A writer's story: The mockingbird mystery

Harper Lee grew up with Truman Capote in small-town Alabama and wrote the bestselling novel of the 20th century. Or did she? And why has she published nothing for the past 45 years? Andrew Gumbel looks to a new biography for answers

Harper Lee was at the height of her fame as the bestselling author of To Kill A Mockingbird when, in the early 1960s, a librarian at her old university, an all-girls establishment in Alabama called Huntingdon College, puzzled over why he could find almost no information about her. So he wrote and asked if she wouldn't mind providing some biographical details so she could be appropriately honoured by her alma mater.

Lee's response was oddly revealing. It was quizzical, light-hearted, self-deprecating - and almost completely unhelpful. "I'm afraid a biographical sketch of me will be sketchy indeed," she wrote. "With the exception of M'bird, nothing of any particular interest to anyone has happened to me in my 34 years."

And that, more or less, was that. To Kill A Mockingbird - a social drama in which the passions and violence of the segregationist South are given rare pathos and humanity through the characters of Atticus Finch, a crusading lawyer who tries and fails to save an unjustly accused black man from an all-white jury, and Finch's children, whose own lives are touched by the broader currents in their small Alabama town - became the bestselling novel of the 20th century. Still, as the years passed, Lee became only more reluctant to step into the public spotlight. She gave her last media interview in 1964. By the end of the 1960s, she stopped answering her publishers' entreaties about when they might see the completion of another book.

She settled into an extraordinarily quiet, unassuming life, spending most of the year living with her sister in their home town of Monroeville, Alabama, with occasional forays to her one-bedroom apartment in New York City. She refused to have anything to do with commercial spin-offs from Mockingbird and seemed unmoved by all the accolades bestowed on her novel.

Instead, she settled into a routine that took her to favourite coffee shops, followed up on her lifelong involvement with the First United Methodist Church, but mostly left her at home where she could indulge her lifelong passion for reading.

Lee, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, has thus turned into one of those typically American literary enigmas, a beloved author and icon of an era who simply refuses to play along with the demands of our celebrity culture. Like J D Salinger, who has lived as a virtual recluse for decades, she will forever be known for one book. Nobody has established why she withdrew from the public eye so spectacularly. Nobody knows why she has never published again.

Perhaps inevitably, rumour-mongering has rushed to fill the void. Could it be she didn't really write To Kill A Mockingbird herself, that much of it was ghost-written by her childhood friend Truman Capote, whom she later accompanied to Kansas to help research the true-crime classic In Cold Blood? Did she slide into alcoholism in the 1970s and 1980s? Was it significant that she never married?

A new biography - the first - attempts to make sense of some of these questions. Lee, naturally, refused to have anything to do with the project. (The author, Charles J Shields, reports that she declined his approaches "with vigour".) The book draws instead on private papers, as well as interviews with several hundred of her friends, family members and acquaintances.

The sum of our knowledge of Lee is pushed only so much further - barely one-sixth of the book covers the years after 1962 and the release of the Oscar-winning movie of Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck. But we do get a sense of an unusual, complex woman who never sought fame and quickly decided she did not like it, a woman who relied on a few very close relationships to help her achieve her ambitions and struggled when those relationships faltered.

Lee's father, like her protagonist Atticus Finch, was a small-town Alabama lawyer with a passion for social justice. Her mother, meanwhile, was withdrawn and distant. (The character most closely resembling her is Aunt Alexandra, described in the novel as being like Mount Everest, "cold and there".) Young Nelle Harper Lee - the "Nelle" was dropped because she was afraid it would be mispronounced Nellie - was a tomboy and something of a misfit who got into wrestling matches with boys and had anything but a dainty way of talking.

She and Truman Capote - both, improbably, from the same town of 7,000 souls - formed a childhood bond based, at first, on their status as "apart people". Both had difficult relationships with their mothers. Both later discovered a love of writing and story-telling, especially after Nelle's father gave them a typewriter. Capote moved to New York when they were just eight, but the friendship was established for life, and proved invaluable when Lee made her own foray to the big city in pursuit of her literary dreams.

At first, Lee took a clerical job with the long-defunct airline BOAC. Then a composer friend called Michael Brown made a remarkably generous offer to bankroll her writing for a year. She fell into a fruitful work pattern, explaining joyfully that all she really needed to be happy was "pen, paper and privacy".

Lee found an agent, Maurice Crain, who became a close friend, and later developed an equally close bond to her editor at J B Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, who spent two and half years developing the manuscript - entitled Atticus on first submission - into the final published book.

The notion that Capote wrote some or all of Mockingbird is almost certainly a canard, although he did suggest some cuts here and there. (The next-door neighbour who befriends the Finch children, Dill, is an homage to Capote.) Hohoff, on the other hand, was instrumental in giving the book structural shape.

