Reclusive Mockingbird author Harper Lee launches scathing attack on 'intimate account' by neighbour
'Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood'
It was the book that promised to offer the rarest of glimpses into the life of Harper Lee, the celebrated but reclusive author of To Kill A Mockingbird who despite her fame has shunned the limelight and still lives in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. It had even earned the notoriously shy writer’s blessing, so its publishers said.
But not according to Lee. The author has chosen the week that The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is released in America to launch a scathing attack on the book, written by Marja Mills, a former Chicago Tribune journalist who became her neighbour in 2004.
“Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister Alice,” she said in a statement. “It did not take long to discover Marja’s true mission; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.”
It is a long way from what Penguin, the book’s publishers, said would be an intimate account of the author and her sister’s day-to-day existence sharing coffees at McDonald’s, visiting the local Laundromat, eating catfish and feeding ducks. Lee, who goes by her first name of Nelle, was said to have “shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practised”.
“As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story – and the South – right,” publicity materials said. “Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.”
But in her statement, the 88-year-old Lee says she first voiced her objections to the book in April 2011 and that she has not changed her position. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” she added.
In her own statement released today, Mills hit back, saying: “I can only speak to the truth, that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville. The stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves.”
Mills added that when Harper Lee released her 2011 statement, Alice Lee had written to her saying: “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.” She also said that Tom Butts, a “good friend” of Harper Lee, supported her work.
Mills added: “I am so grateful for my time with the Lee sisters. It was the honour of my life when they both gave me their blessing to write my book.”
An extract from the book, published by US newspaper Newsday, certainly suggests a level of intimacy. Recalling a breakfast with Lee at a local diner called Wanda’s Kountry Kitchen, Mills writes: “Nelle dug into her own biscuit and eggs with gusto. That surprised me a bit, because I’d read so much about her reserve … I had assumed I would have to keep my distance from the famously private Harper Lee but I couldn’t help but enjoy her company. She might have been prickly but she was a delightful companion.”
In a statement, Penguin Press said it was “proud” to publish the book: “Mills’ memoir is a labour of love and Marja Mills has done an extraordinary job. We look forward to sharing her story of the wise and wonderful Lee sisters with readers.”
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Salisbury ranked seventh-best city in the world to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015
- 2 Disney announces new female-led film Moana
- 3 Banksy has not been arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Kentucky gang rape: 15-year-old boy left in critical condition after sexual attack by group at party
- 5 Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Disney announces new female-led film Moana
Eight seconds of white noise is top of the Canadian iTunes chart because people love Taylor Swift that much
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt is intriguing as unsympathetic war hero
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
Peep Show series 9: Final season to air on Channel 4 in 2015
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Jose Manuel Barroso warns David Cameron against making 'historic mistake' over immigration reforms
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella