"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 ...


Harper Lee loved Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide and more...

Harper Lee loved Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide

"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.










September arrives, but summer remains

In years past, we would have enjoyed a touch of autumn by now.

September no longer marks the end of summer. Temperatures remain in the mid-90s. The continuing heat affects wildlife. Yesterday, I chased off a crazed squirrel that had run up our glass-paneled back door.

I still look forward to the season changing, the arrival of fall, the promise of new beginnings. As is my custom, I played "Try to Remember" on the piano. I'll play the wistful song from "The Fantasticks" all month, meditating upon the passage of youth and time's quickening pace. I'll also seek to learn "September Song" at last.

As climate change progresses, I wonder if future generations will enjoy the coming of autumn, cooler days, the eruption of color.



Ken Burns tunes up for country music

I was dismayed to hear that Ken Burns had turned his guns on country music.

Like many others, I was transfixed by Burns' Civil War series. Along with many Southern boys of my generation, I prided myself on detailed knowledge of famous battles and personalities.

But Burns put the war in a broader context, uncovering new information and giving fresh perspectives on characters like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

But I grew disenchanted by Burns' series on baseball and jazz. He embalmed both American institutions beneath a barrage of cliches, overblown pronouncements, commentary from talking heads, and archival material. His earnest, overly reverent approach fell short of expressing the simple beauty of baseball and jazz.

Nor did I care for Burns' look at the Vietnam War. His attempt at balance in discussing American war motives was misguided. In truth, Burns' treatment wasn't the reason I quit watching the show. Reliving the era was just too painful.

After seeing a couple of previews, including a concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, I'm hopeful about Burns' country music series.

While countless books have been written on the Civil War and baseball, country music has received less scholarly attention, although it has generated a substantial literature. That gives Burns a less trammeled perspective from which to view country music.

Country music is loved by a broader audience than jazz, touching upon more aspects of American culture. Jazz's appeal narrowed with the rise of bebop and abstract music, while country's has widened. Country encompasses a broader variety of musical genres, including jazz.

Country has not been burdened by the semi-mystical panegyrics that have weighed down baseball with cliches and overwrought nostalgia. Burns' baseball series was plagued by seeking to match those pastoral views of the game.

Once known as the national pastime, baseball is more and more a regional sport as its appeal declines to younger generations. The genre once derided as "hillbilly music" has increased its popularity, with a range of innovative artists and musical styles.

Like the Civil War, country gives Burns a broader framework for examining different parts of American society. While known as Southern white people's music, country was influenced by black artists and has grown to include Cajun music, Western swing, rockabilly and urban pop. Country music like the Civil War gives Burns a broad palette.

Plus, I love Dolly, Loretta, Jimmie, Ernest, Bob, Hank, Sara, Mama Maybelle and many others. I hope Burns plays a lot of country songs and cuts down on the talking heads.



Peace and healing at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Enjoying a healing morning at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, one of Atlanta’s treasures.

I came here as well two years ago after my first hospital stay with Afib. I feel better this time, for which I’m thankful.

The Monastery’s bookstore offers wonderful gifts and a great selection of books by some of the best Catholic/monastic thinkers.

I choose an early birthday gift for my sister and a collection of essays by Paul Mariani, whose biographies of John Berryman and Robert Lowell plumbed the depths of each man’s tragedy.

And of course a collection, this time poems, by Thomas Merton, one of my life’s pillars.


Hospital stay shows benefits of business-based health-care system

Back home after nine days in Piedmont Hospital, I'm grateful for life's daily blessings.

My stay in the Buckhead hospital where my three children were born and received care for a series of childhood scrapes and where my wife and I have undergone several medical procedures made me even more skeptical about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren's Medicare for All plans.

I'm covered by Medicare, supplemented by the private insurance company I kept when I accepted a buyout from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution now 12 years ago. Piedmont's quality of care strengthened my support for our private-based health-care system.

As David Leonhardt noted in Monday's New York Times, Sanders and Warren's plan to abolish private insurance companies is highly unpopular except for a narrow segment of Democratic supporters. I don't know how a profit-based hospital like Piedmont would fare under the Sanders-Warren plan, but making it a public hospital like Grady would be a mistake.

During my Piedmont stay, I was amazed at the number of people employed by the hospital, from nurses and personal-care attendants to dining service employees, physician's assistants, nurse practitioners and doctors. The Piedmont staff is a microcosm of Atlanta.

Two years ago, I spent a week at Grady because of the same heart condition. Grady's care was excellent, but I found Piedmont's more comprehensive and responsive to my needs. I fear the Sanders-Warren proposals would bring an erosion of care in both hospitals.

Joe Biden's public-private health care system would preserve the strengths of the present system, while enhancing Obamacare's gains. Rather than Medicare for All, a Medicaid expansion would benefit millions. As Leonhardt points out, the Sanders-Warren plan would be disastrous for the Democrats' effort to win back the White House and Senate.

After receiving another up-close view of the American health system, I'm happy to be back home, grateful for the benefits of our health-care system.