Harper Lee was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has sold an estimated 40 million copies worldwide. After being translated into 40 different languages and adapted into movie that won eight Academy Awards the book is widely regarded as one of the best, most influential, and most progressive novels of all time.
But, even with all of the awards, success, and rave reviews, To Kill a Mockingbird and its author are shrouded in mystery and controversy.
Harper Lee was born in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama to parents Frances Cunningham and A.C. Lee on April 28, 1926. Several aspects of Lee’s famed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, draw parallels to her early life. So influential was this early time of Lee’s on her writing, that in 2016, her friend George Landegger, affirmed the belief that the novel’s protagonist, Scout, was based on the author. “Scout was Lee, and Lee was Scout,” he recalled in a report by The Telegraph.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, wanted her to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. So, in 1944, she attended the all-female Huntington College before transferring to the University of Alabama a year later. Even after studying abroad at Oxford, Lee still was uninterested in law, and, after close childhood friend Truman Capote published his first novel, Lee who, according to her sister, “had an itch to go to New York and write,” decided to move to New York City to pursue her writing career in 1949.
While in New York, Lee had to put her writing dreams on hold in order to make a living. She worked as a reservations clerk for Eastern Airlines and the British Overseas Airways Company. Like many other writers with day jobs, she would come home exhausted and unable to write. However, on Christmas Eve, 1956, everything would change.
At Michael and Joy Brown’s home at 417 East 50th Street, Lee found a letter from the two supporters nuzzled in between the branches of the Christmas tree. The letter contained a full year’s salary, so that Lee could write without worrying about making a living.
Lee began to write her masterpiece in her small one-bedroom apartment at 1539 York Avenue, an address that no longer exists as the building was demolished in 1967. After being rejected by nine other publishing houses, Lee and agent Maurice Crain, whose office was on 18 East 41st Street, secured a book contract in 1957 with the now defunct J.B. Lippincott publishers. After 3 years of revisions and edits, To Kill a Mockingbird was finally released.
Unlike her childhood friend Truman Capote, Harper Lee did not want to be a celebrity.
In 1966, Lee took her first step on the road to reclusion when she stopped dealing with the press and doing interviews. In an interview with The Telegraph, Joy Brown said:
After the book, then the movie came out — and that was very successful and it was beautifully cast — and she some interviews and then she just said; enough.
Aside from publishing a few short stories and essays, from then on, Lee lead a quiet and mysterious life. She moved back and forth between Monroeville and New York City. Her relative anonymity allowed her to take the subway or the bus to some of her favorite places in the city, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the now destroyed Shea Stadium. In fact, Lee even had a cheap “secret hideout” of sorts on 433 East 82nd Street, where she moved after the demolition of her first apartment. The one bedroom apartment cost under $1,000 a month, and, in an interview with the New York Post that was conducted in 2016, property manager Steven Austern said that she was “up to date on her rent”, even though she had not been back since her 2007 stroke.
Just next door to her “secret hideout,” at 1549 York Avenue, is Ottomanelli Bros., a butcher shop that she is said to have visited more than once a day. According to a report by the New York Post, Lee bought “a cup of black coffee and a raisin scone” for breakfast and “She would go back in the late afternoon for a chicken, a lamb chop “trimmed real neat” or the first cut of Delmonico steak”.
After 55 years of mystery, Lee broke her silence by controversially announcing that she would be releasing her her second and final novel Go Set a Watchman. Watchman, which featured older versions of the beloved characters Scout and Atticus, did not receive the same rave reviews as the previous novel. Still, Lee’s novel sold more than 1.5 million copies in the first week and hundreds of people showed up at the famed 92nd Street Y to listen to Mary Badham, the actor who played Scout in the movie adaptation, read from the new novel.
Because of the disparity in quality, many believe that Go Set a Watchman was unfinished or a draft and that Lee was being taken advantage of. However, Joy Brown disagrees, saying “Her mind was brilliant until the end”. Either way, the controversy and mystery have still not subsided, but knowing what we do of Lee, that’s nothing new.
Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in her assisted living home in Monroeville. She was 89.