Literary Icon Harper Lee Dies at 89

The 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author spent most of her life shunning the spotlight.
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Harper Lee Photo

Harper Lee, May 01, 1961. (Photo: Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images)

Literary icon and uncompromising recluse, Harper Lee, died in her sleep on Friday in Monroeville, Alabama. She was 89. The Alabama-born author lived most of her life having written just a single book. But that book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was an immediate classic that earned her adoration from around the world — something she spent most of her life trying to avoid.

Much like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee famously shunned the public spotlight. Following the success of her publication, she fled to the cosmopolitan anonymity of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Over the next five decades, she rarely granted interviews. And when she did, it was often under the condition that there be no questions about her novel. Shy but charming, she was known to reject journalist requests by sending handwritten notes. It’s hard to imagine how many of those notes she had to pen. After all, the book’s success was staggering: To date, it has been translated into more than 40 languages with over 30 million copies in circulation — many of which destined for the book bags of American public schoolers.

But Harper Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee) was never quite comfortable with her fame. In fact, she compared it to being “hit over the head and knocked cold” and said she found the flood of public encouragement frightening. Her solitary life drew speculation over the years. Some wondered if Lee shunned fame after witnessing the public collapse of Truman Capote, a childhood friend who grew up next door to her in Monroeville, Alabama. Others theorize that after penning her masterpiece, Lee — who idolized the likes of Cheever, Updike, and O’Connor — knew she had nowhere to go but down. Widely discussed was the fact that mental illness ran in the family. Her mother was said to suffer from depression and mood swings. (She is said to have twice tried to drown Lee in a bath.) For her fans, a brief glimmer of hope came in 1962, when rumors circulated about a second novel in the works, but Lee quickly dashed those hopes, saying that the manuscript had been stolen by a burglar.

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Pulitzer Prize winner and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2007 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Given the elusiveness of primary source material, the story of Harper Lee’s life is based mostly on accounts from family members or classmates. Born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, she was the youngest of four children. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney who once represented two black men accused of killing a white store clerk. Her father was unable to get his clients acquitted, and they were subsequently hanged. It’s no surprise to hear parallels drawn between her father and the novel’s protagonist, Atticus Finch — the patron saint of first-year law students everywhere.

Lee studied to become a lawyer herself, but dropped out of the University of Alabama in 1949. In her early twenties, she worked as an airline ticket clerk in New York City while writing the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird. A year before the book was published, she accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb Kansas to help research what would eventually become his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. A year later, her novel appeared on bookshelves, complete with a dust-jacket photograph taken by Capote.

When success finally arrived, it arrived like a tornado. Shortly after publishing her book, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and found herself giving a tour of her hometown Monroeville to Gregory Peck, to help prepare him for his role as Atticus Finch in the Hollywood adaptation of her book. The film was also a success, garnering three Oscars, including a Best Actor award for Peck. After he accepted his award from Sophia Loren, he began his acceptance by thanking the author. The two would become lifelong friends.

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Lee was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush on November 5, 2007. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Over the next 50 years, Lee made occasional appearances at award ceremonies and literary events. She stepped out of the shadows again briefly on November 5, 2007, when George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But while she happily embraced the Commander in Chief, she did not make an acceptance speech — her silence was in fact a stipulation of her appearance that day. Soon after the ceremony, Lee receded back into her quiet solitude.

Following a stroke in 2007, Lee resided in an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, guarded by a tight circle of friends and family. However, in a surprising turn of events, the author was catapulted back into the spotlight in early 2015 when her publisher announced Lee's 1957 manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, was going to print. Watchman was considered the sequel to her masterpiece, but was steeped in controversy -- not only for its timing (critics question whether Lee was mentally capable of approving its publication) but also for its content, which depicted Atticus Finch, 20 years after Mockingbird, as a staunch segregationist.