The Troubling Decline of Harper Lee

Slate's Culture Blog
July 21 2014 3:52 PM

The Decline of Harper Lee

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The legacy of one of America's most beloved authors is in disarray.

Photo from 2007 by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

For Monroeville, Alabama, population 6,400 and shrinking, the summer of 2010 was momentous. Over a long July weekend, locals reenacted historical vignettes, held a silent auction, cooked a southern feast, and led tours of local landmarks. There was a documentary screening, two lawn parties, and a marathon reading of the novel whose 50th anniversary was the grand occasion. To Kill a Mockingbird, which needs no introduction—because it is the introduction, for most American children, to civil rights, literature, and the justice system—had sold nearly a million copies for each year in print. There were at least 50 other celebrations nationwide, but the epicenter was Monroeville, a place whose only real industry (the lingerie plant having recently shuttered) was Mockingbird-related tourism. It was not only the model for the novel’s fictional Maycomb but the home of its author, Harper Lee. She lived less than a mile from the festival, but she never came.

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If our country had a formalized process for anointing literary saints, Harper Lee might be first in line, and one of the miracles held up as proof would be her choice to live out her final years in the small town that became the blueprint for our collective ideal of the Small Town. But at 88, the author finds her life and legacy in disarray, a sad state of litigious chaos brought on by ill health and, in no small part, the very community she always believed, for all its flaws, would ultimately protect her. Maycomb was a town where love and neighborly decency could overcome prejudice. To the woman who immortalized it and retreated to it for stability and safety, Monroeville is something very different: suffocating, predatory, and treacherous.

For much of her life, Nelle Harper Lee (known to friends as Nelle) spent more time in the comforting anonymity of New York than in the Monroeville redbrick ranch house her family had occupied since 1952. Then, in 2007, a stroke left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and largely deaf and blind—forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment and move into a Monroeville assisted-living facility. It was a loss but also a homecoming: For decades she’d relied on another local living legend, Alice Lee—her older sister, part-time housemate, and lawyer—to maintain her uneasy armistice with her hometown and her fame.

Alice, who retired two years ago at the age of 100, had inherited her partnership in the family firm from their father, A.C. Lee, the model for Mockingbird’s righteous lawyer, Atticus Finch. (Nelle calls her “Atticus in a skirt.”) The same family practice whose modest virtues are inculcated, via Mockingbird, to generation after generation of schoolchildren was charged with protecting the legacy of its author—a job that one of the best-selling novelists of all time wanted nothing to do with. Yet as both women passed into very old age, what should have been a peaceful and prosperous decline became a surprisingly turbulent decade, robbing Nelle of not just her health but old friends, her dearly held privacy, the town’s good will, and, for a time, the copyright to the book she sometimes wishes she hadn’t written.

It wasn’t just infirmity that kept Nelle from basking in those 2010 celebrations; it was disillusion. Allergic to both attention and commerce, she’d always found the Mockingbird industrial complex tacky and intrusive, but had managed to carve out a separate existence in its shadow. Now too many “well wishers” were stopping by her new apartment—including her literary agent, whom she eventually barred from the facility. (He’d already had her sign over her copyright.) Just a month before the anniversary, a family friend entered her room with a Daily Mail reporter in tow. The journalist flew back to London with an unflattering photo and a cruel 2,000-word profile to match. Monroeville had finally confirmed her fear that there really was nowhere to hide. She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo”—Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.

By the time of Mockingbird’s golden anniversary, Nelle’s agent was denying in court that he represented her. The courthouse gift shop, “The Bird’s Nest,” was selling To Kill a Mockingbird onesies and car decals. A former next-door neighbor, Marja Mills, was working on a memoir called The Mockingbird Next Door—which came out this week, lifting the veil of Nelle’s privacy amid a confounding volley of statements between lawyers, sisters, and friends over whether and when she approved of the project. It was left to Alice’s successor in the family firm, Tonja Carter, to sort things out. Carter restricted Lee’s visitors and instituted lawsuits against not just the literary agent but also the courthouse museum. She nearly sued Marja Mills, too, and released a letter last week reaffirming Nelle’s objections—objections that her own sister, Alice, had claimed Carter had ginned up on her behalf. “It’s a terrible thing to happen toward the end of a person’s life,” says Thomas Lane Butts, a preacher who was among Lee’s best friends but hasn’t seen her in a year. Whatever Nelle’s intentions, Carter has upended the town’s delicate status quo, making as many enemies as headlines. Nelle never did like making headlines, even for the right reasons, but she did once love Monroeville.

* * *

In 1964, in one of her last interviews, Lee laid out her mission as a writer. “This is a small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic,” she said. “I believe there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.” She concluded, joking, “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”

Mockingbird plays on Southern Gothic, only to demystify it and mythologize the ordinary instead. Amasa Coleman Lee may have been, as his daughter said, “one of the most beloved men in this part of the state,” but he wasn’t Atticus Finch; he was a tax lawyer. He left his childhood farm in Florida, married a prominent village daughter (Frances Finch of Finchburg), and moved to Monroeville in order to manage the finances of the law firm of Barnett, Bugg & Lee, as it shortly became, a partnership of businessmen-attorneys who owned half the town. A.C. did try one criminal case, at age 29, defending two black men on a murder charge. He lost and they were hanged, pieces of their scalps mailed to the son of the victim.

Though Atticus defends a black man wrongly accused—and ultimately convicted—of rape, nothing quite so brutal happens in Mockingbird. And by making Atticus a widower, Lee also omitted a much more personal experience: her mother’s instability. According to Mills, Frances suffered a nervous breakdown after her daughter Louise failed to thrive. (The Lees had five children in five-year increments.) Dr. William Harper came to the rescue of both mother and baby, and Harper became their next child’s middle name. Truman Capote, Nelle’s best childhood friend, later described her upbringing as “Southern grotesque.” He claimed Frances had tried to drown Nelle in the bathtub. Lee denied it vehemently, and for all her rebelliousness—Butts once said she had “hell and pepper in her”—she never said a word against her family, in fiction or otherwise. In her work and life, madness is banished in the light of reason and authority.

A.C. passed his august authority on to Alice. During the Depression, she had to leave college but was quickly brought under her father’s wing and into his law firm. Nelle tried to follow the same path—attending the same girls’ college as Alice and then transferring to the University of Alabama, where she loved writing but hated her sorority and law classes. After a summer at Oxford University, she dropped out. She wanted to make a go, like her friend Truman, of living and writing in New York. A.C., who’d been paying for school, said she’d have to make it on her own.

In New York, Lee found a tight-knit replacement family. Capote introduced her to Broadway lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife, Joy. They hooked her up with an agent, Maurice Crain, and on Christmas, 1956, they gave her the gift her father wouldn’t: enough money to do nothing but write for a year. She remembered it later as “a full, fair chance for a new life.” Within five months, she had a draft of Atticus out on submission, and was already partway into a second novel when a Lippincott editor took it on.

Most of Mockingbird’s characters have real-life antecedents, and Scout’s delicate friend Dill is clearly Capote. He was Nelle’s first writing partner and her social fixer in New York, and Lee helped him research his true-crime classic, In Cold Blood. But Capote eventually spurned her. Rebutting his vicious gossip seems to have been one of Lee’s motivations for talking to Marja Mills. “They fled from the truth like Dracula from the cross,” Lee told Mills, meaning him and his aunt, whose memoir Lee claimed to have thrown into a bonfire. “Truman was a psychopath, honey.” Capote drifted away in a miasma of drugs and self-hatred—a cautionary tale of frustrated fame. His former best friend tacked fiercely in the opposite direction.

A.C. Lee was shocked by his daughter’s success. “It’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York,” he told a reporter. “She will have to do a good job next time.” He died in 1962, after meeting Gregory Peck but before seeing him play Atticus in Alan Pakula’s film. Nelle spent the next couple of years trying to write, but couldn’t shake the fear that there was, as her father had worried, nowhere to go but down. At one press conference to promote the movie, Lee’s humor was edged with tension. “Will success spoil Harper Lee?” asked a reporter. “She’s too old,” Lee said. “How do you feel about your second novel?” asked another. “I’m scared,” she said.

In his unauthorized 2006 biography, Mockingbird, Charles J. Shields quotes Lee telling a friend, “I wouldn’t go into downtown Manhattan for the world.” Mills once made Lee a gift of E.B. White’s Here Is New York. Nelle “wept at the first sentence.” It reads, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." White later pictures “a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors.” After Mockingbird won acclaim and a Pulitzer, Lee felt observed by everyone—the whole world a small town. At least when she stayed in Monroeville, she had Alice.

By 1970, when her beloved agent died, there was no one else left—not Capote, not her parents. “The close circle she was relying on fell away over the course of a decade, and her tight Monroeville clique was practically all that remained,” says Charles Shields, who wrote the 2006 unauthorized biography, Mockingbird. “I think the Lees have kind of an old-fashioned notion,” he adds. “Keep your friends close to your breast with hoops of iron and rely on them. And the novel, being one of the most popular of the 20th century, makes tremendous demands that go well beyond their abilities.”

