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'

Senior Reporter

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.”

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