Alice Lee is best known as the older sister, advisor, protector and dear friend of Nelle “Harper” Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to the Washington Post, “For many years, [Alice Lee] handled Harper Lee’s legal and financial affairs and sometimes spoke on her behalf, courteously turning away interview requests and occasionally responding to the curiosities that swirled around ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and it author.”
Yet, Alice was much more than a famous author’s sister. She was a book lover and a history buff, a scholar and an attorney, a devoted citizen and church member, a storyteller and a story keeper… the list goes on, and this wonderful, dynamic woman should be remembered.
Marja Mills lived next door to the Lee sisters later in their lives. From her time getting to know them and the Monroeville area, she wrote The Mockingbird Next Door. It was rare for a reporter to get close to the sisters and be allowed access to their lives, stories and friends, yet Mills did the seemingly impossible. From her time living next door to the Lee sisters, we get the story of the life of Alice Lee.
The Early Life of Alice Lee
Alice Lee was born on September 11, 1911 in Bonifay, Florida. Her family moved to Monroeville, Alabama, where Alice lived most of her life. She was the oldest of four children—Louise, Ed and Nelle, the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, but the two were very close and lived together for much of their lives.
Among her many interviewees, Mill spoke with Sara Ann, a classmate of Nelle’s and the widow of her late brother, Ed. Mills wrote: “The personalities of the four Lee children, as Sara Anne observed them, were in full force by the time they reached young adulthood. Alice, from an early age, was responsible, steady, one to look after the others in the family. Louise was the prettiest of the girls, lively and social. Ed was the all-American who loved football, studied engineering, and went off to serve in Europe in World War II. Nelle, even as a girl, was the nonconformist, feisty and independent.”
Their father, Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee, was a publisher, politician and attorney. He would go on to be the model for the character of Atticus Finch. Their mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a wife and mother.
Many rumors circulated about Frances Lee, some written by reporters who couldn’t get direct access to the Lee sisters, and some perpetuated by their childhood friend Truman Capote. When the Lee sisters spoke with Mills, they were adamant about getting the story straight—Frances Lee was a good mother, and they loved her very much. Mills wrote: “Alice and Nelle described a mother whose piano playing would fill the living room, who loved to sing and read.”
Atticus in a Skirt
Alice went to Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. After school she worked for her father at a local paper, and then moved to Birmingham to work for the IRS. She enrolled in night school to get her law degree, and she passed the bar in 1943. She was the only woman taking the exam.
Alice practiced law at Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter, where her father practiced as well. She practiced there for seven decades, until she was over 100. Nelle famously called Alice “Atticus in a skirt,” after the fictional father and attorney of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Alice was a talented and devoted attorney, civil rights activist and church member—an essential part of the community.
Neither Lee sister chose the “traditional” path of settling down with a husband and family. Mills briefly addressed the topic in her book: “Dating, either as young women or in later years, never came up in conversation with either sister. It didn’t seem to be a topic up for discussion. Finally, I asked Nelle if Alice had dated at some point. I asked Alice the same of Nelle. A little, was the answer both gave. And that was that.”
Mills wrote that she was “fascinated by Harper Lee and Alice Lee as sisters. Even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible sister, and Nelle Harper was the spirited, spontaneous younger one.” Alice spent hours telling Mills stories—family and community history that had built up her head, that everyone wanted to get on record.
By the time Mills published her book, both Alice and Nelle were in Assisted Living Centers. Alice passed away on November 17, 2014, in a nursing home in Monroeville. She was 103 years old. Alice was a kind and dynamic woman—she made an impact on history, her community and her church, and she is missed by many.