Shields suggests that Lee was stymied by success from the very start. On the day J B Lippincott expressed an interest in her manuscript, she had written more than 100 pages of a second novel, entitled The Long Goodbye, but went no further with it. As he puts it: "Her pen froze."

As Mockingbird soared up the bestseller lists and Lee engaged in a whirl of publicity, she talked openly about her ambitions to chronicle the richness of small-town life in the South. But the more feted she became, the less she found herself actually writing. "Do you find your second novel coming slow?" one reporter asked her at a public event. "Well," she responded with a caution she might not previously have expressed, "I hope to live to see it published."

Shields describes the early 1960s as one long series of distractions from her craft - the publicity tours, the making of the Hollywood movie, the invitation from President Johnson to join the National Council on the Arts, and the burgeoning fame bestowed on her, especially in her hometown. "I've found I can't write ... I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee. I've tried getting up at 6, but then all the 6 o'clock risers congregate." The only peace she could find, she said, was on the golf course, but that was good only for thinking, not actually writing.

The ease with which she had turned out pages as an unpublished author was suddenly bogged down by over-meticulousness. She would write a page or two, then put them aside, then rewrite them repeatedly, never managing to make much progress.

By the end of the 1960s, her agent was dying of cancer. Lippincott was despairing of her, and she had a big falling out with Capote over his failure to give her more than a shared mention in his dedication for In Cold Blood. Intriguingly, she and Capote both failed to complete another book after their acknowledged masterpieces. Both appear to have had a tough time with fame - Capote became addicted to it, along with drugs and booze, while she felt compelled to run away from it.

There may also have been something about the experience of digging into the mass murder of the Clutter family in Kansas that haunted them - as the recent movie Capote suggests - or simply helped unravel what was, for both writers, a key friendship in their lives. Shields has unearthed many of Lee's notes for the book, and argues that many of her contributions were either ignored - for example, her devastating insights into the mother, Bonnie Clutter - or went unacknowledged. The real truth thus may be not that Capote secretly wrote chunks of To Kill A Mockingbird, but rather that Lee had more than an idle hand in the writing of In Cold Blood.

By the 1970s, it was clear that Lee's much-heralded second novel was not going to appear. Her cousin, Dickie Williams, remembers asking her when she was going to come out with another book. She replied: "Richard, when you're at the top, there's only one way to go."

A decade later, Lee was actively working on a new project, an In Cold Blood type of documentary crime writing involving a renegade Alabama preacher whose wives and close relatives had a nasty habit of ending up dead. The preacher was tried for murder on four occasions, and each time was acquitted for lack of evidence. After the fifth unfortunate death, a relative from Chicago came to the funeral with a handgun and shot him in the back. He, too, was acquitted.

Lee spent at least a year researching the case, but no book was forthcoming. Lee told friends she couldn't figure out a proper structure for it. Tom Radney had a blunter explanation: "She's fighting a battle between the book and a bottle of Scotch. And the Scotch is winning." In his book, Shields never gets particularly close to corroborating this, or any other theory of her literary silence. "Maybe she was, in some sense, satisfied," he suggests at one point. "Maybe her deed was done."

There's a lot of her about these days, between Shields's book, Catherine Keener's sympathetic portrayal of her in Capote, and another screen interpretation, by Sandra Bullock, coming later this year in Infamous. This time last year, she agreed, uncharacteristically, to be honoured by the Los Angeles Public Library, although she remained almost silent throughout the ceremony.

These days, she appears to regard eluding attention as something of a sport. In 2003, John Humphrys showed up in Monroeville with a BBC crew and almost bumped into her in the dining room of a Monroeville country club. Lee, in fact, walked out right under his nose, relying on her friends and her own unassuming appearance to ensure Humphrys wouldn't realise what had happened until it was too late. "Now I know firsthand how you folks protect her down here," Humphrys was later quoted as saying. That shell is clearly still plenty thick enough.

The last words before the long silence

Harper Lee's last major interview was given to Roy Newquist in March 1964, for his book 'Counterpoint'

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement - public encouragement. I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.

[My next book] goes ever so slowly. Many writers really don't like to write ...They loathe the process of sitting down trying to turn thoughts into reasonable sentences. I like to write - sometimes too much because when I get into work I don't want to leave it. I'll go for days and days without leaving the house. I'll go out long enough to get papers and pick up food and that's it.

This was my childhood: if I went to a film once a month it was pretty good.

We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money. We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so we lived in our imagination most of the time. We were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of drama.

It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way. I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. This is sad. There's no substitute for struggling, if a struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.

I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I would like to leave some record of... small-town middle-class southern life. All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama."

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders