There’s a new book out on Harper Lee that tells us why the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” never wrote another novel and what she thinks of the late Truman Capote, who served as the model for Dill, a character in “Mockingbird.”
Though just two weeks into print, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee” has already stirred a controversy. The author, Marja Mills, says she wrote it with Lee’s full approval, even moving to Monroeville, Alabama, for a year to get close to her subject. Lee, whose friends call her Nelle, says the book is unauthorized, inaccurate and an invasion of her privacy.
Due respect to Lee, I tend to believe Mills. A little personal background: Though a contemporary of Lee at the University of Alabama, I didn’t get to know her well until three decades later when, at an Alabama gathering in New York City, we drew aside to compare notes on our shared experience of having been law students who also wrote for the school paper and humor magazine.
Three decades living in Manhattan (though she spent half her time back in Monroeville with her older sister Alice) hadn’t changed the essential Nelle Lee. As a student in the late 1940s, she was ahead of her time as a female liberationist, going about campus in blue jeans and driving a pickup truck — true to her small-town roots but still, make no mistake, very much a woman (though not of the Southern belle variety).
Our conversation at that reception in the mid-1970s ranged from politics (she was a Democratic populist) to sports (and a Crimson Tide fan). Somehow, though I wasn’t the one who brought up the subject, talk turned to the veracity of her erstwhile childhood friend Truman Capote. In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Marja Mills quotes Lee as calling Capote a lying, mean-streaked “psychopath” who “thought the rules that applied to everybody else didn’t apply to him.”
Give or take a few feisty expletives, that was pretty much the way Lee described Capote to me forty years ago. What had aroused her ire, both personal and professional, was the persistent rumor spread by Capote that he had a hand in writing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not only was that a (expletive deleted) lie, said Lee, but in fact Capote owed her a literary debt for having helped on his best-selling docu-novel “In Cold Blood.”
That said, our conversation turned nostalgic, to mutual friends we’d had on campus and what they were up to. No, I didn’t raise the question of why she hadn’t written another book after “Mockingbird.” It would have been a sure conversation-stopper, since she must have been asked that a thousand times by everyone from her agent to the checkout cashier at her neighborhood supermarket.
In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Mills quotes Lee’s sister Alice (now a remarkable 103 years old) saying that Nelle, for all her feistiness, simply felt she could never match what she’d done in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.”
That I believe. Half a century after publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it remains one of the most widely read and admired works of 20th-century American fiction, not only in this country but throughout the world. Could a second novel by Harper Lee have met the standard she set for herself? She didn’t think so, and while other notable writers simply took the money and ran – Norman Mailer, and yes, Truman Capote come to mind – Harper Lee, for all the millions offered her simply for trying, wouldn’t succumb to the lure of tinsel celebrity.
Now 88 years old, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” suffered a stroke a few years back, but she still remains feisty — and devoted to her alma mater.
The football season approaches. There is, you should know, a road that runs through the Alabama campus called Paul Bryant Drive, a tribute to the nonpareil Bear. But those who think of Alabama as only a football factory should know there is also a road called Harper Lee Drive, a tribute to the nonpareil Mockingbird.
Sound Bite to Remember
Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By that time, you’ll be a mile away and he won’t have any shoes to chase you in.
— Wimp Sanderson, Alabama basketball coach (circa 1990)