Whatever happened to the 'reclusive' Harper Lee?


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Whatever happened to the 'reclusive' Harper Lee?

Nelle Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," is almost always described as "reclusive."

Part of this is because Lee's first novel — beloved and best-selling and once voted "best novel of the century" — was for more than 50 years her only novel.

Part of this is also that Lee withdrew from public life following "Mockingbird," except for occasional appearances, and granted almost no interviews.

"In an era obsessed with celebrity, Harper Lee has done the unexpected. She has chosen a life apart," Marja Mills wrote in a 2002 Chicago Tribune feature that would form the basis for a later memoir of the author.

Here, according to collected accounts, is what happened to her.

Lee moved to New York City in 1949 to pursue a possible writing career, after five years spent studying at Huntingdon College, at Oxford University and at the University of Alabama's law school.

In New York, the work that would eventually become "Mockingbird" was made possible through the generosity of two friends, a married couple, introduced to Lee through Truman Capote.

Several years of writing followed, until the 1960 publication of "Mockingbird." Lee also accompanied Capote, by then an acclaimed writer and Lee's friend since childhood, to Kansas to research what would become his true crime book "In Cold Blood."

But as Lee's public profile grew ("Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961; and she made trips to Hollywood to watch the film adaptation's production), her public presence dimmed.

Lee's opinion of the press was low, Mills wrote in the Tribune, and she was bedeviled by theories that Capote had written "Mockingbird" with or for her, or that it was drawn substantially from her own life, or that her attempts at a second novel were disastrous — none of which she could dissuade.

"Consequently, she stopped granting interviews around 1964," Mills wrote. "In the ensuing years, she has made only rare public appearances, mostly to accept awards, and has not spoken in public except to give a single reading in the 1980s at an Alabama heritage festival."

But Lee withdrew only from the spotlight, Mills wrote. Not her own life.

Lee is "a woman who divides her year between small-town Alabama and New York City; who often is labeled a recluse yet crisscrosses Manhattan by city bus and goes, unnoticed, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to baseball games and restaurants," Mills wrote.

In the course of her reporting, Mills found Lee to be "a sometimes sharp-tongued woman who is warm and engaging in her personal life but uncomfortable in the public eye and weary of fame; who lives relatively simply and donates large sums to charity."

Lee's roots are also deep in Monroeville, her hometown and the geographic basis for "Mockingbird." But her relationship with the town has been ambivalent, Boris Kachka wrote in New York Magazine.

Mills' reporting echoes that. She wrote that Lee chafed at the town's "fishbowl" qualities — tourists drove by her home, strangers approached her during meals and information about her life was "currency."

"It could be spent, traded, or saved for the right moment," Mills wrote.

In 2007, Lee suffered a stroke and moved full time back to Monroeville, into an assisted-living facility; in 2011, her older sister, Alice, who also helped manage Lee's affairs, retired from the law and herself moved into a nursing home. She died last year at 103.

Recent years have seen a flurry of public legal activity: Lee filed suit in 2013 against agent Samuel Pinkus, reportedly accusing him of tricking her into signing over her "Mockingbird" copyright. That year she also filed suit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, reportedly demanding "that the museum stop using Lee's name and the book title."

Both suits were eventually settled.

Then in 2014, Lee publicly denounced Mills' eventual memoir, "The Mockingbird Next Door," as "unauthorized," which both Mills and Lee's sister Alice have disputed. (Mills moved next door to the Lee sisters in the course of reporting the book, and maintains the three were friends.)

Lee's life drew brightest, harshest scrutiny following the 2015 news that a previously unknown "Mockingbird" follow-up, "Go Set a Watchman," had been discovered and would be published. Some alleged this development could be the work of Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, who was manipulating her client. 

What's more, "Monroeville residents told a reporter for the Guardian that Lee would not have wanted to sue the museum herself. Others complained to a reporter for Reuters that Carter had now barred them from visiting Lee," Michelle Dean wrote in Gawker.

The controversy spurred a state investigation, but found no evidence of misconduct. In a statement announcing the new book's release, Lee reaffirmed her support of its publication.

And the residents of Monroeville? Many couldn't be more excited about the book.

This story has been updated.

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