* * *

Maybe it wasn’t just Nelle’s insecurity that held her back from becoming “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” but also the dismaying decline of the “small-town middle-class” idyll she’d staked her career on documenting. She had, after all, written a historical novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed not in Monroeville but on an L.A. lot. There were—still are—remnants of Depression-era Monroeville, not least the old Federal-style courthouse. But even as the film came out, a drab new courthouse was being built next door. Downtown’s only movie theater burned down not long after Mockingbird had its first run, and was never rebuilt. In 1997, the city was dubbed “The Literary Capital of Alabama,” prompting Lee, who wasn’t consulted on the nickname, to remark, “The literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.”

Harper Lee’s assisted-living apartment is on Highway Bypass 21, just a couple of blocks from the town’s real commercial center, a series of malls. There’s a place called Radley’s Fountain Grill down that way, and an old stone wall that once separated Lee’s childhood home from Capote’s—both long gone, replaced by a takeout shack called Mel’s Dairy Dream. Lee prefers the more generic places by the lingerie factory outlet (a remnant of the old Vanity Fair plant). Before her stroke, she could be found at Hardee’s, or better yet at McDonald’s, gulping down coffee during long chats with friends. (There were higher-end expeditions to the local golf club and to casinos on the Gulf coast.) When she watched an advance screening of the biopic Capote at a neighbor’s house—the Lees had no television—she opted for Burger King.

In 1961, Lee told Life that, unlike Thomas Wolfe, “I can go home again.” That’s debatable, as is the question of why Harper Lee chose to spend so much of her life in a town whose only claim to fame was her fame—a fame she claimed to despise. The Mockingbird Next Door dwells on rural trips out of town, fishing and duck watching and off-the-record country drives. (Romantic inquiries were “not up for discussion.”) Lee seemed to prefer the countryside to her hometown. “I was surprised that she was living here, to tell you the truth,” says Butts, who was often on those drives. “It’s like being in a fishbowl.”

Marja Mills’s astonishing access to Lee was the product of luck, both good and bad. Sent to Monroeville by the Chicago Tribune to find out what Harper Lee thought of Mockingbird being chosen for “One Book, One Chicago,” she expected to strike out. But, after a polite introductory letter, Alice not only answered the ranch house door but also secured her an audience with Nelle. On Mills’s second visit to town, Butts gave her his rationale for the sisters’ openness: “When she and Alice go, people are going to start ‘remembering’ things as they didn’t happen, or outright making things up, and they won’t be here to set the record straight. So keep taking notes, girl.” Mills suffers from lupus, and she had a flare-up just before leaving Monroeville again. Nelle claimed to be her mother-in-law so she could stay with her in the local hospital. Mills became an honorary member of “the old in a nation geared toward the young.”

In 2004, sapped by her illness, Mills decided to leave her job and try to write a book. She wound up moving in next door to the Lees, securing a $450 rental with the sisters’ help. Over endless coffees and drives, Nelle opened up enough to give a solid sense of herself: unconfident in her looks and therefore unconcerned; witty and garrulous within the strict limits she sets for talk; conservative by northern standards; cranky and principled; moody but predictable.

Mills makes it clear in the book that she intended at first to write a broader Alabama history. Monroeville was confused, years later, by the news of a memoir. “I think that lady kind of pulled wool over their eyes,” George Jones, the 91-year-old town historian and gossip, told me. Mills says only very few friends knew just how much time she and the sisters spent together. The Lees, she says, “managed to have a parallel existence” within Monroeville—a smaller bubble within the bubble of a hard-to-reach county seat, apart from tourists and nosy locals alike.

One of Nelle’s friends, retired Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt, is skeptical of Nelle’s participation—but not Alice’s. “Alice wanted the family story told and Alice has an agenda, and I think Marja Mills fits that agenda quite well,” he says. “Nelle is afraid that telling the family story will be telling her story, and I can’t believe she cooperated.” He adds that, around that time, he tried to persuade Nelle to record a sealed oral history, and she flatly refused. Last Monday’s letter, signed by Lee, seems to confirm his impressions: “I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised,” upon learning of Mills’s “true mission: another book about Harper Lee.” She concludes, “rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Butts says she may well feel that way now, but didn’t at the time. “There was no break,” he says—contrary to the letter’s claim—“until somebody talked to her, said she should oppose the book.” He says he witnessed Nelle insisting on putting personal things on the record.

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Harper Lee receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mills’ portrait is gentle almost to a fault, but her mission was to humanize Lee, not to lionize her. Butts warned Mills she might get angry late-night phone calls from Nelle: “She accuses people, chews them out. The alcohol fuels it.” Mills repeats speculation that drinking contributed to Lee’s abandoning a true-crime book in the '80s. Overall, Lee comes off both plain and complicated. She can be paranoid, but often for good reason. In Monroeville, Mills writes, “information about Nelle was currency. It could be spent, traded, or saved for the right moment.” On Nelle’s earliest meeting with Mills, in a sweltering room at the Best Western, one of the first things she told the reporter was, “This is not the Monroeville in which I grew up. I don’t like it one bit.” Mills writes of Lee looking over a ravine. “Nelle suggested that perhaps she could toss all her belongings in there and burn them, preferably shortly before she died, so she wouldn’t have to worry about her personal things falling into the wrong hands. She was only half kidding.”

The case of Samuel Pinkus would make any writer paranoid. Pinkus had briefly run McIntosh & Otis on behalf of his ailing father-in-law—and Nelle’s longtime agent—Eugene Winick, but then suddenly left and took with him the estate-heavy firm’s most lucrative living authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Harper Lee. (No one knows exactly how he persuaded Lee to leave.) “It was an absolute betrayal,” Winick told me last year, “not only as an employee, but also as a family member.” The Winicks sought relief in mediation. Over the years, Pinkus set up a succession of corporations that, M&O’s and Lee’s lawyers claimed, were designed to avoid those debts. In the process of shifting around millions in royalties, Pinkus managed to take over Harper Lee’s copyright.

Lee’s 2013 complaint against Pinkus begins by describing her close ties to the agency: “Both Harper Lee and her sister trusted and relied on M&O virtually all the time since the publication of her famous novel.” That account elides a lot of drift. After Maurice Crain died, Lee was passed along to his wife, but by the time Pinkus was brought into the company, it was Alice whom Nelle counted on most of all. When Nelle heard the courthouse-museum was putting out a book called Calpurnia’s Cookbook, using the name of Mockingbird’s maid, Alice sent the letter that took it off the shelves. M&O never even heard of it.

While working on his biography, Charles Shields called M&O and couldn’t get any real answers about their prized client. Maybe they were just being protective, but Shields found a willing correspondent in Alice Lee. They had a few written exchanges about Lee family history, and things seemed to be opening up—until, one day in 2006, he received “an imperious letter” from Pinkus, by then her exclusive agent, warning him off any further contact with the Lee sisters.

* * *

In June of 2007, Lee had a lunch appointment with friends in New York. When she didn’t show up, they went to her apartment, and found her lying on the floor. She’d been there for more than a day. Even before the debilitating stroke, she’d had hearing problems and macular degeneration—been forced to accessorize her khakis and sneakers with glasses fitted with side panels. Now she went through months of rehab, gave up her New York apartment, and moved straight from the hospital into assisted living.

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Harper Lee in 2005.

Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Around this time, she signed an assignment of copyright to Sam Pinkus—an act she later forgot. Her lawyer during this period was still officially her sister Alice, 94. Eventually, Tonja Carter began pressing Pinkus to give up his copyright. (She had, however, notarized a reaffirmation of Pinkus’s copyright—something she’s never explained.) Finally, in 2012, Nelle got her copyright back, but according to the lawsuit, Pinkus continued to instruct publishers foreign and domestic to pay royalties into one of several companies. It wasn’t until a New York litigation firm filed suit—a move that put the elusive Harper Lee all over the news—that Nelle was finally able to free herself of Pinkus. The case was settled last September.

In 2011, while Carter and Pinkus haggled, Penguin Press acquired The Mockingbird Next Door after a heated auction. The day after it was announced, Carter released a statement from Harper Lee: “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills.” Penguin Press responded by producing a statement, signed by Alice Lee, agreeing to participate. Few people paid attention when, a month later, the AP reported that Alice Lee now claimed that Carter’s statement was made without the sisters’ consent. That story concluded, “A woman who answered the phone at Barnett, Bugg declined comment and hung up on a reporter seeking comment.”

Carter, who reportedly has power of attorney over Lee, replied to one email—“I can correspond by email when and if I become available”—but never answered my questions. It isn’t clear exactly what spurred Lee—or Carter—to file for a trademark to Lee’s name and the title of her book early last year. The Monroe County Heritage Museum fought the trademark, and Lee’s lawyers responded last October by suing them. Like the Pinkus suit, this complaint alleged that the defendant was taking advantage of Lee’s ill health—in this case, by ramping up gift shop operations and naming their website tokillamockingbird.com. (Both the shop and the website are more than 15 years old.)

The complaint begins immediately with a dig at Monroeville: “Although the story was set in the 1930’s, her realistic and highly critical portrayal of Maycomb’s residents shone a harsh light on the attitudes of communities that were the focal point of the civil rights movement in the 1960s … The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of To Kill a Mockingbird is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse.”

Seeking unspecified damages, the suit listed all the Mockingbird-branded items in the gift shop, including clothes for adults and children, tote bags, towels, “glass ware, plastic/acrylic tumbler glasses, seat cushions, car decals, coasters,” and a dozen other tchotchkes. It estimated 2011 museum revenue at more than $500,000, without mentioning that expenses were almost as high—the difference being just a bit more than the roughly $30,000 the gift shop earns annually. Nor did the suit mention that the museum is a nonprofit, or that Tonja Carter and her husband, a distant cousin of Truman Capote, own a tourist-filled restaurant across from the courthouse.

Museum attorney Matthew Goforth released a statement in October firing back: “It is sad that Harper Lee's greedy handlers have seen fit to attack the non-profit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her legacy.” Whatever the merit of Goforth’s argument, it brought to mind something Lee told Mills: “Greed is the coldest of deadly sins, don’t you think?”

“I was shocked,” says Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the museum. “I tried to talk to the family and say, ‘let’s stop this.’” After that 50th-anniversary commemoration in 2010, she’d sent Nelle leftover cake (shaped like Mockingbird’s iconic knot-holed tree), and Nelle had written back thanking her “friends.” After last month’s settlement, the website URL has been changed, but all the Mockingbird knickknacks are still for sale. Once the trademark goes through, they’ll be licensed through Lee. The Mockingbird Next Door will be sold there, too.

Friends were hurt by both the lawsuit and notes from Carter informing them they could no longer visit Nelle. One of them, Sam Therrell, owns Radley’s Fountain Grill and recently resigned as a member of the museum’s board. “I don’t think Miss Nelle or Alice had anything to do with it,” he says. “It’s her agent and her local lawyer,” Tonja Carter. “I don’t know what kind of relationship they entered into, how she ever became of counsel, and I don’t give a rat’s ass, to tell you the truth. It was stupid to let it happen, I can tell you that.”

Other friends do emphasize her lifelong ambivalence over Monroeville. “She never has liked the museum,” says Butts. “But a lot of her attitudes about things changed after the stroke. She becomes excitable in all sorts of ways.” It’s perfectly plausible for Lee to be against the book, against the town—even against her own sister—without being fully accountable. “Nelle Harper’s at this stage in her life,” says Butts, “at which she’s readily influenced about anybody who’s around her.” He doesn’t fault Alice for failing to safeguard Lee’s rights; he faults Nelle for never relying on anyone else. “She lived as if Alice would never die.”

Wayne Flynt, the Auburn professor, trusts Carter and believes she’s just honoring Nelle’s sense of being fed up. “Monroeville is like most small towns in the South,” says Flynt, whose work focused on Alabama and poverty. “It’s wonderful because of its tremendous sense of curiosity and community, but it’s also nosy and intrusive. The world she wrote about is the world she now inhabits, with all the good stuff and the bad stuff.”

In responding to Lee’s new letter last week, Penguin Press released a handwritten letter Alice Lee wrote to Marja Mills in 2011. It read, in part: “When I questioned Tonja”—her onetime protégé, inheritor of A.C. Lee’s firm—“I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to [Nelle’s apartment], and had Nelle Harper sign it … 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 … I am humiliated, embarrassed, and upset about the suggestion of lack of integrity at my office.”

The letter signed by Nelle last week points out that “my sister would have been 100 years old” when she wrote those words. Butts insists Alice was “bright as a penny”—at least back then. Around the time of that letter, Alice stopped visiting the office regularly. She had a fall, then contracted pneumonia and began to decline. She moved out of the Lees’ redbrick ranch house and into a different assisted-living facility. Whatever Wayne Flynt’s suspicions about Marja Mills, he agrees with Nelle’s latest biographer on one point: Silence has not served Nelle Harper Lee. “In the absence of her being willing to talk, the only versions we’ll ever have are other people’s versions.”

Boris Kachka is a contributing editor for New York magazine and the author of Hothouse. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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