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Life with Harper Lee

by Marja Mills

Pub Date: July 15th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59420-519-4
Publisher: Penguin Press

In her first book, a journalist offers a gentle, loving portrait of a reclusive writer.

After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, Harper Lee (b. 1926) was overwhelmed with attention. She sat for interviews, signed so many copies of the novel that she developed tendonitis, and watched with alarm as Monroeville, Alabama, the small town in which she lived, was turned into a tourist attraction. Then she retreated, refusing to talk to reporters or cooperate with biographers, determined to live her life quietly and privately. In 2001, when Mills came to Monroeville on assignment from the Chicago Tribune, she expected to take notes on the town’s ambience and, at most, to interview a few people who knew Lee. But Lee—known by her first name, Nelle—and her 89-year-old sister, Alice, a lawyer, were interested in Chicago’s One Book, One Chicago program, which had chosen Mockingbird for that year’s citywide reading. When Mills rang the doorbell at the Lees’ home, Alice invited her in for a long conversation. This led to repeated visits and resulted in a friendship that continues, even with both sisters now in assisted living facilities. Mills portrays Nelle as a grown-up Scout, the feisty and defiant heroine of Mockingbird. “Even at their ages,” writes the author, “it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.” The sisters lived modestly, with an eclectic circle of friends that included “a retired hairdresser, a pharmacy clerk, a one-time librarian, and a former bookkeeper who also was the wife of a retired bank president.” Often, friends joined in the outings, breakfasts and dinners that Mills and Lee shared. Together, they watched two movies about Truman Capote, with whom Lee had worked as researcher for In Cold Blood; their relationship soured later. “Truman was a world-class gossip,” Lee told Mills.

The sisters’ trust that Mills was not a gossip is borne out in this charming portrait of a small Southern town and its most famous resident.