The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

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Overview


One journalist’s memoir of her personal friendship with Harper Lee and her sister, drawing on the extraordinary access they gave her to share the story of their lives

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where ...

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Overview


One journalist’s memoir of her personal friendship with Harper Lee and her sister, drawing on the extraordinary access they gave her to share the story of their lives

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known by her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door for Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a friendship that has continued ever since.

In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle. 

Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.

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  • The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
    The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

To put it simply, Harper Lee wrote one of the most popular and beloved novel in history and then returned to lead a very quiet life with her sister in a small town in Alabama. Since her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 To Kill a Mockingbird, she has written no new books and has resolutely avoided interviewers. Except one. For a decade, Chicago Tribune Maja Mills was not only welcomed into the home of the Lee siblings; she was eventually encouraged to become their next door neighbor. In this unique memoir, Mills writes about two unique women who retained their dignity even in the midst of celebrity madness. (P.S The Mockingbird Next Door contains fascinating material on Harper Lee's important friendship with her longtime friend Truman Capote.) Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
05/19/2014
Former Chicago Tribune reporter and first-time author Mills befriended the famously private Lee sisters of Monroeville, Ala., back in 2001, and moved into the house next door in 2004. Initially on assignment from her newspaper to gather information on Harper Lee (known as Nelle), neither Mills nor her cameraman, Terrence James, had any illusions about succeeding where countless other journalists had failed. But they were charged with at least trying to make contact with the famously reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, Mills recounts the surprisingly easy and natural way she did indeed meet, first, older sister Alice, a still-practicing attorney in her 80s, and then Nelle, whose sharp, eccentric personality, keen opinions, and generous reminiscences make this a must-read for fans. Subjects covered include the tribulations attending a first-time novelist’s instant fame to Lee’s childhood friendship with Truman Capote. An atmospheric image of the South, then and now, emerges as Mills recounts daily life with the sisters, as well as time with Nelle in her longtime second home, New York City. While upfront about what few areas (mostly “to spare the feelings” of living persons) must remain off the record, Nelle’s sweet friendship with Mills elicits a forthcoming portrait of the author, her family, her time, and her South that is thoughtful, witty, and rich in feeling. Agent: Miriam Altshuler, Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-07
In her first book, a journalist offers a gentle, loving portrait of a reclusive writer.After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, Harper Lee (b. 1926) was overwhelmed with attention. She sat for interviews, signed so many copies of the novel that she developed tendonitis, and watched with alarm as Monroeville, Alabama, the small town in which she lived, was turned into a tourist attraction. Then she retreated, refusing to talk to reporters or cooperate with biographers, determined to live her life quietly and privately. In 2001, when Mills came to Monroeville on assignment from the Chicago Tribune, she expected to take notes on the town's ambience and, at most, to interview a few people who knew Lee. But Lee—known by her first name, Nelle—and her 89-year-old sister, Alice, a lawyer, were interested in Chicago's One Book, One Chicago program, which had chosen Mockingbird for that year's citywide reading. When Mills rang the doorbell at the Lees' home, Alice invited her in for a long conversation. This led to repeated visits and resulted in a friendship that continues, even with both sisters now in assisted living facilities. Mills portrays Nelle as a grown-up Scout, the feisty and defiant heroine of Mockingbird. "Even at their ages," writes the author, "it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one." The sisters lived modestly, with an eclectic circle of friends that included "a retired hairdresser, a pharmacy clerk, a one-time librarian, and a former bookkeeper who also was the wife of a retired bank president." Often, friends joined in the outings, breakfasts and dinners that Mills and Lee shared. Together, they watched two movies about Truman Capote, with whom Lee had worked as researcher for In Cold Blood; their relationship soured later. "Truman was a world-class gossip," Lee told Mills.The sisters' trust that Mills was not a gossip is borne out in this charming portrait of a small Southern town and its most famous resident.
Library Journal
07/01/2014
Former Chicago Tribune reporter Mills uses taped interviews and personal interactions to document her multiyear friendship (the author's word) with Nelle Harper Lee (b. 1926), author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mills focuses on Lee, her sister Alice Finch Lee, and their charming coterie of mostly septuagenarian and octogenarian friends, as they go visiting, to the laundromat, and feed ducks at the end of the day. Mills first met Harper in 2001, and she appears to have had the trust and friendship of the Lees while she lived next door to the technology-shy sisters in tiny Monroeville, AL, primarily in 2005 and 2006. However, in 2011, the novelist issued a blunt statement that she neither willingly participated in, nor authorized, Mills's book. The author's descriptions of shared cups of coffee, social outings, and hours of recordings, however, seem to support her claim of being invited in. Throughout the book Mills avoids any hint of gossipy tone and allows the Lees to unfold their story on their own terms. VERDICT This highly readable work details Harper Lee's life up to her stroke in 2007. Readers will learn as much about Mills's personal struggles with lupus as about why Lee never wrote another book and what she truly holds in her heart. [See Prepub Alert, 1/26/14.]—Maggie Knapp, Trinity Valley Sch., Fort Worth, TX
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205194
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/15/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 8,441
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Marja Mills

