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To Kill a Mockingbird, Author Harper Lee

Updated on February 6, 2020

By Rachael O'Halloran

Published November 20, 2014, Updated February 3, 2015.

See a very important update at end of this article about her newly discovered book "Go Set A Watchman."

Harper Lee, Best Selling Author of To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee at a rare book signing in January 2006
Harper Lee at a rare book signing in January 2006 | Source

Quick Bio - Harper Lee

Birth Name: Nelle Harper Lee

Birthdate: April 28, 1926, Monroeville, Alabama

Date of Death: February 19, 2016, Monroeville, Alabama (age 89)

Parents: Amasa Coleman Lee (1880-1962), a lawyer; and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee (?-1951), a homemaker

Siblings: Alice Lee (1911 -11/17/2014, age 103), Frances Louise Lee (1916-2009, age 93), Edwin Coleman Lee (1920-1951, age 31)

Marriages: Never married

Education: Huntingdon College, studied law at University of Alabama 1945-49 but quit right before graduation, and studied one year at Oxford University.


  • 1946-1948 - editor of a campus humor magazine "Rammer-Jammer," and writer for the college newspaper, "The Crimson-White,"
  • 1949 - airlines reservations clerk for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Air Corp (BOAC),
  • 1957 wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Best Known For: Author of "To Kill A Mockingbird," Winner of 1961 Pulitzer Prize, recipient of 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom, recipient of 2010 National Medal of the Arts

Litigation: a 2014 copyright infringement lawsuit against her agent, Sam Pincus, and a 2014 trademark infringement lawsuit against the Monroe County Museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.


I suspect folks know more about the famous book, "To Kill A Mockingbird," than they do about its reclusive author, Harper Lee.

Nelle, as she is known to her friends and family, wouldn't have it any other way.

Nelle Harper Lee was and still is an intensely private person, who does not give interviews and she wants it to stay that way.

"To Kill A Mockingbird" was her first novel.

It was also her only novel.

What I am able to write about her comes from reading her few literary and magazine contributions and essays1, her sister Alice's published interviews, some letters and newspaper articles, and from personal correspondence she wrote to friends which this writer found at an internet auction house (priced at $4500 or best offer!).

Father: Amasa Coleman Lee

Born April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee was the last of four children born to Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney, and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee, a homemaker.

I found Nelle Harper Lee's Southern heritage rather impressive. Her father, Amasa, was born in Alabama in 1880 and was raised in a family of eight children in Florida. Amasa's father was a Civil War Veteran and purported to be a relative of Robert E. Lee.

In 1902, Amasa's parents moved their big family to Finchburg in Monroe County, Alabama where as a young man, Amasa worked as a bookkeeper for the Flat Creek Mill Company while he studied law. It was there in 1910 that he met and married Frances Cunningham Finch, daughter of the Finchburg Postmaster, and together they had four children. Amasa passed the bar in 1915 to practice law.

He wore quite a few hats in his small town. He founded his own law firm in Monroeville, Alabama which is still in existence, was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from 1927 to 1939 and in 1929, he became the owner and editor of the hometown newspaper The Monroe Journal. He sold it in 1947.

Nelle's Father

Nelle's father, Amasa Coleman Lee was the inspiration for Atticus Finch
Nelle's father, Amasa Coleman Lee was the inspiration for Atticus Finch | Source
Amasa Coleman Lee with Harper Lee enjoying an afternoon
Amasa Coleman Lee with Harper Lee enjoying an afternoon

The Idea For A Novel

In 1931, nine black men were arrested for raping two white women on a train in the town of Paint Rock, Alabama. It was referred to as the Scottsboro case and it made an indelible impression on many people who lived in the South. Amasa Lee published accounts of the case in his newspaper. It was spoken about in their home and in their social circles. Even though Nelle was only five years old when it happened in 1931, the story was much discussed and stayed with young Nelle for years.

An all white jury found the men guilty and eight of the nine were sentenced to death. This case may have been the catalyst for Nelle's father to change the direction of his law practice from trial attorney to wills and estates.

By the mid-1950s Nelle's long string of short stories began taking on shades of the Scottsboro case where she based parts of "To Kill A Mockingbird" on this trial.

There was never a time when Nelle Harper Lee was not aware of her father's importance in their town. She always looked up to her father and wanted to please him. Although her heart wasn't in it, she did appease him by going to law school. However, she dropped out just before her graduation realizing that she never wanted to be a lawyer. She wanted to be a writer.

With her father's blessing but not much in the way of financial support, she went to New York to pursue her dream. Amasa Coleman Lee lived to see his daughter's book published and to see her receive the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1961. He died April 15, 1962.

Nelle's Mother

Nelle's mother Frances Cunningham Finch
Nelle's mother Frances Cunningham Finch | Source

Mother: Frances Cunningham Finch Lee

Nelle's mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee, came from a wealthy upper-class Virginia family and attended the best schools in the South. When her family moved to Monroe County, Alabama, they founded the town of Finchburg where they owned and operated the only post office in town.

Some historical accounts claim Frances was a concert pianist; others list her as the Finchburg Postmistress. After marrying Amasa Lee in 1910, they moved to Bonifay, Florida for a year, then to Monroeville, Alabama. They had four children between the years 1911 and 1926. The family was raised as devout Methodists and each one remained all their lives.

Frances Lee did not live to see her daughter's literary success. She died June 2, 1951 in a Selma, Alabama hospital.

Nelle's Sister: Alice

Nelle Harper Lee's sister, lawyer, and life-long protector, Alice Lee shown here in 2011 at age 100, at her law office.
Nelle Harper Lee's sister, lawyer, and life-long protector, Alice Lee shown here in 2011 at age 100, at her law office. | Source

Nelle Harper Lee's Siblings

The Lees had a lot of family members who lived long lives. Nelle's sister, Alice, was the first-born child in 1911. Nearly fifteen years old when Nelle was born, Alice took her youngest sibling under her wing. She was Nelle's champion, self-proclaimed protector and later, her personal attorney.

Alice was the apple of her father's eye, following in his footsteps to become an attorney, editor and journalist. In 1929, she bought part ownership into her father's newspaper, The Monroe Journal, to become associate editor, proofreader and columnist. For 32 years, she sat on the Monroeville Planning Commission and her historical knowledge was second to none. Alice Lee never married and lived to be age 103. She died on November 18, 2014.

In 1916, when Frances Lee gave birth to a daughter named Louise, it is believed that she suffered from post partum depression. As Frances Lee became more distant and melancholy, the physician in attendance, Dr. William Harper, worried over the health of both of his patients. When he diagnosed the infant with "failure to thrive," he made it his mission to bring the child back to good health. In gratitude for his care, Frances Lee promised to name one of her children after him.

Either that promise was forgotten or the name just didn't fit, but when Nelle's brother, Edwin Lee, was born four years later in October of 1920, the Harper name was mysteriously absent. Edwin was the only son and after finishing high school, he left home to study engineering. By 1939, he was called to serve in World War II. Upon discharge, he joined the Air Force Reserve, maintaining a rank of Major. His return to civilian life found him working as a supervisor of Veterans Training Programs in twelve Alabama counties.

In 1951, at age 30, he was re-called to active duty at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama where he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 12, 1951, a little over a month after the death of his mother, Frances. He left behind a wife, Sara Anne McCall, and two children, Mary McCall Lee and Edwin Coleman Lee.

When Nelle was born in 1926, Frances Lee named her after her mother Ellen, and chose to spell the name backwards. Harper became Nelle's middle name to honor the promise to Dr. William Harper.

Nelle's sister, Louise, grew up to marry Herschel (Hank) Conner and they had two sons. She and Hank made their home in Eufaula, Alabama for 60 years. When her husband died of an aortic aneurysm in 2001, she moved to Florida to be near her children. She lived to be 93 and died October 13, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida.

Christmas 1957

Nelle Harper Lee with Truman Capote spending Christmas 1957 together at a friend's home.
Nelle Harper Lee with Truman Capote spending Christmas 1957 together at a friend's home. | Source


ƒ The original titles of To Kill A Mockingbird were: Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus (named for her lead character), and finally To Kill a Mockingbird.

ƒ To Kill A Mockingbird has been translated into over 40 languages and still sells over one million copies per year. That's nice pocket change :)

ƒ Harper Lee's second novel, "The Long Goodbye," sits idle at 100 pages and was never completed.

ƒ In a 1964 interview, Harper Lee said she aspired to become the "Jane Austen of South Alabama."

The Christmas Gift

Author Truman Capote (then known as Truman Persons) was Nelle's childhood friend and lived with his aunt next door to the Lee family from 1928 to 1933. The two kept in touch over the years after Truman moved away.

The year 1949 found Nelle Harper Lee living in New York City and working as a reservations clerk for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways (BOAC). By this time, Truman Capote was enjoying some publishing success as a budding writer. He introduced her into his circle of influential creative friends - agents, composers, writers, and playwrights.

In her spare time outside of work, Nelle continued writing long and short stories, while submitting small essay pieces to various magazines.

By November 1956, she told Truman Capote that she thought she was ready to submit her stories to an agent. He introduced her to his agents, McIntosh & Otis, and she was assigned to agent Maurice Cain. After reading, he saw promise in one of her longer short stories and encouraged her to develop it into a novel.

Happy and sad at the same time, such a feat would surely require her to write full time for a minimum of one year, and she could not afford to quit her job. She despaired of how she would be able to support herself all that time.

Truman Capote introduced her to his composer friend Michael Brown and his wife Joy. The couple were transplanted Southerners with whom Nelle became fast friends. Learning about her opportunity to write a novel, they wanted to help in any way they could. While at their home at Christmas in 1957, they presented Nelle with a gift of one year's wages with the following note:

"You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."

Ecstatic, she worked steadily on her novel and gave the finished manuscript to agent, Maurice Cain. Although he thought it was still a little long, he nevertheless submitted it to publishers J. B. Lippincott Company in Philadelphia.

The manuscript came to the desk of Tay Hohoff, a Lippincott editor, who felt the book was too long and had too many scenes. Seeing some promise in the novel, he told her he wanted her to scale it down and do more rewrites, assuring her that he would work with her to help. In late 1959, the final product was deemed acceptable. On July 11, 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Nelle gave some thought to using a pen name. She was concerned that, as a writer, she would be referred to as Nellie, so she opted to write under the enigmatic name of Harper Lee.

The publisher didn't have high hopes for the book. He didn't think it would generate many sales. Nelle didn't count her chickens just yet.

Truman Capote

When Nelle was finished writing the manuscript for "To Kill A Mockingbird," but before it was actually published, Capote asked her to go with him to Holcomb, Kansas to help research the 1959 Clutter family murders for an article he was writing. With research being her strong skill, Nelle gladly went along.

The volume of information they uncovered produced Capote's intended 300 word article for the New York Times, which was later expanded into a four-part serial in the New Yorker Magazine.

In the summer of 1960, Nelle went on a book signing tour for "To Kill A Mockingbird" while Capote enjoyed a moderate success with his magazine publications.

One day in early 1961, a publisher gave Capote an advance payment and asked him to develop his four-part serial into a non-fiction novel. He agreed, but he felt more research was needed. Realizing he couldn't wait for Nelle to finish her book signing tour, he went alone to Kansas to continue his interviews.

Little did he know that Nelle wouldn't become available again until late 1962.

Book Cover Photo

Book Cover photo taken by Truman Capote appearing on the first edition copies of To Kill A Mockingbird. The body language speaks volumes to her elusiveness.
Book Cover photo taken by Truman Capote appearing on the first edition copies of To Kill A Mockingbird. The body language speaks volumes to her elusiveness. | Source

Is To Kill A Mockingbird autobiographical?

"It is and it isn't autobiographical. The trial, and the rape charge that brings on the trial, are made out of a composite of such cases and charges. What I did present as exactly as I could was the clime and tone, as I remembered them, of the town in which I lived. From childhood on, I'd sit in the courtroom watching my father argue cases and talk to juries."

-- Harper Lee

Book Promotion

After the book was published, Nelle said the writing seemed easy compared to going on the road to promote the book.

At book signings and during sit-down interviews with journalists, Nelle found that most of their tiresome questions had to do with "Is the book biographical?" or "Who were the characters in the book really modeled after."

Some journalists were relentless with their incessant guessing about who was who.

Nelle Harper Lee became very disillusioned about the whole process.

She was away from home for long stretches at a time, promoting a book that practically sold itself, and there was talk about giving her a Pulitzer Prize award, which would mean more personal appearances.

As soon as she had fulfilled her book signing commitment, she was eager to join Truman Capote in Kansas to assist with the research project for his novel "In Cold Blood."

The idea that her own book would soon become a big Hollywood film production was the farthest thing from her mind.

Write what you know

“[A writer] should write about what he knows and write truthfully.”

— Harper Lee


ƒ As a child, Harper Lee was much like the character in her book, Scout. She was all tomboy, always in skirmishes with other children and had language that was a little rough around the edges for a Southern belle.

Harper Lee's essays and other stories

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) her only completed novel
  2. "Love—In Other Words" Vogue (April 15, 1961) - about non-romantic love
  3. "Christmas to Me" McCall's (December 1961) - story of how Harper Lee received a gift of a year to write her novel.
  4. "When Children Discover America"McCall's (August 1965)
  5. "Romance and High Adventure" -an essay by Harper Lee written in 1983. In 1985 it was again published with other essays and stories by Mercer University Press in the anthology titled Clearings in the Thicket: An Alabama Humanities Reader.

The Author Years

Harper Lee visiting the courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama
Harper Lee visiting the courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama | Source
Harper Lee - one of several book cover photos
Harper Lee - one of several book cover photos | Source

The Popularity Of "To Kill A Mockingbird"

For anyone who has not read the book (or seen the movie), the story is an intense courtroom drama about rape and racism set in a small town in the Deep South during the Great Depression (1930's).

Harper Lee based her novel on what she knew - her hometown, the racial tensions in the South, the ways of the law, and people's reactions to all of the above.

While she was writing the book amidst the racial strife of the Civil Rights era (1955-1960), the newspapers, magazines and radio stations were featuring news stories about Rosa Parks' courage, the Montgomery bus boycott, the events that led up to 14 year old Emmett Till's murder for flirting with a white woman, and journalist accounts documenting Martin Luther King's many speaking engagements in Southern cities.

