Nelle Harper Lee only ever published one book, the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently she never wrote another, and rarely appeared in public, though in 2007 she traveled to Washington, D.C, to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush. When Marja Mills went to Monroeville, Alabama in hopes she could score an interview with the reclusive Ms. Lee, she had little idea that they would become friends and neighbors in years to come.
Harper Lee--The Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony in 2007
Marja Mills was working at the Chicago Sun Times when she first approached Harper Lee by letter in 2001. At the time, “Nelle” as her friends called her, was worried that an unauthorized biography of her would destroy her privacy and reputation so she consented to Mills interviewing her friends and neighbors. The resulting 2002 article gives insight into what Nelle and her sister Alice had been doing since Nelle Harper Lee’s first and only novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize.
Harper Lee in the 1960's in Alabama
Alice Finch Lee was ninety years old in 2001, and was still practicing law in Monroeville. Nelle Harper Lee was 76. Both sisters were unmarried and had been living together since at least 1964 when Nelle stopped giving interviews. “I would not go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money,” she told the close friend Reverend Thomas Butts. Acerbic of tongue and sharp of wit, Harper Lee no longer wrote books for publication, though she continued to write on a manual typewriter right up until 2007 when she suffered a serious stroke.
Mills’ early article became the kernel of this much longer book due out just as the PBS documentary Freedom Summer airs to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mills, herself suffering from a debilitating Lupus diagnosis, moved into the neighboring house of the Lees’ and shared their stories and their lives for a year and a half in the first decade of the 21st century. She wrote at a "glacially slow" pace due to her illness, and perhaps to preserve the sisters' privacy a little longer. Mills now shares with us her experience living beside the woman who wrote the “Best Book of the 20th Century,” according to Library Journal.
This book does not pretend to be a biography in the full sense of the word. Mills never did get an on-the-record interview with Harper Lee. She was able to interview Alice and Nelle’s friends extensively over a period of years and used that material to compile this book about Nelle’s habits (catfish and laundry), interests (reading and talking), and personality (“hell and pepper”). The pace of the book is Southern slow and languid, and what I learned about the great author made me sad. The celebrity of her first and only novel was so overwhelming, insistent, and enduring that she never wanted to do it again. Think J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, and others whose first success became their cross to bear.
Harper Lee remained an avid reader particularly of histories, Lord Macaulay Thomas Babington Macaulay in particular. Jane Austen was a favorite novelist. Her tastes in film were a little more pedestrian, with Mills recounting the Nelle’s Netflix rental of a Wallace and Gromit animated film. Lee spent part of every year in New York and this reader is pleased her anonymity allowed her to enjoy the common pleasures to be found there. She kept her lifelong friendship with Gregory Peck and his family, and she is quoted elsewhere as saying he was part of the best film adaptation of a book ever made.
I needed to be reminded that Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee, and she went with him to research his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood in Holcomb, Kansas. Earlier, they’d ended up living in the same apartment building in New York City, where the 20-something Harper Lee began writing.
Harper Lee and Truman Capote
There must have been “something in the water” down there in Monroeville for two writers of such stature to come to the nation’s consciousness about the same time. One might almost think the imagination and talent of each infected and spurred the other to greater achievement. Joshua Wolf Shenk has a book coming out in August 2014 called Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) which makes the case for creativity often coming from pairs…and not singly. Though the two did not cooperate on their work generally, their friendship may been a spur to a competitive talent that made both their work great.
Mills was careful to preserve the privacy of Harper Lee and her book begins slowly, but eventually we get a clear picture of the woman and her life. Mills herself anguished at times that such a talent couldn’t be persuaded to publish again, but we can only hope that there are still manuscripts to be discovered among her papers. Now in assisted living care, Nelle Harper Lee has finally signed a contract to allow her American classic to be published as an eBook, and an audiofile of the book has just been released by Audible.com, narrated by Sissy Spacek.
This is a remarkable document that will have to serve as the memorial to a woman so desperate to preserve her privacy that she withdrew from the public. Her sister Alice raised the point that once Nelle had reached the pinnacle of art with her first book, she may have been dissatisfied with everything that she later wrote. In any case, she left us a lasting legacy that we can enjoy forever. We wish her well.
Many thanks to Random House for the advance audio production of this title, read by Amy Lee Stewart.
Feb 3, 2015 I was just notified that Harper Lee will have a second book published in her lifetime. News of the new book is discussed here.
You can buy this book here: