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Southern town honors the privacy of its most famous resident

Stevie, my longtime chum, has no better friend than me. This honor I bestowed on myself after I took off, chasing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee, all for Stevie's sake.

I was zipping south down I-65, headed toward Mobile, when I saw the exit for Monroeville. Without thinking twice, I whipped the car at break-neck speed off the interstate and drove an hour out of the way to the small Alabama town.

See, Stevie has had her heart set for quite a while on obtaining an autographed copy of "To Kill A Mockingbird," and Monroeville is home to the reclusive Lee. For a few years, I had heard it rumored that a store there carried signed copies. So, for Stevie, who has no better friend than me, I went in search of that signed copy.

What I found instead is a puzzling story of Lee's self-imposed exile and a town that caters to her wishes of privacy.

Driving into Monroeville, there is no mention of Lee or the internationally acclaimed book that immortalized the town. There is, however, a monument to and other mentions of Truman Capote, Lee's childhood friend and her inspiration for the book's eccentric child, Dill. There were even huge banners featuring Capote's likeness and name that unfurled down the outside walls of the enormous courthouse.

But unless you knew, you'd never know that the tiny hamlet is the birthplace and home of the woman who authored what the American Library Association has called the most influential book of the 20th century.

I drove around the square, then parked in front of a combination gift/book store. Inside, I found a wonderfully friendly woman, somewhere in her 30s. I told her what I was looking for and that I had heard a store in town carried signed copies.

She frowned and shook her head. "Used to. But that store closed a few months ago. Don't know where you could get one now."

We launched into a conversation about Lee. "Is she really as reclusive as rumored?" I asked.

"Pretty much. She lives on the next street over but, to tell the truth, I have no idea which house. She keeps to herself."

"How long have you lived here?" I was thinking that where I come from, if America's most famous novelist lived there, we would know which house, how often the lawn is mowed and what time she rises in the morning and settles in at night.

"All my life. I grew up here. My parents did, too. Mama owns this store."

Now, I was truly incredulous. "And you don't know which house she lives in?"

"Not a clue." She paused, pinching her lips together for a moment, then continued. "She came in here once to get a greeting card. A lady recognized her and spoke. Miss Lee turned right around on her heels and walked out without a fare-thee-well."

On my way out of town, I stopped at the newspaper, the Monroe Journal. Incidentally, the paper was once owned by Lee's attorney father, who was the true-life embodiment of Atticus Finch.

"How come there isn't any tribute to Harper Lee in this town?" I asked the editor.

He shrugged and shook his head. "I guess 'cause she don't want none. She's like that. You don't see her 'round much, but she lives here mostly. Got an apartment in New York, too."

The receptionist spoke up suddenly. "I see her every week. Every Wednesday, she walks to that paper box outside the front door and buys a paper."

The editor's jaw dropped in surprise. "She does?"

"Hmm-huh. Every week."

I left Monroeville without Stevie's signed copy, but I uncovered an interesting revelation. Lee may be reclusive, but her privacy is also respected among her lifelong neighbors.

They don't even talk about her among themselves. Which, of course, breaks all the rules of Southern nosiness. I mean, friendliness.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."