Early life Nelle Harper Lee, the youngest of five children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch, was raised in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother's name spelled backwards. Her mother was a homemaker; her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, practiced law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee beca...
Nelle Harper Lee, the youngest of five children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch, was raised in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother's name spelled backwards. Her mother was a homemaker; her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, practiced law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer, he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients, a father and son, were hanged.
As a child, Lee was a tomboy, a precocious reader, and best friends with her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote.
To Kill a Mockingbird
“ 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 Newquist, 1964
While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating high school in 1944, she went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery.
Having written several long stories, Harper Lee found an agent in November 1956. The following month at the Michael Browns' East 50th townhouse, she received a gift of a year's wages from them with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."
She eventually showed the manuscript to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co. At this point, it still resembled a string of stories more than the novel Lee had intended. Under Hohoff's guidance, two and a half years of rewriting followed. When the novel was finally ready, she opted to use the name "Harper Lee", rather than be misidentified as "Nellie".
Published July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller with more than 30 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal.
Like Lee, the tomboy Scout is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. Scout's friend Dill was inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote; Lee, in turn, is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Although the plot involves an unsuccessful legal defense similar to one undertaken by her attorney father, the 1931 landmark Scottsboro Boys interracial rape case may also have helped to shape Lee's social conscience.
While Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels in the book, Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered biographical: "In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it into some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way."
After To Kill a Mockingbird
After completing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in researching what they thought would be an article on a small town's response to the murder of a farmer and his family. Capote expanded the material into his best-selling book, In Cold Blood (1966).
Since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances and, with the exception of a few short essays, has published nothing further. She did work on a second novel — The Long Goodbye — but eventually filed it away unfinished. During the mid-1980s, she began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer, but also put it aside when she was not satisfied. Her withdrawal from public life prompted unfounded speculation that new publications were in the works.
Lee said of the 1962 Academy Award-winning screenplay adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Horton Foote: "I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made."
She became a friend of Gregory Peck's and remains close to the actor's family; Peck's grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her. Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the father of the novel's narrator, Scout.
In June 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts.
In 1966, Lee wrote a letter to the editor in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as "immoral literature":
“ Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.
Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.
I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.
James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, started the Beadle Bumble fund to pay fines for victims of what he termed "despots on the bench". He built the fund using contributions from readers and later used it to defend books as well as people. After the board in Richmond ordered schools to dispose of all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilpatrick wrote, "A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined." In the name of the Beadle, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.
When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, she presented the essay "Romance and High Adventure".
For many years, Lee split her time between an apartment in New York and her sister's home in Monroeville. She accepted honorary degrees but declined to make speeches. In March 2005, she arrived in Philadelphia – her first trip to the city since signing with publisher Lippincott in 1960 – to receive the inaugural ATTY Award for positive depictions of attorneys in the arts from the Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation. At the urging of Peck's widow, Veronique Peck, Lee traveled by train from Monroeville to Los Angeles in 2005 to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. She also attended luncheons for students who have written essays based on her work, held annually at the University of Alabama. On May 21, 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame; graduating seniors saluted her with copies of Mockingbird during the ceremony.
On May 7, 2006, Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006). Lee wrote about her love of books as a child and her dedication to the written-word. "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."
While attending an August 20, 2007, ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee responded to an invitation to address the audience with: "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."
In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Lee's close friend, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, said Lee now lives in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again, "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."
Presidential Medal of Freedom
On November 5, 2007, George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest civilian award in the United States and recognizes individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".
Lawsuit to regain copyright
On May 3, 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan to regain the copyright to To Kill A Mockingbird. She wants unspecified damages from a son-in-law of her former literary agent and related entities. Lee claims that the man "engaged in a scheme to dupe" her into assigning him the copyright on the book in 2007, when her hearing and eyesight were in decline and she was residing in an assisted living facility after having suffered a stroke. In September, attorneys for both sides announced a settlement of the lawsuit.
Lawsuit against Monroe County Heritage Museum
For an undisclosed amount Lee in February 2014 settled a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which without her consent had used her name and the title To Kill a Mockingbird to promote itself and to sell souvenirs.
Harper Lee was portrayed by Catherine Keener in the film Capote (2005), by Sandra Bullock in the film Infamous (2006), and by Tracey Hoyt in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998). In the adaptation of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character of Idabel Thompkins, who was inspired by Truman Capote's memories of Harper Lee as a child, was played by Aubrey Dollar.