“To Kill A Mockingbird” Author a Victim of Elder Abuse

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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


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.

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  1. MB FINCH says:

    Go to NPR: “Letter puts end to persistent ‘Mockingbird’ rumor” In a letter to his Aunt on July 9, 1959, Capote states, “He has seen the novel, and had read most of it and liked it very much.” Nowhere does he claim any involvement in what’s in the book. I’m frankly, surprised that Harpers’ sister, Alice, did not have a say in this monumental decision. Although very up in years, she was of very sound mind. Her and Harper lived together for decades. Mr. Pinkus will now be an infamous “shirt tail rider” for his own greedy, shoddy and despicable actions. I wish the best outcome for Miss Lee!

  2. trailblazer says:

    Her situation is so common now. We need regulatory protection for our elders…..especially our Lesbian elders like Ms. Harper. Gay and Lesbian elders are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and cruelty. Not everyone has family and kindy resources around them. Harper’s case makes news and reminds u of the great work to be done. Countless others suffer silently and unreported………………..

    • Rob says:

      We already have ‘regulatory’ remedies on the books, they just need to be vigilantly, and properly enforced. We don’t need more laws, we don’t need more government intrusion- we need to modify present laws, should they be inadequate.

      • trailblazer says:

        You are right and you are wrong! LGBT seniors are especially vulnerable to abuse if they are not “out” and open. Cruel acts are carried out on them in fearsome numbers. The older LGBT persons may not have experienced much tolerance, so they are targets of blackmail in the form of not speaking up for fear of exposure. Regulatory protections can not be accessed if victims are afraid.

    • HarperLeefan says:

      Not sure why you think she is a lesbian and how this ties into the series of events presented here. As people become more dependent on others, they are more likely to fall victim to people with ill intentions, it doesn’t have anything to do with being gay or lesbian

      • Jennifer says:

        LGBT status is relevant. Members of that community are less likely to have familial advocates looking out and speaking up for them. They are also more likely to suffer abuse due to very real discrimination.

        • Rob says:

          I guess it may be relevant if the auther in question were LGBT, though outside of one solitary comment – on this board – I have never heard that Harper Lee is, in fact, LGBT.
          If she is not, than it is not relevant here on this particular thread.
          Do you know – for a fact – that Harper Lee is LGBT? With verifiable sources that you can list here?
          If not, this conversation is moot.

  3. Terry says:

    I think this person, Pinkus, should be tar and feathered. It is now, after threat of legal actions does he agree to return the rights to Ms. Lee. I agree, he should also return the royalities for the past five years, with interest. I also think he should receive jail time. Mr. Pinkus committed an unlawful act against an elder. I do not care if he is willing to return his unlawful gains. Jail is what this criminal deserves. Didn’t he learn this in law school or was he out that day?

  4. Angelica Goldstein says:

    DESPICABLE CREATURE! Hope he gets MORE than just a wrist slap…crimes against
    our most vulnerable citizens should be taken
    VERY SERIOUSLY, not as if old age and infirmities made them LESS IMPORTANT, but quite the OPPOSITE…prosecuted to the

  5. j.m. says:

    Typically, an agent manages your copyrights and gets 15 percent off the top before sending checks to you. It’ll be interesting to see if this “family friend” truly is hiding monies from her. One thing that baffles me is why electronic rights haven’t been exploited–there’s a crying need for them (my son has visual processing issues and was upset that he had to read TKAM in physical book form). That right there tells me Pinkus is not looking out for Harper Lee’s financial well being and properly managing her intellectual property.

  6. Keith M says:

    This is sad. But really it is also sad that she is suing the local museum in Monroeville (which is her hometown and “Maycomb” in the book) that restored the beautiful courthouse on its square. They market things in their shop with “To Kill a Mockingbird” on them and she is demanding rights. She should allow this museum the right to sell those things for gosh sake.

    So maybe she is also sue happy. Who is the attorney that is fleecing her this time?

    • Rob says:

      Why should she give away her copyrights? She has the right to say who can and can’t profit from her work. Did this museum get her permission? Were they paying her for the use of her work? I’m guessing the answer to both questions would be no.
      It is not ‘sue happy’ to protect your rights from thieves.
      But going on your theory, I wonder if you have a bank account? If so, you don’t need the money, you have no inherent right to it- give me some.
      Do you own a house? You don’t need all that room- I’ll move in, won’t pay rent or utilities. Do you have more than one car? You don’t need two- give me one.
      And, of course, you’ll be labeled sue happy if you don’t like it and take me to court.

    • J.M. says:

      They absolutely should give her a cut if they’re making money off her intellectual property! I’m sure you’d feel that way if you created an intellectual property. Also, they should only sell licensed merchandise on which she should earn royalties. Typically, the film/TV rights are bundled with merchandise and electronic rights. She should be making money off of all of it.

    • Conehead says:

      Excuse me, Keith, Harper is not fleecing anyone. She is infirmed with extreme health issues, including memory impairment, in a nursing home, and a trusted associate took advantage of her well-earned fame. That is disgusting and shameful. Elder abuse is so easy for the slime balls of the world. Ms Lee deserves respect, dignity and protection from all of those who just “don’t get it.” We all deserve that.

  7. Gladlylearn says:

    Lee and Capote were friends from childhood. She assisted him in the interviewing that was the foundation of _In Cold Blood_. Both were brilliant writers, each in their own right.

    • J.M. says:

      Yes, and Dill is fashioned after Truman Capote.

  8. JJ says:

    Anyone who takes advantage of children and the elderly have no right sharing our air.

  9. concerned says:

    I hope she wins. If the monies owed to her have been spent she should be able to put leans on his assets. I am so sick of people benefiting for being crooks.

  10. vickie says:

    I think this Pinkus person is a disgusting pig for taking advantage of Harper Lee this way!Things like this happen to the elderly all the time!!
    I hope he gets everything
    he deserves !!!

  11. MrCrabs says:

    What dirty thing to do to someone. The court should make an example the jerk. If repayment is not made in full, seize the guy’s assets.

  12. Dogmommy says:

    My heart breaks that this poor woman had to experience this. I hope swift and just punishment is served.

    Sadly, I know first-hand that elder abuse is not uncommon. Years ago, my grandfather was victimized financially and emotionally by a relative, and then by nursing home personnel. More recently, a friend of my elderly uncle managed to get quite a bit of money from him. We also found dozens of letters from charities asking for donations, and he promptly sent them checks. Some were being sent on a weekly basis. One was a well-known religious organization that said they would pray for him if he sent more money. I am not kidding.

    We have intervened each time, and as you can imagine, we now keep a very close eye on our other elderly relatives to make sure they are not victimized too.

    • deb says:

      Yes, unfortunately there are a lot of slime bags in this world. Too many of them hide behind religion.

      • Oldcollegecoed says:

        Oh honey….you said a mouthful there!

    • hotandcold says:

      My mother (92) was taken in by a con-man AKA ‘handyman’ who lived just down the way on her street. My dad has dementia, the handyman who was younger than me – took my folks for 30,000 dollars in the 1st 6 months of 2012!

      I had to move back up to Michigan to stop the financial bleeding this guy was doing to my folks.

      To this day my mother still wants to send him thousands of dollars because he’s “such a nice guy”…

      Nope, I’m POA now and no one gets any money for any reason unless I okay it first. I hope this guy burns.

  13. Rob says:

    If proven in court to be true, he should be made to pay restitution, PLUS five years of his income as pernalty.

  14. Alex123 says:

    I have little sympathy for the author of this hateful work forced on our kids for political reasons. Reverse the races in this story.

    • jeffylube says:

      Alex, shame on you for pushing the inaccuracy of your statement. What Miss Lee wrote about was a time in this country when there was terrible injustice performed on blacks. The compassion of Aticus Finch should applauded and how he taught his children how we should all be treated despite what color we are. In my mind he was a literary character we should aspire to be

      • Shelea says:

        Don’t forget the lesson regarding compassion for the mentally ill. Bo’s story is every bit as compelling as the main character’s.

    • Dogmommy says:

      Either you have not read this book, or you completely missed its message. I don’t see how anyone could interpret it the way you have.

  15. KellyGomez says:

    Considering Truman Capote re-wrote most of the book for her, shouldn’t his estate get something?

    • Lola says:

      Don’t be a misogynist ass. Just because it was awesome, doesn’t mean it was written by a man.

  16. Gregorsamsa says:

    Oh, no you don’t! The author of the most important novel of the latter half of the 20th century CANNOT be forced to endure this. Where is Mrs.Duboise’ s Confederate pistol? What a worthless, slimy creature!

