Thursday 26 April 2018

To kill a myth: 
secrets of reclusive Harper Lee's life

Harper Lee has protected her privacy for over 50 years. Edel Coffey looks at the American journalist who befriended the author and wrote about her life

Nelle Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee
Harper Lee with Truman Capote
Author Marja Mills

Edel Coffey

When it comes to spats, there's nothing quite as good as a literary one. There's something about the mixture of milk-fed, soft-fingered wordsmiths rolling up their sleeves and snarking at each other, often via articles they pen themselves or interviews with journalists, or even lawyers' letters and publicist statements.

The row between former newsreader Anna Ford and author Martin Amis is a favourite example. Ford took the liberty of listing her problems with Amis in a letter to The Guardian newspaper after she read one "whingeing" article too many by Amis. Not only does she accuse Amis of being a narcissist, with an inability to empathise with other people, but she also remarked that he visited her dying husband not only to say goodbye to him but also because he had some time to kill before a flight. Amis quickly counter attacked, calling the former newsreader's outburst "ungenerous and self-defeating".

When a literary spat involves a reclusive author of a solitary book that went on to become a worldwide classic, things move to another level. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, when Harper Lee was still a young woman. The book tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. It was recently voted the number one most influential book by a woman by the Bailey's Prize.

The fictional town of Maycomb was based on Lee's hometown of Monroeville, which has an estimated population of 6,400 people. Indeed, the town is as much a character in the book as the young tomboy heroine scout, or the reclusive Boo Radley. "This is a small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic," she said.

In one of her last interviews, Lee said: "I believe there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing."

To Kill A Mockingbird is thought to be the bestselling novel of the 20th century, selling an estimated one million copies a year since publication. It was an instant success, but after the novel's publication, Harper Lee stopped writing. She worked with her childhood friend, Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast At Tiffany's, helping him to research his seminal work In Cold Blood, but she never wrote another book of her own. She moved from New York City back to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she refused all interview requests and carried on living her life at home with her sister, Alice, a lawyer. Neither sister married.

Lee is now 88 and has never broken her silence, bar the odd inconsequential letter to Oprah about her love of books. (That letter, published in 2006, included the technophobe statement: "In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.")

Lee broke her silence again last month to rail against the publication of a new biography by Marja Mills, a journalist who lived next door to the sisters for 18 months. Mills claims the book The Mockingbird Next Door is authorised by both sisters. Lee insists it was not authorised.

Lee would have been better staying quiet. Her protestations seem only to have increased the interest in the book and the publicity surrounding it. Most authors are forced to engage with the publicity mill at some point in their careers, doing the circuit of interviews and soundbites, book signings and public interviews, all in the hope of selling a few more books along with little pieces of their souls. But Lee has always staunchly resisted any such attention (not least because she never had another book to publicise).

Marja Mills first met the Lee sisters in 2001, when she went to Monroeville to research a feature for The Chicago Tribune, where she worked as a reporter. To Kill A Mockingbird was part of a city reading programme that Chicago was running and Mills was sent to find out what she could.

Mills met Lee's sister Alice first, and then was introduced to Lee herself. The article ran without event and when Mills left her job a few years later, she moved to Monroeville and lived next door to the Lee sisters for a year and a half, which is the period upon which this memoir is based.

The women became friends, eating and socialised together, feeding the ducks and going fishing - Mills's book contains charming if mundane details about Lee's love of takeaway coffee and salads.

Mills claims that her book had the blessing of both sisters but Lee has denied this, both in 2011, when news of the memoir's publication first emerged, and again last month, in a letter published on July 14.

"Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice," Lee wrote. "It did not take long to discover Marja's true mission: another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.

"I understand that Ms Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book. My sister would have been 100 years old at the time … After my stroke, I discovered Marja claimed I cooperated with this book… Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood."

That's about as unambiguous as it gets, but Mills has suggested that they both wanted the book to be written because they knew they were coming to the end of their lives and wanted their story to be told for posterity.

Mills has released her own statement through her publishers in response to Lee's. "I can only speak to the truth, that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville," Mills said in her statement.

"The stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves. The written letter I have from Alice Lee, which she sent May 2011 in response to the original letter issued in Nelle's name, makes clear that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice gave me their blessing.

"In regard to the writing and release of Nelle Harper Lee's April 2011 statement about my book, Alice Lee (Alice Lee practiced law until she was 100 years old) wrote: 'Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.'"

Whatever about the claims and counter-claims, the book itself seems respectful and innocuous enough, and Mills claims she respected any of Lee's requests for information to be kept off-the-record. Perhaps it is the ordinariness of the details we discover that have vexed Lee. Instead of discovering a complex genius, who sequesters herself with her thoughts, we learn of a woman who uses hot dogs for bait when she goes fishing and makes a particular noise when feeding the ducks. There is something slightly unseemly about knowing these banal pieces of information but it's just evidence that Lee is, after all, only human.

When a legacy has been so well-protected for so long, it must be hard to watch it all come undone in such a, well, mundane way as in a homely memoir. Both Lee, 88, and her sister Alice, 102, now live in a retirement home. It's likely that we may never discover the details of Lee's private life. Certainly not, as she says, as long as she is alive. But The Mockingbird Next Door has already made it onto the New York Times bestseller list, so whether it was authorised or not, the maelstrom of publicity generated by this latest literary spat and the interest in the life of this most private of authors has done its job once more and ensured that starving publicity of its oxygen only fans the flames of interest.

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