Harper Lee: The Mockingbird Sings No More

Harper Lee, April 28, 1926 to February 19, 2016.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, passed away today quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She had become a literary success with Mockingbird, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of small-town Southern racial tensions in the 1930s.

She was many things to many people: eccentric, reclusive Southern writer; famous friend of Truman Capote (who attempted to take partial credit for To Kill a Mockingbird); and unsung heroine of Capote’s own reputation as his researcher on In Cold Blood. Mockingbird could have been written without the character Dill, based upon Capote himself. But could In Cold Blood have existed without the dogged persistent interviewing and research of Nelle Harper Lee? That is perhaps something only they will know. And now both are gone.

Embed from Getty Images

Truman Capote in 1959, the year he first read To Kill a Mockingbird and took Harper Lee with him to Kansas to work on In Cold Blood. Mockingbird would be published a year and a half later.

The real Nelle Harper Lee remains elusive to outsiders, but was by all accounts a friendly woman with a sharp wit to those who knew her. She did what we have all been told to do: wrote of what she knew. And she did it well—with 40 million copies sold, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

Truman Capote posthumously cleared himself of all involvement in the writing of Harper Lee’s masterwork when a letter surfaced, written to his aunt in July 1959. It described his reading the novel for the first time. National Public Radio broadcast an interview about the letter with Dr. Wayne Flynt, retired Auburn University professor of history, on “All Things Considered”:


Now our mockingbird is silent. But her legacy and her masterpiece live on.

Rest in Peace, Nelle.

©2016 Jill Teresa Farmer



Susan Sontag: looking back at a genius of the obvious

Susan Sontag may well have been the most overrated writer and thinker of her generation. Her sole gift in her philosophical musings was her ability to state the obvious in such a way as to seem original. Many of her readers had a “Eureka!” moment simply because they had always thought the same thing. (“See Mabel, it’s like I always said!”) But she could cloak her commonplace observations in New York intellectualese. After being raised in Tucson and Los Angeles, she learned to speak the shibboleth during an excellent Eastern education and a stint at Oxford. And we were all impressed. Her “On Photography” had not one original thought. Yet she must be given credit for putting her observations into words, getting them published, and, most importantly, convincing an entire generation that she needed to be read.

Her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” was her breakthrough, giving undeserved recognition and cachet to that movement. A foray into film-making found her writing and directing four films, with a brief role as herself in Woody Allen’s Zelig. Her historical novel, The Volcano Lovers, was well received. (See John Banville’s lengthy review in the New York Times of August 9, 1992, “By Lava Possessed”.)

She published more experimental work, and was eventually accused of plagiarism by Ellen Lee after a careful reading of Sontag’s “In America”.  Even Camille Paglia became disillusioned with her. Sontag was definitely a product of her era; future generations will find her increasingly less relevant. She will perhaps be misunderstood by anyone who does not read her in the context of other sixties counter-culture writings. The banality of her ideas will not be so apparent.

Yet she is being read today. Her diaries are being published. They contain such edicts as her ten rules for raising children. Number nine is “Make him aware that there is a grown-up world that is none of his business.” What? This confuses me as much as one of her observations on art: “Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth!”

I would love to know her definitions of “beauty” and “truth”. I suspect her personal conception of beauty is far too narrow. As for her view of the aims of science – I remain baffled. For more of her insights, click on the links and read the other interesting articles by Maria Popova on Sontag found at Brain Pickings.

She had an ability to outrage. One of her last public proclamations was her criticism of America following September 11, 2001. In an editorial in The New Yorker,  she attacked ” the unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days [which] seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”

Yet of all the overrated writers of the 1960s and 1970s, she is the one I miss the most. She did, after all, have the chutzpah to keep soldiering on through breast cancer and then the leukemia that eventually claimed her.

Portrait of [photographer Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz at her San Francisco  exhibition. By Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA

But nothing was sadder to me than those who gushed over the talent and “bravery” of her lover, photographer Annie Leibovitz,  as she took photo after photo of Sontag’s dead body. I was shocked beyond words. It was a desecration and a challenge to common decency that overstepped every boundary. Apparently I wasn’t the only one shocked: on September 29, 2006, Bag News published a review of a laudatory Newsweek article on Leibovitz, entitling it “With Deep Apologies to Susan Sontag” and reluctantly (one hopes) including a link to one of the photos of Sontag’s corpse. They dubbed it “necro porn”.

Leibovitz continues to be lionized today and is undeniably talented. She may end up being more famous for her Rolling Stone cover of a nude John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono. Or perhaps as the woman who told Queen Elizabeth II to remove her crown, which Her Majesty did –  after recovering from the audacity of the request. Her stomach-churning photos of Sontag may one day be overshadowed by these and by her innovative fashion photography.

Perhaps Sontag’s legacy is simply one of tragedy.  I can learn no lesson from her life nor from her prose; find no uplift or hope anywhere in her sad story. Perhaps if I had known her or gotten an idea of her true inner world from her work – but I was, perhaps, too removed from her milieu to have any insight at all.

If there is a moral in Sontag’s life or works, it might be to have confidence in yourself and whatever talent you have – or believe you have, and to keep going through pain and adversity. Perhaps that is, after all, her most genuine legacy.

To sample Sontag’s prose, fiction, and films, you may be interested in the following :

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. New York: Octagon, c1966. Print.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1978. Print.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1977. Print.

Sontag, Susan. The Volcano Lover: a Romance. New York, Anchor Books, c1993. Print.

Duett För Kannibaler [Duet for Cannibals]. By Susan Sontag. Perf. Adriana Asti and Gösta Ekman. SAndrews, 1969. Duett För Kannibaler AKA Duet for Cannibals (1969). Tomás Olano, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 May 2015.

Greenspun, Roger. “MOVIE REVIEW Duet For Cannibals (1969) The Screen:Susan Sontag’s ‘Duet for Cannibals’ at Festival.” Rev. of Duet for Cannibals [film]. The New York Times 25 Sept. 1969: n. pag. Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 1969. Web. 16 May 2015.

Text ©Jill Teresa Farmer 2015.

Harper Lee: her surprisingly controversial return

Harper Lee is back at a time when no one expected it: old age. And she has shattered the long-held notion that she had only one book in her, a one-hit wonder along the lines of Margaret Mitchell, Emily Brontë, and Boris Pasternak. Yet she had none of their excuses: death by automobile, death by tuberculosis, or suppression by the state. But now she is back, yet no one seems to believe it.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird

Nelle Harper Lee about 1962.

At times there is a feeling in the air that whatever Nelle Harper Lee does, the shadow of doubt will hang heavily over it. First there were those rumors that Lee, who had done so much of the footwork and research for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and gotten no credit, really was not the author of her own book.

From the beginning, Nelle Harper Lee was the object of  whispers that Capote, her next-door neighbor and the model for Dill in Mockingbird, really wrote the novel. In 2006,  Wayne Flynt, retired history professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, guested on National Public Radio and talked about the letter from Capote to a cousin that finally put those rumors to rest. It was good to have that particular issue settled in the minds of all but the most Capote-did-it diehards.

I feel I have a personal stake in the controversy over Harper Lee’s forthcoming book, Go Set a Watchman, to be released in the United States on July 14, 2015, by HarperCollins. It is purported to be the original version of To Kill a Mockingbird, rewritten at the insistence of her editors to produce that wonderful novel. Mockingbird evoked a time and place I feel a part of. Perhaps that is why I find it mystifying that this Pulitzer prize-winning work seems to draw strange detractors.

DVD and paperback edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The novel made a wonderful film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.
©Jill Teresa Farmer

One NPR wag suggested that To Kill a Mockingbird was Young Adult material, not meant for adult audiences. Oh yes, of course – a book about rape and racial hatred – I should have realized that it was just the thing for a younger audience. Some still harbor the inane notion that a novel with children as main characters – or told from a child’s point of view – is automatically a children’s book.

Charles Shield, Lee’s biographer, in an interview with Al Jazeera, said he knew of Go Set a Watchman’s  existence in 2006. His interview is one of the most interesting on the subject. He, for one, is speaking from the standpoint of personal knowledge – a refreshing point of view.

Greg Garrison’s article on Watchman points out that the book’s title is from the Bible, Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6. This retains the long Southern tradition of scriptural references from authors steeped in the King James Bible, a vital part of the culture. The  “watchman” in this case is reportedly Atticus Finch, the wise and dignified character based on Lee’s own father. The quote and title are very appropriate for the Civil Rights era in which the book is reportedly set, in which a watchman was certainly needed to get a clear look at a painful situation.

Harper Lee receives the Medal of Freedom at the White House, 2007.

Harper Lee 2007. Photo : Eric Draper.

My one wish is not that this book be an amazing piece of writing, or even equal to Mockingbird, but that it reveal the original voice of its author. It is the equivalent of finding the first draft of any important Pulitzer prize-winning novel that has been extensively rewritten. I want to see with my own eyes the difference it made to change the story’s setting from the 1950s to the Great Depression. Will we see the same Scout? Will she have become cynical as an adult? Perhaps she will still be the same starchy little girl but grown up, swinging now at lawyers her own age rather than at playground bullies. Another interesting prospect presents itself: Will we still see Capote portrayed as Dill, and how might he be portrayed as an adult?

For anyone interested in writing and the progression of the writer’s craft, this is a rare gift: a chance to see the first draft of an honored novel. I for one can’t wait.

What will I say when I finally hold the long-awaited book in my hands? Probably just, “Hi, Scout, whatcha been doin’?”

I think the answer will be worth the wait.

©Jill Teresa Farmer 2015. All rights reserved.

Is Karl Lagerfeld failing Coco Chanel?

Lately there has been a great resurgence of interest in Coco Chanel. Perhaps it is partly the work of the film industry and its biopics. And why not?

House of Chanel

The House of Chanel
photo credit: Timeless Chanel via photopin (license)

Her life was the stuff movie people love – a rags to riches Cinderella story with handsome men as the fairy godmother; love, tragic death, war, affairs, a Nazi lover, triumphant success. And a Paris apartment like none other. How did Hollywood resist so long?

During her lifetime Katherine Hepburn played her in the 1969 Broadway play “Coco”. Chanel had been introduced to Hepburn by George Cukor in Hollywood in 1931, where she had designed the costumes for Ina Claire and Joan Blondell in “Tonight or Never”. She had planned to attend the December premiere until a ministroke paralyzed her right arm. Of course she would not go out like that.

Later came the film versions of her life, such as “Chanel Solitaire” in 1980 with Marie-France Pisier in the title role. Others followed. The piquant Audrey Tautou in “Coco Before Chanel” (2009) popularized her for a new generation.

But it is the designer Chanel who has commanded our attention for so many years. She was a woman who loved men and occasionally appropriated their clothing to suit her purposes – such as using tweeds and jersey as women’s fabrics. She was all about making women look beautiful and refined without sacrificing comfort. Coco Chanel sought to banish corsets, the hobble skirt – and long hair, claiming it got in her way. (She tried to convince model Suzy Parker to cut her hair, but Suzy won that one.)

Using a palette of black, white, and neutrals, she made immensely practical clothing. Her little black dress was a stroke of genius. Her tweeds were gorgeous. As bland as her style seems when described in print, it had exquisite polish, elegance, and refinement to it. And while she disdained the tiny-waisted, full-skirted silhouette of Christian Dior’s New Look, she appreciated its femininity. She embellished her own designs with her famous ropes of costume-jewelry pearls and logo buttons. She introduced mixing fake jewels with the real thing, saying, “The point of jewelry isn’t to make a woman look rich but to adorn her.”

Her interlocking Cs logo is still recognized the world over. But, alas, would she approve of Karl Lagerfeld?

Karl Lagerfelt

Karl Lagerfeld photo credit: ChanelBackstage10oct07 via photopin (license)

The House of Chanel was run by her assistants for some ten years after her death. Then, enter Lagerfeld from Chloe. He had previously worked in haute couture for Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou, among others. An admirer of Chanel since he was a 17-year-old design student, he was naturally easy to woo away from the other design house. Today he splits his time and attention between Fendi, his own Karl label, Chanel, and outside projects. He is as instantly recognizable as Mlle Chanel, in his high starched collar reminiscent of a neck brace, powdered white ponytail, and gloves. He has an impossible job – taking over for an irreplaceable, inimitable woman. To his credit, he has kept some of the Chanel trademarks such as the pearls, the hand-quilted jackets, and of course, the interlocking Cs. But his odd departures from her basic aesthetic are disturbing.

While he personally abhors flip-flops and tattoos, his 2013 Spring collection showed athletic shoes with Chanel-style jackets. He was not alone in that ill-conceived idea; Dior did the same thing that year. Gone were the dark-toed signature Chanel heels. Then came more sneakers and the sneaker boot in the Spring-Summer 2014 collection, along with what appear to be knee pads. The breaking point came when he introduced a corset – yes, a corset – into his collection. Yes, that very same contrivance Coco Chanel had hoped to banish forever. Yet many lovely creations have come down his runway.