Marja Mills is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a staff Pulitzer Prize winner for a 2001 series about O’Hare Airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Do you want to take a trip? You can say no.”

Tim Bannon, my editor at the Chicago Tribune, stood at my cubicle. He ran the daily features section on the fifth floor of the Gothic Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago and was pleasantly low-key by newspaper standards. Tim knew I liked to travel for stories, and that if the story took me to an unusual part of the country, so much the better. I had loved spending time at a monastery in rural Missouri for one story and at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, for another. Tim also knew I had been out sick a lot that year, 2001. In 1995, I had been diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune condition that frequently left me fatigued. I wanted him to know I was still able to do my job. I purposely accepted before finding out more.

“Sure. Where to?”

“Monroeville, Alabama.”

Tim saw my quizzical look and smiled.

“It’s Harper Lee’s hometown. We know she doesn’t give interviews. But I think it’s worth going there anyway.”

Enough said.

A couple of weeks earlier, the Chicago Public Library had chosen the elusive author’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. The idea was to get Chicagoans in every corner of the city reading and discussing the same book. It didn’t hurt that To Kill a Mockingbird happened to be the favorite of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, as he told me a couple of months earlier for a story I wrote about his reading habits. That he was a reader at all surprised some folks. His press conferences were hard to follow. He didn’t necessarily exit the same sentences he entered. But he loved books, and he especially loved To Kill a Mockingbird. In that, he was part of a phenomenon that began in 1960 and continues to this day.

When the novel was published in July of that year, Harper Lee was a few months past her thirty-fourth birthday. From the beginning, Lee was a collection of contradictions. She was an Alabama native whose love of the state’s back roads was matched only by her love of New York City streets. Her public shyness masked a wicked wit. During the publicity engagements for the novel’s publication, when she wasn’t averting her gaze, her dark eyes could alternate between a penetrating stare and a mischievous gleam. She was a distinctive blend of engaging and elusive.

Lee labored for several years to produce the novel. She coaxed the story out of a Royal manual typewriter in her small Manhattan cold-water flat and on visits home. Atticus Finch is a principled attorney and the widowed father of two children. As the novel begins, his tomboy daughter, Scout, is about to turn six. Her older brother, Jem, is almost ten. With their father, they endure the suspicion and outright hatred directed at Atticus when he defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in their segregated town. In the novel’s climactic scene, Bob Ewell, father of Mayella, comes after the children. Boo Radley, the neighborhood recluse who has frightened and fascinated the children in equal measure, saves them.

Through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and their best friend, Dill, Lee paints a vivid picture of small-town childhood in the segregated South. She also explores complex themes in the lives of her characters, from mental illness to addiction, racism, and the limitations society imposed on women.

The story of small-town childhood and racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama garnered glowing reviews and stayed on the best-seller list for nearly two years. In 1961, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Academy Award–winning 1962 film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, became a classic in its own right.

