Add this one to the growing file of “Things Harper Lee Wrote We Never Knew About.”
It’s never been a secret that, starting in December 1959, Lee spent long stretches in Kansas with her childhood friend, the acclaimed novelist, Truman Capote. He was on assignment for the New Yorker magazine to write an article about the brutal murders of four members of the Clutter family. She was there awaiting publication of her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and helping him do research for what ended up as a four-part series in the New Yorker in 1965. And then as “In Cold Blood,” the “nonfiction narrative” book that made Capote a star when it was published in 1966.
But now it appears Lee, who died in February, beat him to the punch by more than five years.
An article Lee wrote about the investigation and arrest of the Clutters’ killers appeared in the March 1960 issue of the Grapevine, a magazine for members of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. Published without a byline, it was largely forgotten about until author Charles J. Shields learned of its existence while researching an updated version of his bestselling 2006 biography of Lee. He contacted the Grapevine, which used his research to help locate the article in its archives.
“The editor was very excited,” Shields said in an interview Monday. “She said, ‘This has been a rumor for years, that we once ran something by Harper Lee.’”
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The Grapevine plans on republishing the article — with Lee’s byline this time — in its May issue. Meanwhile, Shields’s significantly updated and revised biography, now titled “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Scout to Go Set a Watchman,” comes out Tuesday.
More than one-third of the biography is new material — including a fascinating chapter on the lengthy editing process that helped transform “Watchman,” Lee’s first attempt at a novel, into her masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Shields also digs into the mystery surrounding the discovery of the “Watchman” manuscript nearly 50 years after it was written. Released to huge anticipation last July, “Go Set a Watchman” sold more than one million copies in the first week and will be released in paperback on May 3.
Still, the “Grapevine” revelation may be the most remarkable one contained in Shields’s book, mostly because of what it confirms about Lee’s fierce loyalty to Capote. Headlined “Dewey Had Important Part in Solving Brutal Murders,” the 2,000 word article focused heavily on Alvin A. Dewey Jr., a former FBI special agent turned Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who played a major role in the Clutter investigation — and, not coincidentally, in “In Cold Blood.”
“It’s a little unctuous that piece,” Shields said of the article which at one point quotes Dewey as passionately vowing to “make a career out of” hunting down the Clutters’s killers if that’s how long it takes. “It was meant to curry favor with the folks on the ground there, particularly with Alvin Dewey.”
Its publication was also meant to fire a warning shot at anyone else who was even thinking about writing a book about the case.
“They were putting stakes in the ground, making it clear ‘This is our turf,’” Shields said.
Make that Capote’s turf.
“Harper Lee was so protective of Truman, the Clutter case was his gig,” said Shields, who’s convinced that’s why the article ran without her byline. “She didn’t want to steal from him.”
Lee will finally get her due when the May edition of the Grapevine comes out with her bylined, republished article. But, typical for Harper Lee, it may be awhile before many people get to read it.
“Usually we keep the Grapevine confidential to our membership,” Nancy Savage, executive director of the Virginia-based Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI said by phone on Monday. “But we’re trying to work something out where we could put (Lee’s article) on our public web site.”