So it stands to reason, when her book was published in 1960, it got a lot of notice because the topic was very timely.


Six months after publication, the book had sold half a million copies. One year later brought an additional 14 printings. By 1962, the book sold another two and a half million more copies, which was mighty impressive for a first novel from an unknown writer.

It was an experience that author Harper Lee has said she could have done without. She didn't count on the book becoming the super bestseller it became.

She didn't count on all the notoriety the book would cause her, the invasion of her privacy, the celebrity atmosphere - all of which became apparent when she traveled doing the publicity for the book.

And she certainly wasn't ready for more attention that came her way when the book won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1961 after spending 41 weeks on the bestsellers list.

After two years of touring, Harper Lee made it known to her agent and to the publisher that she didn't care for the promotional aspect of being an author. She said she didn't mind occasional book signings here and there, but the grueling schedule that the publishers required of authors back then was just not her cup of tea.

"I had hoped for a little encouragement ..."

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.”

—Harper Lee, quoted in a 1964 interview with Roy Newquist, editor of Counterpoint

Photos On The Set

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Nelle and Gregory Peck on set. They remained friends for the rest of his life. His grandson was named for her -  Harper Peck Voll.Nelle Harper Lee on set in 1962Poster advertising the movie. Notice "Not suitable for children" tagNelle and Gregory Peck on lunch break.Child actors Mary Badham and Phillip Alford Mary Badham and Nelle playing on setMary Badham and Nelle on porch of the set
Nelle and Gregory Peck on set. They remained friends for the rest of his life. His grandson was named for her -  Harper Peck Voll.
Nelle and Gregory Peck on set. They remained friends for the rest of his life. His grandson was named for her - Harper Peck Voll. | Source
Nelle Harper Lee on set in 1962
Nelle Harper Lee on set in 1962 | Source
Poster advertising the movie. Notice "Not suitable for children" tag
Poster advertising the movie. Notice "Not suitable for children" tag | Source
Nelle and Gregory Peck on lunch break.
Nelle and Gregory Peck on lunch break. | Source
Child actors Mary Badham and Phillip Alford
Child actors Mary Badham and Phillip Alford | Source
Mary Badham and Nelle playing on set
Mary Badham and Nelle playing on set | Source
Mary Badham and Nelle on porch of the set
Mary Badham and Nelle on porch of the set

Hollywood Came Calling

In early 1962, Harper Lee's agents said Hollywood wanted to adapt the book to film, but she declined writing the screenplay. The film starred the handsome Gregory Peck who came to Monroeville to get a feel for the small Southern town atmosphere. He made time to visit with the author and asked, "Would you come to the set in Hollywood and act as consultant?"


After many weeks on the movie-set interacting with the cast, she was once again enlisted to travel with some of the cast for publicity and movie screenings. This schedule only added to her exhaustion and the disillusionment of an author's life.

She has said many times over the years that her one experience with book signings and promotion tours was enough to last her a lifetime and that it was not an experience she would ever want to repeat.

After the movie was made and the publicity trips were completed, she never toured again.

Movie Trailer From The 1962 Film "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Quote By Atticus Finch

"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow. But people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box."

- To Kill A Mockingbird

On The Movie-Set

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch on the set
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch on the set | Source
Courtroom photo with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters
Courtroom photo with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters | Source
Mary Badham insisted on calling Gregory Peck by his character's name -Atticus. She kept in touch with Gregory Peck until the day he died.
Mary Badham insisted on calling Gregory Peck by his character's name -Atticus. She kept in touch with Gregory Peck until the day he died. | Source

More Trivia

ƒ The novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is divided into two parts: the first part of the book centers on the children's fascination (and terror) of a peculiar man down the street named Boo Radley. Parents warned all the children to stay away from him, peppered them with stories about Radley's past exploits of neighborhood terror. The second half of the book centers on Atticus Finch and his defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, loosely based on an incident from Harper Lee's childhood when her father (an attorney) defended two black men of murder. You can read more autobiographical elements here.

ƒ At one point, Harper Lee was so frustrated with the writing of this novel, that she threw it out the window into the snow (per various sources). Her agent made her go get it. Reader's Digest Condensed Books reprinted an edited version of the book (as was their style) and is said to be one of the reasons how To Kill A Mockingbird came to public notice so quickly.

ƒ At the Monroe Theater in Monroeville, Alabama, an exclusive pre-release showing of the film To Kill a Mockingbird opened on Christmas Day, 1962 so it could qualify for an Academy Award nomination for 1962. It won three Oscars: for Best Direction, Set Decoration, and Best Actor. Although he was nominated for four other films in his lifetime, To Kill A Mockingbird was Gregory Peck's only Oscar for Best Actor.