It was a stunning debut. With time, Lee’s novel became something more: a national touchstone in a culture becoming ever more fragmented. In a 1991 survey, the Library of Congress asked readers which book most influenced their lives. Only the Bible outranked To Kill a Mockingbird. It has sold an estimated forty million copies or more and been translated into three dozen languages, from Swedish to Urdu. It is required reading for at least 70 percent of U.S. high school students.

The novel became a classic at the same time as it defied Mark Twain’s definition of one: “a book people praise and don’t read.” References to the work appear in movies, on television, in countless other books, and in comic strips, cartoons, and lyrics. People cite the novel as the reason they became writers or lawyers. The characters’ unusual names have a comfortable familiarity even to those who haven’t read the novel in years, or perhaps never did. Atticus Finch. Scout. Boo Radley. The unusual names from Depression-era Alabama now populate the glossy pages of People and Us Weekly, as celebrities, as well as plenty of regular folks, name their children Harper, Atticus, or Scout.

As the novel’s cultural influence grew, so did Lee’s mystique. A few years after the book was published, she essentially stopped giving interviews. The second novel she had once discussed never appeared. Her rare public appearances made headlines. Her speeches, when she did accept an occasional award, usually consisted of two words: “Thank you.” When she was loquacious, she went on twice as long. “Thank you very much.”

Given her long public silence, in fact, plenty of people assumed Harper Lee was dead. At age sixty-six in 1993, she made dry reference to that fact in the foreword to yet another printing of the novel. Lee told her readers that she was “still alive, although very quiet.”

By the time I was given my assignment in 2001, she was seventy-five. In the modern world, she was as beloved and unknown as a person can be. She divided her time between Manhattan and her Alabama hometown. That much was known. Her full name was Nelle Harper Lee but she was simply Nelle to the tight circle of friends who protected her privacy. Periodic “In Search of Harper Lee” articles over the years offered glimpses into the author’s life, if only from afar. One newspaper story described the log cabin exterior and linoleum floors of David’s Catfish House, on the outskirts of Monroeville, and passed along intelligence gleaned from a waitress. The author and her older sister, attorney Alice Lee, always sat at a back table. They were quite hard of hearing, both of them. The waitress could report, firsthand, that they squabbled about who got to pay for the other. Not much else seemed to be known about her life after writing one of the most cherished novels of the twentieth century.

Lee’s responses to the never-ending requests for interviews ranged from “no” to “hell, no.” Usually, her literary agency and publisher declined on her behalf. In Monroeville, Alice practiced law with their father’s old firm, Barnett, Bugg & Lee, and also served as gatekeeper for her sought-after sister.

I expected that I would be turned away as so many reporters had been before. If nothing else, I could write about the small town that produced the author and inspired her fictional Maycomb. But first, I had to find it on a map. I pulled out my atlas.

Like Maycomb, Monroeville is a southern Alabama county seat located well inland. It is an out-of-the-way place, near no major airport or even the interstate. Nonetheless, the town of sixty-five hundred draws literary pilgrims from around the world. People want to visit the courthouse replicated in the movie. They want to run their hands along the polished banister of the balcony where a young Harper Lee watched her father try cases just as Scout does in the novel and the film. They want to walk past the spot where Lee climbed a chinaberry tree with her childhood friend and next-door neighbor Truman Capote. Devoted fans of the novel, the ones who can recite favorite lines by heart, want details. Do the tree’s poisonous yellow berries still fall to the earth along Alabama Avenue? Is the tree even still there, or those two childhood homes? Does the feeling Lee captured of a small-town, Southern childhood still exist?

For this hastily planned trip, I’d submit, meekly, the standard request for an interview, knowing that was as likely as a blizzard in August. Then I’d fly down and try to give Chicago readers a sense of the town that produced Harper Lee and annually sells out the two-act play adapted from the novel.

For One Book, One Chicago, the library system was gearing up for an onslaught of interest in the book. The city’s seventy-eight libraries were stocking their shelves with nearly two thousand additional copies of the novel, including some Spanish and Polish translations. Lee declined the city’s invitation to speak, but sent a rare statement in support of the program. She wrote, “When the people of Chicago assemble in various parts of the city to read and discuss To Kill a Mockingbird, there is no greater honor the novel could receive. People of all backgrounds and cultures coming together to put their critical skills to work—nothing could be more exciting!”

