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

Sunday 04 June 2006 00:00 BST

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."

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