ƒ Director Robert Mulligan chose 12 actors to sit as an Alabama jury for a scene where Gregory Peck defends a Negro on a criminal charge. Only two of the jurors had speaking parts in the scene. Funny enough were the last names of those two actors: Barbara Mason and Joseph Dixon. The director called them the Mason-Dixon line.

ƒ The Alabama state premiere was held in Mobile on Thursday, March 21, 1963 attended by Harper Lee, and child actors Mary Badham and Philip Alford. In Monroeville, the Monroe Theater held the film over for an extra week. Reserved seat tickets were available at a cost of $1.50 for adults. General Admission was $1.00 for adults and 50 cents for children. This was in the days when the regular cost of an admission ticket was 80 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. Matinees were always cheaper, except for new Hollywood releases.

ƒ The theater advertised that it would pay $10.00 cash to each of the first five customers bringing in a live Mockingbird on Saturday, March 23, 1963.

ƒ Rock Hudson was the studio's first choice for Atticus Finch.

ƒ Harper Lee became very good friends with Gregory Peck. She gifted him with her father's watch. Harper Lee has always declined and put the brakes on any other adaptation of her book, including remakes of the film.

ƒ Harper Lee remained friends with Gregory Peck until his death in 2003 and with his wife Veronique until her death in 2012. A grandson, Harper Peck Voll, was born in 1999 and named after Harper Lee.

Capote and Lee

1966, Nelle assists Capote as he pre-signs copies of his book in Holcomb, Kansas during the making of the movie, adapted from his book.
1966, Nelle assists Capote as he pre-signs copies of his book in Holcomb, Kansas during the making of the movie, adapted from his book. | Source
1966, Holcomb, Kansas-Truman Capote signing copies of his book In Cold Blood with Harper Lee during the making of the movie In Cold Blood, starring Robert Blake
1966, Holcomb, Kansas-Truman Capote signing copies of his book In Cold Blood with Harper Lee during the making of the movie In Cold Blood, starring Robert Blake | Source

1970 - The Falling Out With Capote

With Nelle's help, more than four years of research became the backbone for Capote's 1965 novel In Cold Blood. You can view a slideshow of Clutter family murder arrests and trial at this link - The Wichita Eagle and Associated Press

As thanks for her help, Truman Capote wrote a "shared" dedication to Harper Lee and to his long-time life partner Jack Dunphy. It has been reported that the dedication page was the crux of the disagreement between the two writers, which led to neither of them ever speaking to the other again after 1970. Harper Lee objected to having Dunphy's name on the dedication at all, because he had little or nothing to do with the research or writing of the book.

Another source reports that their estrangement was because Capote was jealous that Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize as a first time novelist, while his body of work was always passed over for recognition.

When Nelle attended Capote's funeral in 1984, she was quoted as saying that it had been nearly 15 years since they had last spoken to each other.

''...I simply don't give interviews, because it takes great skill to ask meaningful questions and very few people in the media have it...''

— Harper Lee

Trailer For Mary Murphy's Documentary

Interview Efforts

In April 2006, Nelle Harper Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey, which you can read here. Upon receipt, Oprah immediately put the wheels in motion to publish it in her magazine for the July 2006 issue.

The exposition of that letter became one of the catalysts that prompted Harper Lee to caution all the recipients of her letters and phone calls, "Now, don't let this get out on the internet or published in some magazine."

She had good reason to say that too.

Oprah then tried to get Nelle to consent to a private interview. When she wouldn't do it, Oprah arranged for Nelle to come to lunch in New York.

The conversation of that luncheon and Nelle's interactions with countless others over the years became part of the many interviews included in Mary McDonagh Murphy's book "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill A Mockingbird," which was published in 2010.

A film documentary based on Murphy's book was produced in 2011 and it talks about the effect To Kill A Mockingbird has had on readers, as well as the elusiveness of Harper Lee to give interviews.

Oprah said in her magazine column, “I knew 20 minutes into the conversation that I would never convince her to do an interview. She said no, and I knew that no meant no.”

2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom

Harper Lee receives the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush
Harper Lee receives the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush | Source

Further Victimizing Nelle Harper Lee

Knowing this elderly woman just wants to be left alone and that she repeatedly has turned down interviews, it seems that any correspondence by "Author Harper Lee" resulted in some marketable piece of work.

In summer 2011, Chicago Tribune newspaper columnist Marja Mills published a surprising article announcing that she had the green light from the reclusive Harper Lee authorizing her to publish her biography, which she titled The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee. It was published three years later in January 2014 after many protests and legal maneuvers by the Lee sisters.

What follows are letters written by Alice Lee and Harper Lee regarding the biography by Marja Mills, who rented a home next door to the Lee sisters. Mills says she documented their conversations and accompanied them on outings to the laundromat and to McDonald's for coffee. Mills claims that she was given "intimate access" to both of the Lee sisters who "gave their blessing and authorization" to write the book.

The sisters say they especially objected to Mills giving Mary McDonagh Murphy her "alleged" interviews with them as part of Murphy's upcoming book and documentary called "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill A Mockingbird."