Like millions of others, I had read the book in school, as a shy fourteen-year-old who loved English, feared math, and ran on my high school cross-country team in Madison, Wisconsin. From the first pages, I was transported on a snowy afternoon to the red clay streets of an Alabama county seat during the Depression.

Now I had an assignment, a plane ticket, and a colleague, photographer Terrence James, also assigned to the story. I hadn’t worked with Terrence before but I’d seen him around the paper. He was African American, wore black jeans and boots, and had cornrows to his shoulders. He seemed enthusiastic about this assignment, as I was.

Terrence and I got better acquainted on the flight to Atlanta. We mapped out our assignment, where we wanted to go, and whom we wanted to see. In Atlanta, we rented a car for what turned out to be a nearly six-hour drive to Monroe County. Atlanta was a rookie mistake: I could have booked a flight into Montgomery, Mobile, or Florida’s coastal Pensacola. All were closer. But the Atlanta flight was cheaper. It didn’t look as far on the map as it turned out to be. The drive, however, gave us a chance to put Monroeville in a geographic context we could picture. Parachuting in, as journalists often do, you miss something.

We got off the interstate about a half hour from Monroeville. Along Highway 84, the foliage gets thicker. Elsewhere, in fact, kudzu drapes over hundred-year-old oak trees. It crawls up ravines. It creeps across the caved-in tin roofs of abandoned country shacks. It forms an intricate web of green so dense it seems to be hiding something.

We drove up hills, wound around curves. Trucks with bundles of freshly cut lumber thundered past. Terrence gripped the steering wheel tighter. We saw the “patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberlands” Lee describes in the novel. Large machinery now does the picking. It’s faster and cheaper. In To Kill a Mockingbird times, rows of men, women, and children did the picking. It was oppressively hot, back-breaking, finger-stinging work, plucking the tufts of cotton off the plant and putting them into burlap sacks.

We passed the occasional gas station and general store with “Coca-Cola” in fading white script on peeling red paint. We stopped at one of them. It was the kind of place that looked like it might still have Coke in those little six-and-a-half-ounce green bottles, the kind my grandfather used to have at his one-man Coca-Cola bottling operation in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. I checked. No, even here it was cans and plastic bottles only. Next to the cash register and the March of Dimes box was a giant plastic jar of hard-boiled eggs in vinegar. Beside that was another big jar with something vaguely pink floating in the brine. Pickled pig’s feet. I’d never tasted either. I’d stick to Diet Coke for now.

As we got closer to Monroeville, NPR faded. Now the choices were country music, conservative commentary, or fiery preaching on a couple of stations. Around every other bend was a redbrick church or a tiny white one with a steeple stabbing blue sky and a cemetery out back. Most of the churches were Baptist, but we also saw ones that were Methodist, First Assembly, and Pentecostal.

In a clearing between a redbrick school and woods dripping in kudzu, we spotted a basketball court. Young men playing. Young women watching.

Terrence slowed the car and looked at me.

“Yes, let’s,” I said.

We pulled into the area of trampled grass where other cars were parked, our rental conspicuously shiny and new among the old wide-bodied Chevrolets held together with spare parts and ingenuity. People stared openly at Terrence and me as we walked to the sidelines. Terrence carried a large camera around his neck. He is fairly tall. I stand fully five feet three and a half inches, with blue eyes, blond hair, and what’s charitably called alabaster skin, a whiter shade of pale. Mine was the only white face in the crowd.

We explained why we were there. We were just chatting, mostly. This was our first chance to get acquainted with the area, see what people had to say about life in this part of the country. Had they been assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in school? A few had. Most had not. This also was the first of many times I was glad we had our bases covered between the two of us: male and female, black and white. Of course, once we opened our mouths and spoke, our accents lumped us together in one important way. We were Yankees.

As we spoke with the young men and women, the harshness of the sun gradually faded. I glanced at my watch. It was 6:35 P.M. This was what photographers call the golden hour, the magical interlude when everything is bathed in a soft light and, in the words of the painter James Whistler, “common things are touched with mystery and transfigured with beauty.”

Terrence crouched down to photograph a couple of the pickup ballplayers from that vantage point.

A light rain began to fall. In the muggy August air, it was gentle relief. As it picked up, Terrence returned the lens cap to his camera. I closed my notebook against the falling drops. One of the young men waved at us. “Come back anytime.”

Terrence and I made our way back onto the two-lane highway to Monroeville. We’d have to find our way in the dark to the Best Western on the outskirts of town and then be up early to cram as many interviews as possible into our first day there.

Nearing the city, the feeling of a place out of time ends abruptly. Familiar chains pop up. At the Best Western, our rooms had an uninspiring view of parking lot and fence. Across a large field, the lights from David’s Catfish House glowed softly.

For dinner, I fed quarters into the outdoor vending machines. I retrieved peanut butter crackers from the well of the snack machine, and held a blessedly cold can of Diet Coke to my forehead. I smelled an odor I could not place. It wasn’t coming from the big garbage can in the alcove; it was carried on the faint breeze blowing over the field. It smelled like paper mill with a sour finish, like boiling cabbage. It was fertilizer, I later learned.

This was a poor county in a poor state. Where were the jobs now that the Vanity Fair plant had scaled way back? The apparel manufacturer set up shop here in 1937, and it became the town’s economic engine, propelling it out of the worst of the Depression. There were a lot of jobs for men and, for the first time at these wages, women. But most of the manufacturing work had gone elsewhere in recent years. The money tourists spent on meals and motels didn’t begin to make up for the jobs lost to cutbacks and closings. Monroeville suffered an unemployment rate of 18 percent.

Terrence rapped on my door. Monroe County was dry, going back to Prohibition. Conecuh County was not. Terrence suggested we get libations back across the county line. We had passed Lee’s Package Goods, no relation to the sisters, and doubled back to stop in. The place was a cross between forlorn and forbidding. It had peeling paint and bars on the windows. Other than the WELCOME TO MONROE COUNTY sign and the store, there was nothing much around here except fields.

The jangle of the bell on the door announced our arrival. A heavyset young white woman behind the counter looked our way. So did a middle-aged Asian woman who appeared from a back room. They didn’t smile at us. They just looked at us without expression. Under harsh lights they sized up their customers. We must not have looked like too much trouble.

After we returned to the motel, we shared a quick drink in this dry county.

“Half a glass is good, thanks.” I wanted to go over my notes before tomorrow.

“Half a glass.”

Terrence poured my wine into a water glass from the bathroom counter, which faced out into this standard-issue motel room.

He offered a toast.

“To Monroeville.”

“To Monroeville.”

We clinked glasses. Not rotgut. Not great.

In my room, I pulled out my paperback copy of the novel and climbed under the covers. I was tired from our trip, but before I made my acquaintance with Lee’s hometown, I wanted to get lost again in the rhythm of her language. I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep right away anyway.

This edition, published by Warner Books, had a simple illustration on the cover: the silhouette of a bird flying away from a tree. In the knothole of the tree, someone had stashed a ball of yarn and a pocket watch.

Just a few weeks earlier, it had been shiny and new, its spine unbroken, its 281 pages crisp and untouched. Now pages were turned down at the corners. Passages were highlighted in yellow and sentences underlined in black ink with scribbled notations in the margins.

On page 5, I had underlined one of the novel’s most-quoted passages.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turn to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. . . . Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

The grown Scout is looking back at the world of her childhood. She is in no hurry to tell the story. Right away, we hear her warmth, her wit, and a subtle wistful quality. She invites us to the events that changed everything one summer when she was a young girl, events set in motion, her brother reckons, long before either of them was born.

Horton Foote selected the passage to begin the film adaptation of the book. He grew up in a small town in Texas, not Alabama, but he said Lee had captured a place that he knew intimately from his own childhood. Lee called Foote’s film one of the best adaptations ever made. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for what he called the role of a lifetime. Horton Foote also won an Oscar, for his screenplay. Lee had not wanted to write the screenplay. She trusted Foote. As he put it, “It was just like we were cousins. I just felt I knew this town. It could have been a replica of my own.” So began a decades-long friendship, not only with Foote but with Peck, who met her father in Monroeville to prepare for his role.

Robert Duvall made his debut as a young film actor playing the reclusive Boo Radley, seen only at the end of the film. Elmer Bernstein’s haunting score is recognizable from the first notes. They evoke a child’s simple tinkering on a piano. As the title sequence begins, we see a young girl’s hands opening an old cigar box. She sings to herself as she pokes around the box of treasures. There are a few Buffalo nickels, a set of jacks, some marbles, a harmonica, a whistle, and a pocket watch. It’s a childhood of roaming free, of unbridled imaginations using those simple props to conjure up stories of high drama and death-defying feats.

When the film came out in 1962, Monroeville had a downtown movie theater. A young Harper Lee, her dark hair cropped short, smiled broadly for a photo below the marquee advertising To Kill a Mockingbird. Not long after, the theater burned. It was not rebuilt.

The next morning, I stepped out of my motel room and into the furnace of Monroeville in August. The Best Western is on Highway 21, which becomes Alabama Avenue. To reach the courthouse, according to the clerk at the motel, all we had to do was follow the road about five miles. It ended right at the town square. We passed an unremarkable stretch of auto parts places and assorted businesses. Next we came upon the Monroe County Hospital, up a short, steep hill to our left, then a strip mall with a Winn-Dixie supermarket, a Rite Aid, and a dollar store. We passed Radley’s Deli, a weathered gray building, named for Boo Radley. We drove the generic stretch you find anyplace in America—McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC—before we spotted the low-slung Vanity Fair building. Pete’s Texaco, a classic, cluttered old gas station, looked like it hadn’t changed much over the decades. On the corner where Alabama Avenue crosses Claiborne Street was Lee Motor Company, also no relation to the author. I had read she didn’t like the mural of a giant mockingbird painted on the side of the brick building. Across the street, on another mural, Scout and Jem stand by the neighborhood tree. The snug 1930s post office anchors the southeast side of the town square. We parked in one of the diagonal parking spaces across the street, in front of the Old Courthouse. Adjacent to it is what everyone calls the new courthouse. It was built in 1963.

Seen from the north, Lee wrote, the Maycomb County courthouse was early Victorian and looked all right. “From the other side, however, Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.” Monroeville once had such an unreliable instrument, a problem addressed with a modern solution. Now when the bell tolls the hours, it is a recording that rings out from the clock tower.

We made our way up a short flight of steps and through the pair of tall, heavy doors that welcome Mockingbird tourists. The courthouse is a magnet for people from around the country looking for a connection to the novel and the movie, those seeking a glimpse of the real world that inspired that fictional one. A small gift shop sold To Kill a Mockingbird T-shirts and key chains, and posters of the town’s annual production of the play.

Terrence and I ducked our heads into the large courtroom that served as the basis for the one in the movie. It was large, with a curving balcony, painted white, along the second floor, and tall windows overlooking the square. Terrence began taking pictures and I climbed slightly uneven wooden steps to the stuffy second floor.

I heard Kathy McCoy, the director of the museum and its annual To Kill a Mockingbird production, before I saw her. Behind a closed door, she was having a loud, animated phone conversation. Her accent was Southern but not the same kind you heard around here. She was from Kentucky.

I wanted to know what McCoy could tell me about the community, the play she directed each year here at the courthouse, the Lees’ role around town, and who might remember the old Monroeville and be willing to speak with me. I asked her about the tourism here, and what she could tell me about Harper Lee, knowing that tension has simmered for years between the Lee sisters and those looking to capitalize on the book’s fame.

“Harper Lee doesn’t want us to commercialize the book,” McCoy told me, “but we feel what we’re doing is a service to the community and to the rest of the world.” She and her staff put together a guidebook titled Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb and published a guide for tours of the town. On the town square, fans of the novel can peer at the redbrick building where Lee’s father maintained his law office and where Harper Lee wrote part of the novel. On Alabama Avenue, they can see the spot where Lee’s childhood home once stood, the spot that now is home to Mel’s Dairy Dream, a white shack with a walk-up window for ordering ice cream cones and burgers. Gone, too, is the home next door, where a young Truman Capote lived for a time with his aunts. A plaque and a little bit of an old stone fence mark the spot.

That day, several people from out of town were looking around the centerpiece of the courthouse, the wood-floored courtroom, where a young Harper Lee had seen her attorney father in action, the one replicated in the movie. Visitors sit in the “colored” balcony, just as Scout did during Tom Robinson’s trial. The bolder ones approach the judge’s bench and lift the gavel, letting it drop with an authoritative rap. Simple props, such as a period calendar, hang on the wall to re-create the Maycomb of the novel for playgoers.

Once you step outside, though, finding the contours and flavor of the Monroeville of that era is harder. Even when the book came out in 1960, Monroeville had changed drastically from its Depression-era days. The size of it, the look of it, the feel of it, all were dramatically different.

When producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan set about bringing the novel to the movie screen, they considered filming on location in Monroeville. But they decided against it. It didn’t look enough like the town of the 1930s they were trying to re-create. The town still had some of its charm, but it was too modern to stand in for 1930s Maycomb.

Instead, they replicated the courtroom in which a young Nelle had watched her father argue cases, and went to work creating Maycomb on set in Hollywood. For exterior shots, they incorporated some old California bungalows that could be made to look like homes in Nelle’s Maycomb.

The film’s art director, Henry Bumstead, wrote producer Alan Pakula from Monroeville. He abbreviated Monroeville as “Mv” and To Kill a Mockingbird as “TM.” The letter is dated November 1961.

Dear Alan,

I arrived here in Mv this afternoon after a very interesting and beautiful drive from Montgomery. . . . During my drive, I was very much impressed by the lack of traffic, the beautiful countryside and the character of the Negro shacks that dot the terrain.

Harper Lee was here to meet me and she is a most charming person. She insisted I call her Nelle—feel like I’ve known her for years. Little wonder she was able to write such a warm and successful novel.

Mv is a beautiful little town of about 2,500 inhabitants. It’s small in size but large in Southern character. I’m so happy you made possible for me to research the area before designing TM.

Most of the houses are of wood, one story and set up on brick piles. Almost every house had a porch and a swing hanging from the porch rafters. Believe me, it’s a much more relaxed life than we live in Hollywood.

I also visited the old courthouse square and the interior of the courtroom Nelle wrote about. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am by the architecture and the little touches which will add to our sets. Old pot-bellied stoves still heat the courtroom. Beside each one stands a tub filled with coal. Nelle says we should have a block of ice on the exterior of the courthouse steps when we shoot this sequence. It seems that people chip off a piece of ice to take into the courthouse with them to munch on to try to keep cool. It reminded me of my “youth,” when I used to follow the ice wagon to get the ice chips. Nelle is really amused at my picture taking and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see. She said she didn’t know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with “I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of doorknobs, houses, wagons, collards, etc—can we take time for lunch today?” Nelle says the exterior of Mrs. DuBose’s house should have paint that is peeling. Also the interior should have dark woodwork, Victorian furniture and be grim. Her house would be wired for electricity, but she would still be using oil lamps—to save money, so Nelle says. Boo Radley’s should look like it had never been painted—almost haunted.

Warmest regards,

Henry Bumstead

When readers of To Kill a Mockingbird first come to Monroeville, they want it to be just like the town they know from the novel and the movie. They want to see the place where the characters they love—Scout and Atticus, Jem and Dill and Boo—live and play, work and dream.

“People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.”

So visitors in search of Maycomb just assume they’re not looking hard enough or in the right places. Maycomb must be here somewhere. It must exist.

