In her 1960 courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee created one of American literature’s most beloved figures – the courageous Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. Told from the perspective of Finch’s young daughter, the book details Finch’s defense of a black man falsely accused of rape in Depression-era rural Alabama.
Now, at age 87, Lee is in court with her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, who Lee claims took advantage of her declining health and tricked her into surrendering her royalties to him. The book still sells 750,000 copies per year, according to Publisher’s Weekly, translating into more than $1.5 million in annual royalties.
Elder financial abuse cases often involve friends and relatives, and this one is no exception: Pinkus is the son-in-law of one of Lee’s oldest and dearest friends, the late Eugene Winick.
The lawsuit filed in a Manhattan court this May claims that in 2007, Lee suffered a stroke and was not well enough to comprehend the papers that Pinkus gave her to sign. “Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see” and he deliberately sought to take advantage of her. The papers gave Pinkus control over “Mockingbird”’s copyright and royalties. Lee was – and still is – living in an Alabama assisted living facility. She claims to have no memory of signing away her rights.
“She’s 95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair,” Dr. Thomas Butts told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper two years ago. Butts is a close friend of Harper’s who lives in the same Alabama town, Monroeville, that Lee has long called home. He added that Lee’s short-term memory was poor, but that her longterm memory was in good shape.
At the time of that interview, Lee’s legal affairs were handled by her older sister, Alice, an attorney who still maintained an active law practice at age 99. But Alice did not file the suit against Pinkus. Manhattan-based intellectual property attorney Gloria Phares wrote the complaint and is representing Lee in the suit. Phares, who often represents literary clients, once engaged in a battle over the rights to the C.S. Lewis children’s fantasy, “Chronicles of Narnia.”
The August 2013 issue of Vanity Fair examines the complex case and the relationship between Lee and Pinkus. Winick, Pinkus’s father-in-law, was Lee’s agent while she was writing “Mockingbird” and read various drafts of the book. Around 2002, Winick’s health became too frail for him to continue representing Lee. Pinkus took her on as a client. One of Lee’s friends told Vanity Fair that she came to admire Pinkus enough as a person to give him the Medal of Freedom bestowed upon Lee by former President George Bush.
The complaint filed by Lee’s attorney Gloria Phares asserts that Pinkus took the “Mockingbird” royalties and moved them among several shell accounts. Phares has said that “Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see” and he deliberately sought to take advantage of her.
When threatened with legal action earlier this year, Pinkus signed an agreement returning “To Kill a Mockingbird” rights to Lee. But Lee’s lawsuit demands that Pinkus also repay royalties he got in the five years since he grabbed the rights.