For half a century, she was a phantom-like presence, the famous author who stayed tucked away in a small Alabama town and let her one beloved novel do the talking for both of them. Even when Harper Lee finally broke her prolonged silence last summer, it all took place on the page: “Go Set a Watchman,” the not-exactly-a-sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” sold more than a million copies in its first week even as its 89-year-old author resolutely continued to shun the spotlight.
Maybe that explains why, when news of Lee’s death broke Friday, many people felt suckerpunched by grief. They’d gotten used to not seeing her for years. Now they’d have to get used to her really being gone.
“It just feels like the death of a friend,” said Ellen Ward, an owner of FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, where they threw a party to celebrate “Watchman’s” release last July, complete with “Tequila Mockingbird” cocktails. “I don’t even know why I feel that way. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was my first memorable book and my favorite all these years. And now I feel like I’ve lost that connection.”
“People loved her who’d never seen her,” said the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, 86, of Monroeville, the snug little southern Alabama town where Nelle Harper Lee died in her sleep early Friday morning.
“It’s really solemn here today,” sighed Spencer Madrie, who owns Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville, the real-life model for “Mockingbird’s” fictional town of Maycomb. “She was what held up a whole little community.”
She did more than that, of course, and on a much bigger scale. First published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize and has gone on to sell 40 million copies of its quietly stirring story of a white lawyer named Atticus Finch who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in the Depression-era South. By now it’s almost cliched to say that “Mockingbird” — which was memorably narrated by 6-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch — inspired successive generations of readers with its message of tolerance and the power of words, both written and spoken.
But that stopped almost no one from saying it again on Friday.
“It’s a sad day for people who love books,” said Melita Easters, the Atlanta playwright whose “Nelle’s Story: The World of Harper Lee” premiered at Synchronicity Theatre last summer. “I think it would be a great tribute to Harper Lee if everyone took the advice Atticus gave Scout in the book about climbing into someone’s skin and walking around in it. Our country has never been more divided politically, racially and in other ways than it is now. Maybe if we think about the message ‘Mockingbird’ gave us, we could all crawl into someone else’s skin and find the humanity in others.”
Born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Lee was the youngest of four children. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer upon whom she based much of Atticus Finch. As a child, she was a self-described tomboy much in the mold of Scout. Lee was a close friend from childhood of Truman Capote, who spent several summers with relatives in Monroeville and inspired the character of Dill. An aspiring writer herself, Lee moved to New York in 1949, where she took a job as an airline reservations clerk and worked on the manuscript that would become “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Lee later moved back to Monroeville, where she lived with her older sister, Alice, a lawyer. Alice Lee died in 2014 at the age of 103. In February 2015, HarperCollins made a stunning announcement: It would publish “Go Set a Watchman,” a pre-“Mockingbird” manuscript that Lee had submitted in 1957 and which had only recently been discovered by her current lawyer, Tonja P. Carter,
On Friday afternoon, black ribbons hung on the doors of the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville. One of author’s longtime friends imagined Lee’s response to the reaction to her death would have been in keeping with the way she’d lived her life.
“She would be touched by it, but not greatly impressed by it,” said Butts, who first met the sweatshirt- and sneakers-clad author in 1980 when they both were visiting Lee’s older sister, Alice, in an Alabama hospital. “Her celebrity status did not impress her. In fact, she was always shocked by the fact that she was such an icon.”
To most people in Monroeville she was just Nelle — even if they saw her less often of late. She was living at an assisted living facility with increasingly restricted access when the announcement about “Watchman” raised questions of whether she was mentally competent to approve of its publication. An investigation of possible elder abuse found no wrongdoing by the state of Alabama. A friend, Mary Tucker, said she regrets the fact that she “was not on the list to see (Lee) in these last days,” but at least she got to visit with her friend back in November.
“She was doing fairly well,” Tucker recalled. “She was playing bingo when I got there.”
Lee’s funeral will be private, her nephew Hank Conner said Friday. But her biggest legacy, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will live on for all time, said Joe Davich.
“Atticus Finch was like the best you could want to be,” said Davich, director of the Georgia Center for the Book. “She gave us that moral compass. We’ll always have that.”
— Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.
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