"To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee had catapulted to fame when the Saturday Evening Post in March 1963 published an article alleging that Georgia athletics director Wally Butts and Alabama football coach Bear Bryant had fixed a game.
A friend of Bryant and a rabid Alabama football fan, the author of the 1960 best-selling novel was consumed by the charges, along with football followers around the Southeast.
Lee in a letter to her agent, Maurice Crain, wrote a detailed account of the scandal, according to reporter Ben Cohen's fascinating article in Friday's Wall Street Journal. "A wonderful letter from Nellie Harper Lee," Crain scribbled on the envelope. The letter is at Columbia University, Cohen said.
The Saturday Evening Post's article was based on Atlanta businessman George Burnett's claims that he had overheard a telephone conversation in which Butts disclosed Georgia Bulldog plays and formations to Bryant before a 1962 game won 35-0 by the Crimson Tide. Burnett said that while trying to make a long-distance call, he had somehow gotten connected to the former Georgia football coach and Bryant.
Butts won a $3.06 million judgment in a libel suit against the Post, while Bryant reached an eventual settlement of $460,000. The case, which advanced to the Supreme Court, reportedly played a role in the Saturday Evening Post's demise.
While the controversy transfixed the South, as reported in this 1963 article by famed Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins, Lee's had received greater fame from a 1962 movie based on the now-classic novel. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch and his heroic defense of a black man accused of rape in a segregated small town in Alabama.
Cohen's article says that Lee followed college football all of her life, even listening to Paul Finebaum's Alabama-biased college football talk show. Along with her allegiance to Alabama, Lee rooted for Auburn when the Tigers weren't battling the Crimson Tide in the annual Iron Bowl.
Lee was also a close friend of former Auburn coach Pat Dye, to whom she wrote a number of letters. Dye, who once called her book "To Kill a Blackbird," refused to disclose the letters' contents to Cohen.
Other famous names of Alabama football lore rise in the article. Lee believed in Bryant's innocence because scrappy All-American linebacker Lee Roy Jordan supported his coach. Jordan came from a town near Lee's Monroeville, and Lee believed in Jordan's honesty.
Lee remained a prolific letter writer, while not publishing another novel during her lifetime. The posthumous "Go Set a Watchman" was an early version of "To Kill a Mockingbid." A recent book says that Lee never finished a planned nonfiction book about an Alabama minister accused of several murders.
The new revelations enhance Lee's renown as a writer of letters. Her gifts in the genre were revealed several years ago in retired Auburn professor Wayne Flynt's collection of letters between him and Lee. Giving an endearing portrait of the author, the collection presents her views on religion, politics, Hollywood, the South, writing and fame.
Perhaps Cohen's piece will lead to the publication of a collection of Lee's college football letters. The writer of a masterpiece that inspires new generations of readers, she's also worthy of a complete letters collection.
A woman who during her life counted as friends Truman Capote, Maurice Crain, Bear Bryant, Gregory Peck, Pat Dye and Lee Roy Jordan had an expansive, intellectually adventuresome personality that such a collection would honor.