The Tonja who is referred to in Alice Lee's 2011 letter is the name of her newest law partner, Tonja Carter, who operated her own law firm up till joining Alice Lee's firm. As a point of interest to readers, Tonja was the advising counsel when Harper Lee's agent and literary lawyer, Sam Pincus, swindled Harper Lee out of her copyright and millions of dollars in royalties.

It is unreal that Alice Lee was still deferring to Sam Pincus's advice, despite his getting caught red handed stealing from Nelle. I wrote about the recovery of her copyright and subsequent suing of Sam Pincus in an earlier hub titled Interactive You Are The Jury: Author of To Kill A Mockingbird Files Two Lawsuits.

It is kind of funny that Alice Lee talks in her 2011 letter about how Harper Lee would sign anything put in front of her, and Harper talks in her letter about taking advantage of Alice's age of 100 years.

The 2014 letter from Harper Lee vehemently denies cooperating with any author on any book about her life.

2011 Letter from Alice Lee (click to enlarge)

Alice Lee's letter to Marja Mills in 2011
Alice Lee's letter to Marja Mills in 2011 | Source

Click To Enlarge

Harper Lee's  2014 letter to Mary McDonagh Murphy regarding bogus interviews she included in her book "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird"
Harper Lee's 2014 letter to Mary McDonagh Murphy regarding bogus interviews she included in her book "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird" | Source

Friends Put Their Personal Letters From Harper Lee Up For Auction

It seems some of letters Harper Lee wrote to friends and fans over the years have surfaced in online auctions, not only for her much coveted autograph but for any glimpse into the details of her life.

In one letter she pleads "Please don't put this on the internet ..."

Mr. Don Salter is (was?) a longtime fan, whose letters Nelle addressed to "Mr. Salter" beginning in 1990 and later became addressed to "My Dear Friend Don" as time went by. Nelle says in one letter that he's the best friend she never met. He often sent gifts and kept up a good correspondence with her.

Her close friends, Doris and Bill Leapard, allowed several of Lee's letters to go to auction. These letters provided more insight into Harper Lee's likes, dislikes and feelings about New York and books in general.

Harper Lee obviously knew that anything with her name on it would attract attention, but I wonder if she knew her handwritten letters would go to auction. Five letters are at a fixed price; eight more letters range from $2500 to $4500 each. One letter is priced at $11,000 and includes a signed photograph.

I wonder what she thinks of the friends who gave them to the auctioneer.

Letter to Mr. Salter

1990 Letter to Mr. Salter before he became "My Dear Friend Don"
1990 Letter to Mr. Salter before he became "My Dear Friend Don" | Source

Internet Auction

Letters up for auction at Nate Sanders website, minimum $4500 each
Letters up for auction at Nate Sanders website, minimum $4500 each | Source

August 1998 Letter From Nelle To Author Friend, Doris Leapard

August 23, 1998 Letter to Doris Leapard, an author in NYC
August 23, 1998 Letter to Doris Leapard, an author in NYC | Source

2005 Letter from Harper Lee to Dr. Englehardt

This letter admits she has macular degeneration in her vision and contains the much quoted sentence "I don't give interviews because ..."
This letter admits she has macular degeneration in her vision and contains the much quoted sentence "I don't give interviews because ..." | Source
Postal envelope
Postal envelope | Source

1983 - rare public appearance in Eufaula in March of 1983 to participate in the Alabama History and Heritage Festival.

Nelle Harper Lee at a book signing
Nelle Harper Lee at a book signing | Source

Why did Harper Lee only write one book, then quit?

In the 1970s, her cousin, Richard Williams, asked her when her next book was ready. She replied: "Richard, when you're at the top, there's only one way to go."

Actually, in 1961 when the book had sold 500,000 copies, and about a year before he died, her father said something similar - that her next book had to be better than that one.

And in one 1964 interview, she said she never forgot that.

To Kill A Mockingbird - original and 50th anniversary book covers

Click thumbnail to view full-size
First Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird" - 95 cents50th Anniversary Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird"
First Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird" - 95 cents
First Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird" - 95 cents | Source
50th Anniversary Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird"
50th Anniversary Edition "To Kill A Mockingbird" | Source

Harper Lee

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2007 Medal of FreedomHarper lee in 20052010 - Harper Lee receives Medal of the Arts from Barack Obama2011 at the nursing home where she lives
2007 Medal of Freedom
2007 Medal of Freedom | Source
Harper lee in 2005
Harper lee in 2005 | Source
2010 - Harper Lee receives Medal of the Arts from Barack Obama
2010 - Harper Lee receives Medal of the Arts from Barack Obama
2011 at the nursing home where she lives
2011 at the nursing home where she lives | Source

More Accolades

ƒ President Lyndon Johnson named Harper Lee to the National Council of Arts in 1966. She has received several honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Alabama and another from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. She attended both ceremonies, but spoke at neither and gave no interviews.