Chanel once said, “By definition, fashion is changeable. A true sense of style is forever.”

Coco Chanel created fashion. She had style. She was an original. Karl Lagerfeld will create more fashion for the House of Chanel. But the style – that left with Coco.

Text copyright © 2015 Jill Teresa Farmer. All rights reserved.

The trouble with Woody Allen’s films

Director Woody Allen

Woody Allen with his jazz band. photo credit: Woody Allen via photopin (license)

Most people view Woody Allen as a great director – at least one of the best America has to offer. His films can make two million dollars and he is not fazed. Or at least that’s what he would like us to believe. Scrutiny of his private life has been relentless. But for those focused on the man as a filmmaker, the big question is, “Just who is Woody Allen as a director?”

Why, at 79, has Mr. Allen been unable to find himself? His most original ideas have been the best – “Manhattan” (1979), for one. But that was a film he claimed not to like. The delightful “Radio Days” (1987) was another that was truly his own, inspired by his own memories of a New York childhood.

He has a recognizable style – Tin Pan Alley songs and jazz, stark white credits (in alphabetical order, if you please) over a black screen. He hires the best cinematographers. (Although I would argue with the use of that strange tobacco-colored filter over the lens in his later films.)

But even at his best, he often seems to be looking for inspiration from other directors. There was his Truffaut period, his Hitchcock period, his Bergman period. He even hired Sven Nykvist, the brilliant cinematographer who did most of Ingmar Bergman’s work, for “Another Woman” (1988) and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989). Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” gave him “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008), but with two women instead of two men. He even recreated the bicycle scene. Somehow it didn’t work as well without Truffaut in the director’s chair. There was certainly none of the lyrical beauty or the poignant quality projected by Truffaut’s actors – Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre. He dipped into Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” to come up with “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982), his first film with Mia Farrow as his lead actress; Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” gave him “September” (1987). At least Chekhov was not a film director. Are these derivative lesser works or homages? Only Woody Allen could satisfactorily answer that.

Is Woody Allen too versatile for his own good, or has he simply been unable to settle down to perfect his own directorial persona?

For me, his best period was when he forayed into magical realism with Mia Farrow as his female lead. He seemed to be the master of the genre. Why then did he abandon it? Certainly not all his films in this style were smash hits, but they seemed to be the perfect conduit for his more original thoughts. “Alice” (1990) and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) were lovely works, but not financially successful. When he returned to it in 2011’s “Midnight in Paris”, the critics were warm in their praise.

His foray into German Expressionism, “Shadows and Fog” (1991), was a failure. Filming in black and white was in itself a courageous choice; even Francois Truffaut had been forced to film “Fahrenheit 451” in color at Universal’s insistence as black and white films are just not commercial. Despite its poor box office showing, if you are a die-hard Woody Allen fan, you love it. The dark photography, the literal shadows and fog, the Kafkaesque plot, all conspired to give us something that was a hybrid of the German and the magical. The plot didn’t thrill the public (a rather weak ending didn’t help), but he and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma nailed the visual style.

He always rejected the idea of Mia Farrow as his muse, yet undeniably his best films were made with her as his star. “Purple Rose of Cairo” was a small jewel. Allen himself has said that he identifies with the heroine, Cecilia, more than any of his other characters. Roger Ebert loved it and found the depth in it. In 1986 it raked in awards: the BAFTA award for Best Screenplay, the BAFTA award for Best Film, the Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film, the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, the BAFTA  award for Best Original Screenplay, and the London Film Critics’ Circle award for Film of the Year. There were nominations in categories they did not win: Mia Farrow, a Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Best Actress; Jeff Daniels, the Golden Globe for Best Actor; the Writers Guild award for Woody Allen for Best Original Screenplay; the BAFTA for Best Special Effects; the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film.

Magical realism remains, to my mind, the one style he could have truly mastered to the point of genius. One wonders what would have happened if he had stuck with it. I dream of a Woody Allen who trusted his own instincts and stayed with magical realism as his format and Mia Farrow as his muse – which, whether he liked to share credit or not, she once seemed to be.

Perhaps he could have been great. His lapses into imitation of other directors and his inability to stick with what served him best have kept him from it. But his story is not yet written. He may yet live up to his promise.

Text copyright © 2015 Jill Teresa Farmer. All rights reserved.