The reclusive author: A novel appearance

Harper Lee's rare public outing has reminded the world of the woman who wrote 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in 1960... and then disappeared. By Andrew Gumbel
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A celebrated author comes to Hollywood, receives an award and has her picture taken with Annette Bening. What's so unusual about that?

A celebrated author comes to Hollywood, receives an award and has her picture taken with Annette Bening. What's so unusual about that?

In most cases, nothing at all. But when the author in question is Harper Lee, it's an event of jaw-dropping rarity. The 79-year-old Alabama native shot to fame in 1960 with her first book, To Kill A Mockingbird, but has not published another since. She has not granted an interview for 41 years, and has made only a handful of public appearances over the years.

Spotting Harper Lee in public has, in fact, been like a rarefied form of birdwatching. In 1966 she attended a Black and White dance in honour of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, that was organised by her childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote.

In 1983, she presented an essay at the Alabama History and Heritage Festival. In 1990, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alabama but did not utter a word during the ceremony or after. In 1997 she accepted a similar invitation from a private college in Mobile - and was similarly mute throughout.

In 1995, she was asked to write an introduction for the 35th anniversary edition of To Kill A Mockingbird, but she declined. For years, she has been entreated to come and see an amateur theatre adaptation of her book which plays in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama, courtesy of a troupe called the Mockingbird Players. But she has always said no.

To call her appearance at the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles public library last Thursday night out of character, then, would be an understatement. She was there to accept a literary award, which she did in her customary near-wordless fashion. She was also, frankly, a fundraising attraction; hardly anyone knew what she looked like, almost 45 years after the publicity shot for Mockingbird showed a woman with an unassumingly open face and short black hair.

Lee appeared as slight as ever, her hair now white and her face now adorned with thick square glasses. Over cocktails and an alfresco dinner, she remained almost silent. Ms Bening, one of Hollywood's more literate actresses with a formidable classical training, showered her with praise and quoted a line from Mockingbird in which reading is described as an activity as vital as breathing itself.

Finally, the award was presented by Brock Peters, the actor who played Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in the film version of Mockingbird. Hesitantly, Lee leaned into the microphone and said, simply: "Thank-you all from the bottom of my heart."

The explanation for Lee's presence in this universe so far removed from the rural Alabama she still calls home lay with the Oscar-winning 1962 Hollywood adaptation of her book. Over the course of the film production she became friends not only with Gregory Peck, who gave a career-defining performance as the principled lawyer Atticus Finch, but with the whole of Peck's family.

It was Peck's widow Veronique who extended the invitation to come to Los Angeles, and for her sake, Lee came. She did not jump on a plane like most other distant visitors to the west coast - apparently an ear condition precludes her from flying - but rather took the train, as one of the Depression-era characters in her book might have done.

Veronique Peck described her elusive friend as ''a national treasure''. ''She's someone who has made a difference... with this book," she told the Los Angeles Times. "The book is still as strong as it ever was, and so is the film. All the kids in the US read this book and see the film in the seventh and eighth grades and write papers and essays. My husband used to get thousands and thousands of letters from teachers..."

To Kill A Mockingbird has always been a puzzling sort of classic. It did not enjoy particular critical acclaim when it first came out - the Atlantic Monthly praised the fluidity of its writing, but dismissed it sneeringly as "sugar-water served with humour". Others found that its first-person narrative, by a six-year-old girl, was awkwardly at odds with its grand themes of personal responsibility and racial injustice.

But there is no doubting that it hit an extraordinary nerve. The very things that made the more high-minded critics nervous - in particular, its idealistic view of what the United States is and could be, even in the poisonous climate of the segregation-racked South - also account for its enduring popularity. The book was published just as the civil rights movement was shifting into high gear, and its touching faith in the essential goodness of human beings proved seductive in a country keen to believe in its own civilising mission, at home and abroad.

Even as the country was being shaken by white supremacist murders, race riots, police shoot-outs with black separatists and the mounting trauma of the Vietnam war, every one of Lee's readers could dream about their town, or their state, or their country, being somehow redeemed by the unswerving moral compass of an Atticus Finch.

Harper Lee was as surprised by her success as anyone. She had based the book largely on her experiences growing up in the 1930s in Monroeville - of which the novel's setting, Maycomb, is a lightly fictionalised version. The character of Atticus was a loving tribute to her own father, a civil rather than a criminal lawyer who had also served as a deputy in the Alabama state legislature. Dill, the next-door neighbour befriended by the narrator and her brother, was inspired by Truman Capote.

The racial drama at the heart of the book was inspired by the so-called Scottboro trial, in which a group of black men were falsely accused and convicted of raping white women. The case became a national case study in the moral shortcomings of segregation, and some of the convictions were eventually overturned.

The story came together over a period of years as Lee first thought about following her father into the law and then left Alabama to pursue her literary ambitions in New York, where she made ends meet working as a booking agent for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC. When she first submitted her manuscript to J B Lippincott in 1958, she was told it read too much like a series of vignettes and not enough like a single story. So she spent another two years rewriting it.

When she was finally published in 1960, she had characteristically low expectations. ''I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,'' she said in her last interview in 1964. "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Literary fame had a bizarre effect on her: she all but stopped writing. A couple of slight essays appeared in Vogue and McCall's, followed by years of clamorous silence. Literary critics and journalists have struggled to discover the reason for this, but in the absence of any comment from the author herself, they have had to resort to speculation.

Perhaps the closest thing to a convincing explanation came in a 1999 piece in the Washington Post, in which Lee's cousin Richard Williams recounted asking her when she was going to come out with another book. Her answer, in his words: ''Richard, when you're at the top, there's only one way to go.''

In Monroeville, people still believe she is working on another masterwork. Occasionally an unsubstantiated report has popped up that she is writing her memoirs, or that she is researching a book on the Rev Maxwell of Alexander City, Alabama, a black preacher who murdered several family members to collect their life insurance, before being murdered himself at the funeral of his last victim.

The confirmed sightings of Lee, however, emphasise only a more mundane side to the writer's existence: eating catfish with her older sister, who still practises law in Monroeville, or enjoying a round of golf.