A Vermont literary mystery: The search for Harper Lee's connection to West Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO — Evidence of a little-known connection between West Brattleboro and Nelle Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill A Mockingbird," intrigued Casey Cep as she delved into her research about the late author and the true crime book Lee labored over for years but might not have ever completed.

Cep's book, "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee," focuses on a series of murders in a small Alabama town in the 1970s and the years that Lee (1926-2016) spent trying to write about the crimes.

In a story she wrote for The Guardian, Cep said that of all the pages Lee is believed to have produced for the manuscript, with its working title of "The Reverend," only four have ever been found.

According to Cep's book, some of Lee's research and writing appear to have taken place in West Brattleboro.

In Cep's research, which included interviews with family and friends, she found letters by Lee postmarked from Vermont, as well as many references to Vermont.

"Some were mailed from there, and some mentioned that she'd just left there or was about to visit there. But no one I interviewed seemed to know about what Lee did or who she visited while there. For all I knew, she was secretly friends with John Irving or Saul Bellow, or maybe she just liked leaf-peeping," Cep said in an email.

The first clue in one of the letters was mention of helping a friend move out of a house into an apartment within delivery distance of a West Brattleboro general store. Delivery was a service offered by Ziter's Market. Or was it Stockwell's Store? Cep didn't know.

By the summer of 2017, Cep had contacted the Brooks Memorial Library and several other people and institutions in West Brattleboro. But no one seemed to know anything about Lee's connection. Jeanne Walsh, the reference librarian, offered to ask around.

It took a year, but finally, Walsh contacted Cep with a crucial lead by putting her in touch with Brattleboro-West Arts member and local artist Maisie Crowther.

"Maisie Crowther had even heard of the connection Lee might have to the area," Cep said. "She had heard a rumor about Goodenough Road, which is what Ms. Walsh the librarian passed along to me."

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Walsh tracked down the city and town directories corresponding with Lee's letters that mentioned Vermont. Cep said, "Sure enough, after reviewing them, I found a name I recognized: a woman who worked in the office of Harper Lee's literary agency."

That woman was Lucile Sullivan, who worked in Maurice Crain's literary agency under Crain's wife, Annie Laurie Williams, who was also a literary agent. Crain was Lee's agent and close friend.

Crowther then put Cep in touch with Irene and Dr. Robert Burtis, who in turn put her in touch with John Carnahan of the Brattleboro Historical Society. A luncheon with them, followed by phone conversations, helped Cep put some of the pieces together.

Cep said, "It turned out that [Sullivan] had rented a house many summers in West Brattleboro and then retired up there after she left Manhattan. She had worked not only with Harper Lee but also with some other famous writers, including John Steinbeck and Alan Patton. It was really satisfying to have solved the mystery of who Lee knew in West Brattleboro, but of course, I was curious about if she'd interacted with anyone else during her visits."

Cep found that Sullivan started spending time in Brattleboro in 1969, renting a room in a house on Goodenough Road. "She eventually moved into Brookside Apartments, where she lived until she died in 1987," she said.

Cep appreciates a good mystery, and the work that goes into uncovering facts long forgotten.

"I love the mystery of Harper Lee and Vermont because it shows just how collaborative this kind of research can be; it took a whole village to sort out her connection to Vermont," Cep said in an email. "If there weren't such a wonderful network of local historians and if the public library didn't save city directories, we might never have figured it all out."

But for the aid of Brooks Memorial Library, Jeanne Walsh, John Carnahan, Maisie Crowther and Irene and Dr. Robert Burtis, it may never have been known that this particular literary giant walked among our midst.

Cep will participate in the 18th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival, held downtown Oct. 17 to 20. For more information about Cep and other authors participating in this year's festival, visit brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.

Cep hopes residents will not only read "Furious Hours" and come to the festival, but also "check their attics and basements and dresser drawers for any letters from Harper Lee."

Cicely M. Eastman is the former arts editor of the Brattleboro Reformer and a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.


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