sisters purchased their first television in part because they had to watch football. Alice died in 2014 and Nelle Harper in 2016, and they remained fans as Nick Saban restored the Crimson Tide to glory.

* * * * *

It all started with an article in the Saturday Evening Post, which is a very 1963 way to begin a scandal. The story was based on the account of an Atlanta insurance agent named George Burnett. He had been trying to place a long-distance call in September 1962 when, in an incredible twist of fortune, he was accidentally connected to a call between Bryant and Georgia athletic director Wally Butts. Burnett couldn’t believe what he claimed to be hearing: Butts sharing Georgia’s strategy for its upcoming game against Alabama with Bryant. A week after the phone call, Alabama beat Georgia, 35-0, and Burnett was convinced he’d eavesdropped on the football equivalent of insider trading.

Burnett passed along his concerns to Georgia coach Johnny Griffith, who already had a feeling that someone had given Alabama his playbook, and Butts resigned after Griffith took the information to school officials. The Saturday Evening Post published its blockbuster story in March 1963. The men admitted that they had spoken by phone, but they denied the allegation that they had conspired to rig the game, and Butts immediately sued the magazine’s parent company for $10 million.  By then the sordid libel case involving this alleged scheme to fix the Alabama vs. Georgia game had captivated the South. And there was one notable resident of Monroeville paying close attention.

“The Wally Butts-Bear Bryant thing is a lallapalooza & gets more complicated every day,” Harper Lee wrote to Williams and Crain. “I hope the papers are giving it the right coverage in New York but doubt it.”  There had been weeks of “rumors, counterrumors, accusations, boasts, speculations and seeping innuendoes,” according to Sports Illustrated later that summer, and Harper Lee followed every part of the brouhaha from her side of the Chattahoochee River.

“What started out as most of the Southeastern Conference patrons cancelling their subscriptions to the Satevepost has as of today erupted into a major political scandal in Georgia,” she wrote. But one part of the story that didn’t quite make sense to Lee and “people in these parts” is why Butts would hand Georgia’s secrets to a sworn enemy such as Bryant. Then again she wasn’t convinced that he did. As she wrote: “We don’t know what Butts said to Bryant on the telephone!”  Lee had two reasons to take Bryant at his word when he denied the allegations. The first was that she was an Alabama fan. The second was that she understood the importance of presuming innocence. “We believe in our dear Bear until he’s proven guilty,” Lee wrote.

There was actually one more reason to believe what she wanted to believe about Bryant. When a former Alabama linebacker named Lee Roy Jordan said that “as far as he knows it ain’t so,” Harper Lee trusted him. She knew his family. They were from the next town over. “The Jordans have a reputation for veracity in these parts,” she wrote.  The lawsuit eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Butts won an unlikely 5-4 decision in 1967, four years after Lee’s note to her agents.

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