The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
“That there is a fascinating story to tell is indisputable. That Ms. Mills does a good job putting across the information she’s been given is also completely clear. What the book lacks is objectivity. . . . Respect is one thing, obsequiousness an uncomfortable other.”
There can be few people in the English-speaking world who don’t know anything about Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which is more than can be said about the life of its author, the reclusive, elusive Harper Lee.
Her groundbreaking—and only—book, first published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck.
Miss Lee, unlike her close childhood friend Truman Capote, has always eschewed the limelight, granting very few interviews through the years since the book’s release, preferring to live in quiet obscurity with her lawyer sister Alice in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Until 2001, that is, when the then 75 year old allowed Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills into her home and, subsequently, her small circle of trusted friends.
To Kill a Mockingbird—a now classic tale of childhood innocence and racial prejudice in 1930s America, as well as one of the 20th century’s best-loved books—had been chosen by Chicago Public Library as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. Ms. Mills’s editor thought it was worth her going to Monroeville despite the famous author’s reclusive reputation.
Once there, Ms. Mills first made an impression on Alice Lee who, although in her 90s, was still practicing law—real estate transactions, tax returns, and wills were at the heart of her practice.
It turned out to be the key to the door, leading Harper Lee herself to call and ask if they could meet.
“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.’ I felt my adrenaline spike,” she recalls.
She was not, explained Nelle—Harper Lee’s first name and the one by which she is known to friends and family—granting an interview for her newspaper, “but a chance to visit.”
The interview, however, was finally written, by which time Ms. Mills felt she and the Lee sisters had forged a kind of friendship.
By the time, a few years later, and as a result of her battles with the auto immune condition lupus, she was put on her newspaper’s medical disability plan, Ms. Mills wondered what was stopping her spending her time off—a couple of months to a year, tops, she reckoned—in Alabama.
In 2004, and with the Lees’ encouragement, Ms. Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. The idea of writing a book took about them took root in their conversations, she reports.
“Nelle had already told me several things she thought I could write about and correct regarding ‘the 40-year file on Harper Lee.’”
And there’s the rub.
That there is a fascinating story to tell is indisputable.
That Ms. Mills does a good job putting across the information she’s been given is also completely clear.
What the book lacks is objectivity.
Not only does the author note that she never asked questions she felt would be unwelcome, she is awestruck to the point of obsequiousness.
It is to the book’s and the readers’ detriment that her hero worship of her often grumpy subject is so glaring.
Planning to drive to New Jersey, for example, Ms. Mills is ecstatic when Nelle agrees to accompany her. Nauseatingly, she soon finds herself “fighting the overwhelming urge to get a window sign that said: Please Be Careful. National Treasure on Board.” [Capital letters included!]
The famous author’s phone number is recorded in her little pink address book under a made-up name. “I was afraid,” she explains, “if it were ever lost or stolen I would feel compelled to leap from the Sears Tower rather than owning up to the security breach.”
The inordinate privilege she feels, and to which she often refers, is an ongoing intrusion.
Respect is one thing, obsequiousness an uncomfortable other.
“Nelle wanted to go over my file of stories about her over the years to point out inaccuracies and set the record straight,” writes Ms. Mills at one point.
Nelle had originally wanted to call the book Having Their Say, also used in the title of a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet, the other saltier, looking back on their lives. No chance, then, of any confusion about this book’s intent.
Perhaps it was a simple case of a willing person with a talent for writing being in the right place at the right time, not to mention having the right attitude.
“Three things out of Nelle’s control were in the works. Not one but two movies were being filmed about Truman Capote researching his 1966 bestselling book In Cold Blood in Kansas with his friend Harper Lee [Infamous, with Sandra Bullock as Nelle and Toby Jones as Truman; and Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.] Worse still, the first major Lee biography was under way by someone she didn’t know or trust. Charles Shields, the man working on the biography [Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee] had written Nelle to request her help. She wanted nothing to do with it.”
Nelle obviously needed to take back the strict control she’d always had over her (to the public, anyway) enigmatic life.
Ms. Mills acknowledges she wouldn’t have been around the sisters at all if she’d included anything they didn’t want to share in the first article. “Even the fact that I’d never asked her to autograph a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for me factored in.”
The result: instead of an insightful look at the life of Harper Lee, we have an extended literary love letter—and even that’s marred by a surfeit of sycophancy.
Footnote: To Kill A Mockingbird was released as an e-book earlier this month—on July 8, the 54th anniversary of the book’s original publication. Announcing it, “This is Mockingbird for a new generation,” said Miss Lee, despite having famously once said: "Some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal."