6 Fascinating Facts About the Life & Literature of Harper Lee

Today, as Harper Lee's much-anticipated second novel Go Set a Watchman is released, we gathered some interesting facts from the life story of the iconic author.
Harper Lee Photo

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

To Kill a Mockingbird was the first novel Harper Lee had published, but it wasn't the first one she wrote. That first effort, titled Go Set a Watchman, was submitted to a publisher in 1957. When the book wasn't accepted, Lee put it aside and ended up writing what would become one of the most beloved books of all time: To Kill a Mockingbird.

After Mockingbird, Lee started on other projects, but, to the disappointment of her many readers, no other books came out. So when a copy of Go Set a Watchman was rediscovered, Lee's first novel got a second chance. The book, which is set in the 1950s and features a grown-up Scout and an older Atticus Finch, is being published today, with a first printing of 2 million copies.

Reading another book from an author whose first work entered the public consciousness is an irresistible proposition. And, given the impact that Lee's writing has had, it's natural to want to know more about her life. With that in mind, here are six interesting facts about this iconic author.

The Watchman Controversy

Go Set a Watchman Photo

Harper Lee first submitted Go Set a Watchman to a publisher in 1957. It wasn't accepted then, but almost 60 years later was published on July 14, 2015. (Photo: HarperCollins Publishers)

Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007, has ongoing health issues that include hearing loss, limited vision and problems with her short-term memory. All this made some wonder whether the author truly wanted to publish Go Set a Watchman, as for years she'd been happy without putting out another book.

In February 2015, Lee issued a statement that said: "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." In addition, according to a July 2, 2015, article in The New York Times, her manuscript may have been discovered in 2011, not in 2014 as Lee's lawyer has claimed.

However, others who've met with Lee have stated that she's behind the decision to publish. Alabama officials investigated and found no evidence that she was a victim of coercion. And when Lee first submitted Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s, it was with the hope of seeing it released. That dream is now coming true — albeit several decades later than anyone would've expected.

Mockingbird Made Harper Lee Wealthy

When To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, it quickly won over the public. The novel hit best seller lists back then, and its sales have remained impressive over the years. Today, more than 40 million copies have been sold; the book has also been translated into more than 40 languages.

This popularity led to an impressive income for Lee: court papers from a 2012 lawsuit show that the author still receives about $3 million in royalties from Mockingbird every year (the lawsuit, which alleged that Lee's former agent had tricked her into assigning him the copyright for Mockingbird, was settled in 2013). With money like that coming in, Lee never had a financial need to publish again. 

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. (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The Simple Life of Harper Lee

Lee may have become a multimillionaire thanks to Mockingbird, but the money didn’t change her lifestyle. She had a modest apartment in New York City, and got around by bus while in town. When she returned to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (traveling by train), Lee lived in a one-story ranch house with her sister Alice. Clothes shopping there was usually done at Walmart or a Vanity Fair outlet; Lee traveled to the laundromat in the next town when she needed something clean to wear.

So what did Lee do with her money? She did like to visit casinos — but rather than playing for high stakes, she spent time at the quarter slots. In fact, Lee used much of her wealth for charitable causes, such as funding educational opportunities (true to her publicity-averse nature, this was done anonymously).

Even when Lee had to move into an assisted living facility following her 2007 stroke, her unadorned tastes meant that she still had access to what was important to her. 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 has been able to keep reading in her current home. And now she has a copy of Go Set a Watchman to add to her reading list.

Harper Lee Promo

Harper Lee in 2007 when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Don't Call Harper Lee "Nellie"

Harper Lee’s full name is Nelle Harper Lee (she was named in honor of a grandmother called Ellen; Nelle is Ellen spelled backwards). Lee grew up using the name Nelle; to this day, the people in her life refer to Lee as Nelle.

So why was To Kill a Mockingbird credited to Harper Lee, instead of Nelle Lee or Nelle Harper Lee? Apparently, Lee didn’t want to take the chance that people might mistake the name Nelle for Nellie. Therefore her debut novel was authored by Harper Lee — and now her follow-up novel is coming out under the same name.

The (Untrue) Truman Capote Rumor

In the years following To Kill a Mockingbird's release, a rumor began that Lee's longtime friend Truman Capote was the true mind behind the novel. After all, Capote was a successful author who'd written Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966), while Lee didn't publish another book after Mockingbird (until now).

Truman Capote Photo

Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee, who lived next door to his cousins in Monroeville, Alabama. (Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

To be clear, Capote was not the creator of Mockingbird. For one thing, the novel has a literary voice that's completely different from his. And in 1959, Capote wrote a letter that mentioned he'd read Lee's book — but didn't say anything about having written or edited the work. Lastly, Capote simply wasn't the kind of person who shied away from taking credit for noteworthy accomplishments.

However, Capote did little to dispel the rumors while he was alive, perhaps because he was envious of his old friend's success: Lee had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird, while Capote had hoped to win one for In Cold Blood (a project Lee did significant work for), but wasn't successful.

Harper Lee Was Not a Recluse

While it's true that Lee prefers a quiet life outside of the spotlight — her last major interview was given in 1964 — the author never minded being around people. In New York City, she would visit museums, the theater and go to baseball games (she was a Mets fan). In Alabama, she ate out (David's Catfish House was a regular haunt), joined friends for fishing excursions and attended an exercise class held at Monroeville's Community House.

Though Lee didn't read a lot of contemporary fiction, she did enjoy J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (according to Marja Mills, who wrote a memoir about her friendship with the author). Lee was also happy to join Oprah Winfrey for a lunch at the Four Seasons. Oprah's interview request was turned down, but the two still had fun together, with Oprah noting, "We were like instant girlfriends. It was just wonderful, and I loved being with her."

Of course the release of Go Set a Watchman has reawakened interest in Lee, but this time she doesn't have to give interviews or do anything else to promote her work. Whatever its reception, in the end her book will have to speak for itself.