    I love you, Miss Lee.

    • dhhandbags@aol.com says:

      HOPEFULLY his karma will repay his dastardly ways!

  17. bigskybound says:

    This Pinkus guy should be tied to a heavy wooden chair and slowly suffocated with a dry cleaning bag. Creep.

    • dhhandbags@aol.com says:

      I think you summed it all up!

  18. Thphilster says:

    This lawyer is a monster, let’s not even be civil about this. Writers, artists, and musicians seem to be increasingly part of scams like this constantly (see stories on Disney comic artist Carl Barks at the end of his life). Stealing the very thing that makes their quality of life possible for short term gain (this is also a personal fear being a career illustrator), Samuel Pinkus should be real happy I’m not the one deciding his fate.

  19. realhappy says:

    Betty C you are so right — and have a beautiful heart! I’ve often said if daycares were run like our retirement and nursing homes, there would be a lot of arrests for abuse and neglect. Why it’s tolerated for our elderly is beyond me.

    • Gore says:

      “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a Children’s book, and its author relied on her friend Truman Capote to help her write the novel.

      The story is simple, and the moral issues lack complexity.

      Harper Lee was a recluse because she really had nothing to say. She put it all in Mockingbird–with the aid of Truman Capote.

      • realhappy says:

        Truman, is that you??

        • sullivab says:

          I treasure “Mockingbird” and have the greatest admiration for Harper Lee for having brought it to us. How very sad that she has been betrayed at this frail time of her life – and what makes it even sadder is the fact that she has been betrayed and exploited by a close associate whose pockets she has lined with gold for a very long time. I hope he suffers a fate worthy of his crime. Sullivab

      • Rob says:

        Your critique is as unwelcome- in this forum- as it is incorrect; That aside, your lack of commenting on what the article addresses speaks volumes about your character- or rather, your distinct lack of it.

        • Gore says:

          The literary lion Flannery O’Connor was the first to label To Kill a Mockingbird a “children’s book.”


          The story is sappy, and Harper Lee takes no risks in giving her characters any complex nuance or shading.

          Children’s minds are too simple and innocent to struggle with complex character traits.

          The book is not great literature.

      • Rasa says:

        4 seconds of research: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5244492

        Thanks for your regurgitation of a discounted rumor.

        • Gore says:

          The rumor has not been put entirely to rest. Truman did not want to take any credit for Lee’s work because the credit would have been small–too insignificant to make a fuss over, especially in a letter.

          Think of Mockingbird as a collage with tiny bits and pieces contributed and arranged by Truman Capote. That’s how I view it.

          Lee was lucky to have a great editor, and the editor shaped the narrative.

  20. the Empress says:

    Which is almost ironic given the subject of her one and only book.

  21. FiduciaryWatch says:

    Crazy thing, this happens continuously, thanks to probate courts, court investigators, and fiducairies (Guardians, Conservators, Trustees, and Power Of Attorny. When will the courts realize this pandemic?

  22. De says:

    It’s a good idea to have an estate type ‘trust’ put into place, with people from three generations…Grandma’s, Daughter’s, Granddaughter’s…and a 4th friend of the family who’s a licensed professional, or at least well known to the other three and the community–pastor, teacher, business friend.

    Leaving BIG MONEY decisions to the sudden rule of some inevitable health event that happens with aging, that leaves elders weakened or nearly helpless, is sadly gross negligence–even on the part of this savvy woman who claims she has become the party being harmed.

  23. Betty C. says:

    This is a tragedy, but a national tragedy and not an isolated incident. If people are wondering why there are not more organ and tissue donors, perhaps they should consider the rescinded offer category, as older people are forced to realize that they’re little more than society’s refuse and targets for abuse and exploitation.

  24. jdimas says:

    Pinkus, your actions put a damper on American schools…I taught “Mockingbird” for many years and taught my students many important lessons from the novel. Your despicable actions against Ms. Lee are seen by all American students who read “Mockingbird” and these millions of Americans will not forget your backhanded action. Give back to Ms. Lee what’s hers and students from the past and present, including myself, will perhaps see you in a different light. Ms. Lee is and will always be my favorite and most respected author.

  25. Jim J. says:

    Anybody who did such a thing is vermin, a low down, devious shyster who should be arrested and thrown in jail next to Bernie Madoff for life.