Harper Lee, the author of the iconic classic about race relations “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the newly released “Go Set A Watchman,” has died at 89, in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. According to relatives, she passed in her sleep at the Meadows, an assisted living facility.
Harper Lee was born on April 26, 1926, under the name of Nelle Harper Lee. Her novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was based on observations she made of people in her hometown of Monroeville, as well as a racially motivated event that occurred in a neighboring town in 1936 when Ms. Lee was 10.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” was an instant success when released in 1960, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. However, she rejected the role of literary celebrity and kept her personal life extremely private. The film version, starring Gregory Peck was released in 1962, further adding to Ms. Lee’s fame, and the literary community eagerly awaited her next novel. During that time, she assisted her good friend Truman Capote with his research for his book, “In Cold Blood.” Supposedly, Capote was the inspiration for the character of Dill in “Mockingbird.”
Ms. Lee was the youngest of four children of Frances Finch Cunningham and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her father was at varying points a newspaper editor and proprietor, and a lawyer who sat on the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Her father once defended, unsuccessfully, two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper.
While in high school, Ms. Lee developed a love for English literature and attended the then all women’s Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. She spent a year there, and then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She studied law and wrote for the university’s newspaper, but never received a degree.
The public waited half a century for a new work to appear, while Lee remained reclusive, granting almost no interviews. Whenever she won an award or accepted an honorary degree, it made headlines, although the only speech Ms. Lee gave was a simple thank you. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature, although at the time had only published one book.
In 1966, President Johnson appointed Ms. Lee to the National Council of the Arts. Ms. Lee remained good friends with Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his film performance of Atticus Finch. Unlike most authors, Ms. Lee was pleased with the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” declaring it was one of “the best translations of a book to a film ever made.”
Ms. Lee was also awarded an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2006. In that same year, Ms. Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006) about her love of books as a child and her dedication to the written word: “Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” In 2010, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of the Arts, the highest award from the US Government for, “outstanding contributions to excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts.”
In 2015, amidst much controversy, Ms. Lee’s second novel “Go Set A Watchman” was published. It is a “sequel” to “Mockingbird,” although it has since been revealed the novel was written before “To Kill A Mockingbird.” There is much controversy surrounding the book, as when it was published, Ms. Lee was in an assisted living facility, was left wheelchair bound and partially deaf and blind as the result of a stroke. For 55 years Ms. Lee vocalized that she would never publish another book, although there were rumors of “Mockingbird” being the first in a trilogy.
Harper Lee was portrayed by Catherine Keener in the film Capote (2005), by Sandra Bullock in the film Infamous (2006), and by Tracey Hoyt in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998). In the adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character of Idabel Thompkins, who was inspired by Capote’s memories of Lee as a child, was played by Aubrey Dollar.
Ms. Lee never married, and had no children, but the legacy of her books and articles will live on for future generations.