Harper Lee Biography

Author(1926–2016)
Harper Lee is best known for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1960) and 'Go Set a Watchman' (2015), which portrays the later years of the Finch family.

Synopsis

Writer Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. In 1959, she finished the manuscript for her Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird. Soon after, she helped fellow-writer and friend Truman Capote write an article for The New Yorker which would later evolve into his nonfiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. In July 2015, Lee published her second novel Go Set a Watchman, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and portrays the later lives of the characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Lee died on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89. 

Background and Early Life

Famed author Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. Lee is best known for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The youngest of four children, she grew up as a tomboy in a small town. Her father was a lawyer, a member of the Alabama state legislature and also owned part of the local newspaper. For most of Lee's life, her mother suffered from mental illness, rarely leaving the house. It is believed that she may have had bipolar disorder.

One of her closest childhood friends was another writer-to-be, Truman Capote (then known as Truman Persons). Tougher than many of the boys, Lee often stepped up to serve as Truman's protector. Truman, who shared few interests with boys his age, was picked on for being sensitive and for the fancy clothes he wore. While the two friends were very different, they both had difficult home lives. Truman was living with his mother's relatives in town after largely being abandoned by his own parents.

In high school, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating in 1944, she went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Lee stood apart from the other students—she couldn't have cared less about fashion, makeup or dating. Instead, she focused on her studies and writing. Lee was a member of the literary honor society and the glee club.

Aspiring Writer

Transferring to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Lee was known for being a loner and an individualist. She did make a greater attempt at a social life there, joining a sorority for a while. Pursuing her interest in writing, Lee contributed to the school's newspaper and its humor magazine, the Rammer Jammer, eventually becoming the publication's editor.

In her junior year, Lee was accepted into the university's law school, which allowed students to work on law degrees while still undergraduates. The demands of her law studies forced her to leave her post as Rammer Jammer editor. After her first year in the program, Lee began expressing to her family that writing—not the law—was her true calling. She went to Oxford University in England that summer as an exchange student. Returning to her law studies that fall, Lee dropped out after the first semester. She soon moved north to follow her dreams to become a writer.

In 1949, a 23-year-old Lee arrived in New York City. She struggled for several years, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Air Corp (BOAC). While in the city, Lee was reunited with old friend Capote, one of the literary rising stars of the time. She also befriended Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy.

In 1956, the Browns gave Lee an impressive Christmas present—to support her for a year so that she could write full time. She quit her job and devoted herself to her craft. The Browns also helped her find an agent, Maurice Crain. He, in turn, was able to get publisher J.B. Lippincott Company interested in her work. Working with editor Tay Hohoff, Lee worked on a manuscript set in a small Alabama town, which eventually became her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee Photo

Author Harper Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1961. (Photo: Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images)

Work With Truman Capote

Later that year, Lee joined forces with Capote to assist him with an article he was writing for The New Yorker. Capote was writing about the impact of the murder of four members of the Clutter family on their small Kansas farming community. The two traveled to Kansas to interview townspeople, friends and family of the deceased and the investigators working to solve the crime. Serving as his research assistant, Lee helped with the interviews, eventually winning over some of the locals with her easygoing, unpretentious manner. Truman, with his flamboyant personality and style, had a hard time initially getting himself into his subjects' good graces.

During their time in Kansas, the Clutters' suspected killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were caught in Las Vegas and brought back for questioning. Lee and Capote got a chance to interview the suspects not long after their arraignment in January 1960. Soon after, Lee and Capote returned to New York. She worked on the galleys for her forthcoming first novel while he started working on his article, which would evolve into the nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. The pair returned to Kansas in March for the murder trial. Later that spring, Lee gave Capote all of her notes on the crime, the victims, the killers, the local communities and much more.

'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Soon Lee was engrossed in her own literary success story. In July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published and picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. A condensed version of the story appeared in Reader's Digest magazine. The work's central character, a young girl nicknamed Scout, was not unlike Lee in her youth. In one of the book's major plotlines, Scout and her brother Jem and their friend Dill explore their fascination with a mysterious and somewhat infamous neighborhood character named Boo Radley.

The work was more than a coming-of-age story: another part of the novel reflected racial prejudices in the South. Their attorney father, Atticus Finch, tries to help a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman to get a fair trial and to prevent him from being lynched by angry whites in a small town.

The following year, To Kill a Mockingbird won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and several other literary awards. Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation. Lee visited the set during filming and did a lot of interviews to support the project. Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won three awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck's portrayal of Finch. The character is said to have been based on Lee's father.

To Kill A Mockingbird Film Photo

Lee's beloved 'To Kill a Mockingbird' characters Scout (Mary Badham), Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Jem (Phillip Alford) found even more fans in the 1962 film adaptation.

A classic of American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than 40 languages with more than a million copies sold each year.

Later Years

By the mid-1960s, Lee was reportedly working on another novel, but it was never published. Continuing to help Capote, Lee worked with him on and off on In Cold Blood. She had been invited by Smith and Hickock to witness their execution in 1965, but she declined. When Capote's book was finally published in 1966, a rift developed between the two collaborators for a time. Capote dedicated the book to Lee and his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy, but failed to acknowledge her contributions to the work. While Lee was very angry and hurt by this betrayal, she remained friends with Capote for the rest of his life.

That same year, Lee had an operation on her hand to repair damage done by a bad burn. She also accepted a post on the National Council of the Arts at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson. During the 1970s and '80s, Lee largely retreated from public life.

Lee spent some of her time on a nonfiction book project about an Alabama serial killer which had the working title The Reverend. This work, however, was never published. Lee generally lived a quiet, private life, splitting her time between New York City and her hometown of Monroeville. In Monroeville, she lived with her older sister Alice Lee, a lawyer who the author called "Atticus in a skirt." Lee's sister was a close confidante who often took care of the author's legal and financial affairs.

Active in her church and community, Harper Lee became famous for avoiding the spotlight of her celebrity. She would often use the wealth she had accumulated from her success to make anonymous philanthropic donations to various charitable causes. 

In November 2007, President George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her "outstanding contribution to America's literary tradition" at a ceremony at the White House.

Harper Lee Photo

President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harper Lee during a ceremony on November 5, 2007, in the East Room of the White House. "'To Kill a Mockingbird' has influenced the character of our country for the better,” said President Bush. “It's been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.” (Photo: Eric Draper, via The White House)

In 2007, Lee also suffered a stroke and struggled with various ongoing health issues, including hearing loss, limited vision and problems with her short-term memory. After the stroke, Lee moved into an assisted living facility in Monroeville. Her sister Alice once said about Lee, "Books are the things she cares about." With the assistance of a magnifying device—necessary due to her macular degeneration—Lee was able to keep reading despite her ailments.

Lawsuits and E-Publishing Deal

In May 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit in federal court against literary agent Samuel Pinkus. Lee charged that, in 2007, Pinkus "engaged in a scheme to dupe" her out of the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird, later diverting royalties from the work. In September 2013, a settlement was reached in the lawsuit. 

Later that year, Lee's legal team filed suit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum located in Monroeville for trying "to capitalize on the fame" of To Kill a Mockingbird and for selling unauthorized merchandise related to the novel. Lawyers for the author and the museum later filed a joint motion to end the suit, and the case was dismissed by a federal judge in February 2014.

That same year, Lee allowed her famous work to be released as an e-book. She signed a deal with HarperCollins for the company to release To Kill a Mockingbird as an e-book and digital audio editions. In a release shared by the publisher, Lee explained: "I'm still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation."

'Go Set a Watchman'

While To Kill a Mockingbird was the first novel Lee had published, it wasn't the first one she wrote. Her first effort, titled Go Set a Watchman, which followed the later lives of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, was submitted to a publisher in 1957. When the book wasn't accepted, Lee's editor asked her to revise the story and make her main character Scout a child. The author worked on the story for two years and it eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Lee's Go Set a Watchman was thought to be lost until it was discovered by her lawyer Tonja Carter in a safe deposit box. In February 2015, it was announced that HarperCollins would publish the manuscript on July 14, 2015. With reports of 88-year-old Lee's faltering health, questions arose about whether the publication was the author's decision. Lee issued a statement through Carter: "I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman." 

But even that message didn't put an end to questions: In a 2011 letter, Lee's sister Alice had written that Lee would "sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence." However, others who had met with Lee stated that she was behind the decision to publish. Alabama officials investigated and found no evidence that she was a victim of coercion. 

Go Set a Watchman Photo

'Go Set a Watchman,' Harper Lee's second novel.

Go Set a Watchman features Mockingbird's Scout as a 26-year-old  woman on her way back home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City. In Watchman, Scout's father Atticus, the upstanding moral conscience of To Kill a Mockingbird, is portrayed as a racist with bigoted views and ties to the Ku Klux Klan. In Watchman, Atticus tells Scout: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

The controversial novel and shocking portrayal of a beloved character sparked debates among fans on the Internet, and offered literary scholars and students fodder for analyzing the author's creative process. Lee's second novel also broke pre-sale records for publishing house HarperCollins and was on target to become one of the fastest-selling literary works in history.

Death

Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89. Her nephew, Hank Connor, said the author died in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Monroeville. 

READ MORE: Literary Icon Harper Lee Dies at 89

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