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The Secret Life of Harper Lee

By Andrea Koczela. Apr 26, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Awarded Books, American Literature, Literature

Nelle Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was born on April 28, 1926 in the sleepy town of Monroeville Alabama. As a girl, she became friends with another future writer: Truman Capote. The two were outsiders among their peers but discovered an affinity for each other. According to Capote biographer, Gerald Clarke, “Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.”


Lee’s father was a lawyer who served on the Alabama State Legislature. Both Lee and Capote were interested in crime; Capote said, “We went to trials instead of going to the movies.” Before entering politics, Lee’s father unsuccessfully defended two black men charged with killing a white shop owner; this trial may have been Lee’s first inspiration for Mockingbird. Lee and Capote obtained an old typewriter and began writing stories together.

The two continued to collaborate after Lee moved to New York City.  Lee agreed to help Capote research an article for The New Yorker based on the murder of a Kansas farming family. Their work formed the basis of Capote’s classic work, In Cold Blood. Working as Capote’s research assistant, Lee was instrumental in forging relationships with the townspeople and accomplishing many of the interviews. Unfortunately, their friendship suffered irreparably after the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood. Capote dedicated the work to both Lee and his lover, describing her role as merely “secretarial help.”

Concurrent with the composition of In Cold Blood, Lee focused on her own writing. Two of her friends gave her a year’s worth of living expenses so that she could write full time. Lee quickly completed her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. After two and half years editing the draft, it was published in 1960 and became an instant bestseller.


Lee was overwhelmed by the success of her novel and shrank from the public eye. She sought a quiet existence in her rural hometown and gave her last interview in 1964. Despite her avowed love of writing, Lee never published another book. Biographers speculate that the extraordinary success of Mockingbird and Lee’s resulting celebrity paralyzed her writing. Before the publication of Mockingbird, Lee had already completed 100 pages of a second novel but never finished it. “I’ve found I can’t write,” said Lee. “I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee.”

In her final interview, Lee said, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement—public encouragement. I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” 

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Andrea Koczela
Enthusiast of modern and classic literature who loves transforming obscure topics into interesting reads. Writer, editor, marketer, and bookseller.


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