For some, the meeting of the titans that they’d most like to have witnessed is Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. But for me it’s one that occurred this past weekend, with another Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama. There, the actress Patricia Neal (pictured left, in a 1954 photo by Carl Van Vechten), who won an Academy Award for her performance in “Hud,” encountered Harper Lee (pictured right), the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The occasion was a reading of Truman Capote’s story “A Christmas Memory” that Miss Neal and actor Joel Vig were performing as the centerpiece in the first annual Fruitcake Festival, organized by Tom Mason. “We sold fruitcake the entire weekend,” Mr. Mason said. “There were many varieties, all delicious, I’m sure, although the best ones are the ones that have had a chance to ripen.”
Mr. Mason told me that Monroeville’s marvelously restored Old Courthouse Museum (main room pictured, below; website here) does an annual production of Miss Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in the place where the story’s climactic scene is set. He wanted a performance there of something by the author’s Monroeville-childhood friend, Truman Capote, and so the wheels were set in motion to bring Miss Neal and Mr. Vig to Monroeville, population 6862, to participate in a series of events that were devoted to reclaiming the reputation of a dessert that was immortalized in Capote’s autobiographical story with the line, uttered by the sixty-something Sook, “It’s fruitcake weather!”
This is the third year that Miss Neal and Mr. Vig, who met 24 years ago on a cruise sponsored by the Theater Guild, have brought “Memory” to Alabama. “When we were about to bring it to Birmingham, that first year,” Mr. Vig told me, “a friend of mine suggested that I write to Harper Lee and invite her to come. I rolled my eyes. It was a great idea but I didn’t know Harper Lee and, given her fierce reputation for privacy” — which is a little like saying that J. D. Salinger doesn’t appreciate unannounced visitors — “I didn’t know how to proceed.”
But Mr. Vig wrote the letter, addressing it to “Miss Harper Lee, Monroeville, Alabama 36460.” He said, “I had about as much hope of a reply as if I’d composed a letter to the Queen of England, put it in a bottle, and thrown it into the Hudson River at 42nd Street.” Two weeks later, a miracle arrived in the mail: Miss Lee replied, thanking Mr. Vig graciously for the invitation, but saying that Birmingham (a three-hour drive north of Monroeville) was a bit too far for her to stray.
The next year, Miss Neal and Mr. Vig returned to Alabama with the Capote piece (adapted by Mr. Vig), but even though their schedule included Demopolis, an hour closer than Birmingham to Miss Lee, she still declined. “I got a kick out of the fact that, while we were there,” Mr. Vig revealed, “I picked up a paper one morning and saw that she was at the White House receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. I guess Washington, that year, was closer to Monroeville than Demopolis was.”
Cut to: 2008. Plans had been finalized for “A Christmas Memory” to be done at the Fruitcake Festival. Mr. Vig renewed his suit to Miss Lee. “In her response this time,” the actor said, “she said she would attend if she was feeling up to it. She said she was a huge fan of Patricia Neal.”
And so, last Thursday, the day before the performance at the courthouse whose most renowned fictional denizen, Atticus Finch, once told his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until…you climb inside his skin,” Miss Neal and Mr. Vig (pictured, left) paid a call to Miss Lee at her current home in Monroeville.
The visit lasted about 45 minutes. It touched, explicitly and implicitly, on Miss Lee and Miss Neal’s many commonalities — including their birth year (1926) and their connection to Capote. (In the two recent movies about him, “Capote” and “Infamous,” Miss Lee was played by Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock; in the 1961 film adaptation of Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Miss Neal played Mrs. Failenson, “decorator” for George Peppard’s Fred Varjak.)
The main parties to the 2008 Monroeville Summit also discussed health issues. Miss Neal suffered cerebral aneurysms, and a coma, in 1965 during a pregnancy, which left it difficult for her to memorize lines (hence her preference for doing readings, like “A Christmas Memory.”) Miss Lee, meanwhile, not long ago had a relatively minor stroke, which, Mr. Vig said, hasn’t affected her speech — or anything else: “She’s very with it.” Nor, he added, has it affected her lifelong voracious reading habit. “Next to her bed was a large pile of books, new and old,” Mr. Vig said. “Patricia was especially interested in a nearby reading machine, which makes type bigger and clearer. The women talked about that, as well as about mutual friends. And I believe there was mention made of Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who is 97 and still practices law.”
The next night, Miss Lee walked into the courthouse, now the museum, and listened to Miss Neal and Mr. Vig bring to life a story that begins, “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.” Also in the audience were at least twenty people from families related to Capote — the Carters, the Faulks. The courthouse bell, as in the story, “sounded so cold and clear.” The atmosphere, according to Mr. Vig, “was magical — near-surreal.”
After the performance, Miss Neal and Miss Lee chatted: small talk from the Very Large. Or: the best ones are the ones that have had a chance to ripen.
Later in the weekend, Miss Neal and Mr. Vig pushed on to Demopolis, and further fruitcake weather.