AT 88, HARPER LEE’S LIFE AND LEGACY IN DISARRAY
For most American kids, To Kill a Mockingbird is their introduction to civil rights and the justice system. The book, which has already celebrated its 50th anniversary, has sold nearly a million copies for each year in print.
Monroeville, Alabama was the model for the novel’s fictional Maycomb, and it is the home of its author. Harper Lee, at age 88, finds her life and legacy in disarray, a sad state of litigious chaos brought on by ill health and, in no small part, the community she always believed would protect her.
For much of her life, Nelle Harper Lee (known to friends as Nelle) spent more time in the comforting anonymity of New York than in the Monroeville redbrick ranch house her family had occupied since 1952. Nelle’s father had wished her to go to law school, but she wanted to become a writer, like her friend Truman Capote. In New York, Lee found a tight-knit replacement family. Capote introduced her to Broadway lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife, Joy. They hooked her up with an agent, Maurice Crain, and on Christmas, 1956, they gave her the gift her father wouldn’t: enough money to do nothing but write for a year. She remembered it later as “a full, fair chance for a new life.” Within five months, she had a draft of Atticus out on submission, and was already partway into a second novel when a Lippincott editor took it on.
Nelle has always shunned publicity. She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo.” (Boo Radley is the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.)
In 2007, a stroke left Nelle wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and largely deaf and blind. She was forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment and move into a Monroeville assisted-living facility.
Nelle’s sister, attorney Alice Lee, had inherited her partnership in the family firm from their father, A.C. Lee, the model for Mockingbird’s lawyer, Atticus Finch. But Alice retired two years ago at the age of 100. It was left to Alice’s successor in the family firm, Tonja Carter, to sort things out. Carter restricted Lee’s visitors and instituted lawsuits against not just the literary agent but also the courthouse museum. She nearly sued Marja Mills, too.
Mills had been sent to Monroeville by the Chicago Tribune to find out what Lee thought of Mockingbird being chosen for “One Book, One Chicago.” She expected to strike out. But, after a polite introductory letter, Alice not only answered the ranch house door but also secured her an audience with Nelle. In 2004, Mills decided to leave her job and try to write a book. She wound up moving in next door to the Lees, securing a $450 rental with the sisters’ help. Over endless coffees and drives, Nelle opened up enough to give a solid sense of herself: unconfident in her looks and therefore unconcerned; witty and garulous within the strict limits she sets for talk; conservative by northern standards; cranky and principled; moody but predictable. The result is the memoir The Mockingbird Next Door which lifts the veil of Nelle’s privacy amid a confounding volley of statements between lawyers, sisters, and friends over whether and when Nelle had approved of the project.