ƒ The 1995 edition of Book Collecting showed a first edition To Kill a Mockingbird in "very good" condition listed at $2,500. In 2007 a presentation copy was bought at auction for $12,650.

ƒ In 1998, the Harper Lee Award for a Distinguished Alabama Writer was unveiled by the executive committee of the Alabama Writers' Forum. This award recognizes an accomplished writer who was born or who lived in the state of Alabama during his or her formative years.

ƒ In March 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Lee - along with other artists such as Meryl Streep, James Taylor, and Quincy Jones - the 2010 National Medal of Arts for her "outstanding contribution to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts."

How Well Do You Know Your "Mockingbird" Trivia?

E-book and audio book

Since 1962, To Kill A Mockingbird has never been out of print.

On April 28, 2014, HarperCollins Publishers announced that it had acquired the U.S. digital rights to the novel and would release an e-book and audio book on July 8, 2014 in time for the 54th anniversary of the book's original publication.

Publisher Changed Ownership

In 1978, J B Lippincott was bought out by Harper & Row.

In 1987, Rupert Murdock bought Harper & Row and another publisher William Collins & Sons. Murdock merged the two publishers names to form HarperCollins.

Nelle's book now bears the HarperCollins imprint.

Harper Lee in 2006

Pensive | Source


Reverend Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, a family friend, gave an interview to an Australian newspaper in 2011 saying that Nelle Harper Lee lives in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama. He confirms that she is partially blind from macular degeneration, deaf and is wheelchair-bound.

When he asked her why she never wrote another book, she told him:

"Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."

Links To Some Interesting Stuff

Nate D Sanders' Auction - Harper Lee letters and memorabilia

Harper Lee Prize For Legal Fiction - the winner will not surprise you.

LA Times article about Marja Mills' biography of Harper Lee

Alice Lee - Harper Lee's centarian sister, practiced law to age 102


November 18, 2014 - LA Times Obituary for Alice Lee, age 103 - sister of Harper Lee

Updated: February 19, 2016 - CNN Obituary for Nelle Harper Lee - author of To Kill A Mockingbird

February 2015 Update and Commentary

It turns out that "To Kill A Mockingbird" (TKAM) might not be Harper Lee's sole claim to fame after all.

Update from Associated Press, 2/3/2015, 11AM -

Announcement by HarperCollins Publishers

"Go Set a Watchman," a novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee which was completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14, 2015. Rediscovered last fall, "Go Set a Watchman" is essentially a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," although it was finished earlier than that novel. The 304-page book will be Lee's second published book, the first new work in more than 50 years. The plans are for a First Printing of 2 million copies. It will be published in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann under the imprint of Penguin Random House, a HarperCollins' subsidiary. It will also be available in ebook formats."

Statement from Harper Lee (issued by publisher HarperCollins and her personal attorney Tonja Carter)

"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken with the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what later became 'To Kill a Mockingbird') from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it (this original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people that I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

Source: Associated Press, February 3, 2015 at 11AM

Commentary from Rachael O'Halloran:

I am suspicious whether Nelle Harper Lee actually made the above statement or if it was crafted and issued by her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who also holds her power of attorney now that sister Alice Lee is dead.

When Alice Lee retired, she turned over the management of her sister's personal and financial affairs to Tonja Carter, who at that time was a three year-new partner with Lee's family law firm. Nelle Harper Lee's literary agent at MacIntosh & Otis (also her attorney in literary matters) took care of book re-issues, book formats, and collecting book royalties both foreign and domestic.

Harper Lee has always been quiet in the press, with the exception of the filing of the 2013 Trademark Infringement lawsuit, the 2013 Copyright Infringement lawsuit that I spoke of above, and letters she wrote to the press about the "unauthorized" Marja Mills' book that was published as an "authorized biography."

Nelle Harper Lee does write letters, but she doesn't appear in person to make statements, as evidenced by the auction letters that I featured in this article. She is nearly blind from macular degeneration, uses a wheelchair to navigate mostly to prevent falls due to her vision problems, so she relies and trusts those who are supposed to be looking out for her welfare.

Living in an assisted living center (which no doubt is quite comfortable given the royalties she receives from the book TKAM,) Nelle Harper Lee said in several letters to friends that she kept on writing her "long short stories" for quite a few years and all those manuscripts were left in the home she shared with her sister Alice Lee.

Now that her sister and lifelong protector Alice Lee is dead, Tonja Carter, as power of attorney and executor of Alice Lee's will, may no doubt find many more manuscripts - either completed, still in draft or in unedited form.

Whether Nelle Harper Lee actually condones them being published is something we will never truly know unless she makes a public appearance to say the contrary.

Remember, this is a woman who was and is a perfectionist, whose writings she felt were not yet perfect for submission and who did not want to publish anything after TKAM because she was already at the top of her game. Any novels or literary efforts she published after TKAM could lose the reader following she has enjoyed since 1960. I don't blame her one bit.

So with that in mind, I really do wonder:

  • 1) if Harper Lee is even aware that Tonja Carter found the manuscript with the others that were stored at Alice Lee's house,
  • 2) if Harper Lee actually put her seal of approval on the publishing of this book in an unedited form (this is where I have a problem knowing she is a perfectionist and rewrote pieces until she felt they were worthy of publishing),
  • 3) if Harper Lee is yet being taken advantage of again by trusted friends and other people who are out for their own fame and gain.

If you have read the above article to the end, you will remember that Tonja Carter (as a new partner in the Lee Law Firm) did not exactly protect Nelle Harper Lee when she was snookered out of her TKAM copyright by Sam Pincus (her literary agent at that time), a copyright which he kept from her for 7 years along with all the royalties for those years which amounted to millions of dollars.

With regard to the outcome of the lawsuits, in true Nelle Harper Lee style, her privacy was again safeguarded because both the infringement and trademark lawsuits were settled out of court. so we will never know the details or true dollar amounts.

Tonja Carter was supposed to have read over the copyright documents Pincus put before Harper Lee for signature, saying it was okay for her to sign them. For two of those seven years, Lee's lawyers did not know that the copyright had indeed been signed over until Alice Lee read them when she was closing out her files and preparing to retire.

Alice Lee said in one of the above letters that Nelle would have signed anything put in front of her if Tonja (or anyone Lee trusted) said it was okay to sign it.

The same went for Sam Pincus, given her trust in him to manage her book publishing and royalty collections and distributions. If Sam said it was okay to sign, she signed it without question.

Alice Lee's Last Will

In 2009, Alice Lee's Will was re-written for the last time when she was almost 100 years old. She left her many books and other personal items to her sole surviving family member, Nelle Harper Lee.

Alice Lee's will, filed in Monroe County Probate Court and obtained by The Associated Press, says Harper Lee is to dispose of the belongings "as she may see it fit."

The will notes that Alice Lee had a first edition version of her sister's landmark novel that is "extremely valuable." It says she also had a collection of translations of "To Kill A Mockingbird" that may also be valuable.

"I suggest that she choose those of my books she may desire to keep, then distribute the others among members of the family or to libraries or such institutions," said the Will, signed in 2009. - from Fox News and Associate Press January 2015

Tonja Carter was Alice Lee's personal attorney (from age 99 to her death) and is the executor of her will. Since Tonja Carter is also in control of Nelle Harper Lee's affairs as her power of attorney and her personal attorney, I expect we will hear about many more Harper Lee works being discovered and possibly published - with or without Nelle Harper Lee's consent or knowledge.

After all, look at how many people have gone on to profit from auctioning the letters Harper Lee wrote, no matter how mundane the topics.

Then there's Sam Pincus, the literary agent who swindled her out of her copyright. And the museum in her hometown, who for over 20 years, infringed on her trademark and no lawsuit was filed until 2013 after they refused to cease and desist.

And finally we have attorney Tonja Carter who is in charge of managing Nelle Harper's Lee's affairs and has "discovered" Harper Lee's manuscripts in her former home. Tonja can do with them as she wishes.

I'm sure Alice and Harper Lee knew those manuscripts were there since they were "discovered" in summer of 2014 when Alice Lee was still alive. If Nelle wanted them published, they would have been published long before now and her sister Alice and the literary agent would have facilitated that for her.

Since Alice Lee died November 2014, it gave Tonja Carter the opportunity to offer any Harper Lee manuscripts she finds for publication.

So the question begs - why wasn't the book published while Alice Lee was still alive?

Maybe because neither of the sisters wanted the works submitted for publication in the first place - not in 1950s when they were written nor present day.

Why do I hold such animosity against Tonja Carter?

Anyone who can't protect an 88 year old vision-challenged woman's copyright or suspect that her literary agent is crooked, and who now has free reign to go through the home Harper Lee shared with her sister where she will no doubt locate any and all manuscripts that Harper Lee originally felt were not worthy of publication is - in my view - right up there with that rat literary agent named Sam Pincus.

Harper Lee felt she couldn't top her book To Kill A Mockingbird so she never published another book. Knowing she worked on Mockingbird for over 2 years to get it to be worthy of publication, why in the world would she, a perfectionist, ever allow subsequent books to be published in their original unedited form?

She wouldn't.

I say this only after having researched this woman and reading no less than 50 sources who all agree on one thing. Nelle Harper Lee was a perfectionist and stands by her statements on why she never published again:

"I've said all that I had to say." and "When you're at the top, there's only one way to go."

In my opinion, authors who are perfectionists and who care about their writing wouldn't allow any of their works to be published in original unedited form.

Not in their lifetime.

What do you think?

© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran


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