“The form of a town changes, alas, more quickly than the human heart,” Charles Baudelaire once wrote. Monroeville, like any town, has been altered in manifold and important ways since the 1930s. Those who love the novel, however, haven’t budged. Their expectations are steadfast. Two decades ago, McCoy told me, Monroe County drew about two thousand visitors a year. Now the annual tally was closer to twenty thousand and climbing, and a good four-fifths of those folks say that the novel is what brought them.

The museum’s annual spring production of the play To Kill a Mockingbird draws visitors to a stage only Monroeville can offer. The first act unfolds on the lawn of the Old Courthouse Museum, where the breeze carries the scent of pink azaleas and mockingbirds sometimes alight on tree branches. The second act, the infamous trial, takes place inside, in the old-fashioned courtroom familiar to anyone who has watched the movie. Every year, the performances sell out.

McCoy directed me to walk out the door of the Old Courthouse and across a bit of lawn to the new one to interview Otha Lee Biggs, the county probate judge. Biggs was a powerful figure here who was involved with the annual play and Mockingbird matters generally.

Judge Biggs operated out of an office piled to the rafters with books and papers. He was an older, dark-haired man and he played his part with a certain theatricality. His official duties had to do with running the county. His unofficial duties included gleaning information from journalists who thought they were the ones interviewing him. We spoke very generally about the town, the book, and the Lees, whom he had known for a long time.

I would come to learn that Biggs was one of the ways the Lees often knew who was in town and why. It was an early warning detection system. When they especially wanted to avoid someone likely to come knocking on their door, they occasionally would hit the road for their sister Louise’s home in Eufaula or, closer to home, a motel over in Evergreen, the neighboring Conecuh County seat.

My next visit, per McCoy’s directions, would be to Charlie McCorvey, an educator and county commissioner who played the role of Tom Robinson every spring. At Monroeville Middle School, McCorvey greeted me warmly and asked who I had been to see so far. McCorvey was a large man with silver-rimmed glasses. Once a year, to play Tom Robinson, he would trade his button-down shirt and tie for worn overalls.

Local people constitute the cast every year: lawyers and doctors, preachers and plumbers, businessmen and shop owners. And educators. In one particularly difficult scene, Bob Ewell berates Tom Robinson, spitting out the n word in his stream of racist vitriol. Hard to be the white actor saying it. Hard to be the black actor hearing it. Occasionally, African American friends would ask McCorvey if it made sense to depict the humiliation and violent end that his character suffered. But McCorvey’s instincts as an educator told him this was another form of teaching. “Some of these kids think the days of segregation and ‘yessuh,’ ‘nossuh’ are ancient history but they are not. This makes it more real to them.”

Kathy McCoy also suggested I speak with a retired businessman named A. B. Blass. He went to school with Nelle, caddied for her father at the local golf course built by Vanity Fair, and now often spoke to the reporters who cycled through town.

In his living room, Blass told me of the time in the early 1960s when A. C. Lee put a reassuring hand on Blass’s shoulder and said simply, “You did right, son.” Blass had stood up, in his way, to the Ku Klux Klan, which was threatening violence against band members the first year the parade was to be integrated. Blass canceled the parade rather than put the marching bands in harm’s way or allow the tradition of the segregated parade to continue.

Blass had recounted a collection of Lee stories many times to many journalists, until they were stones rubbed smooth by time and the telling. His voice was almost hypnotic, low and slow. I had the sense from Kathy McCoy that the Lee sisters did not appreciate what A. B. Blass had to share about their family, though McCoy didn’t explain exactly what their objections were.

As he spoke, I gathered that the reason might be that he described Nelle’s mother as an emotionally disturbed woman.

“She was touched,” Blass said. “I remember as a little boy walking to school, I’d see her there on their front porch, talking to herself. I’d walk back the same way after school and she’d still be there sometimes, just talking to herself like that.”

I’d learn later that the Lees took issue with this characterization, to say the least. I’d hear how they remembered Frances Lee as a “gentle soul,” a woman who played the piano and sang, loved crossword puzzles, and enthusiastically traded books back and forth with Truman Capote’s mother when she lived next door. Frances Lee did suffer a nervous breakdown at one point, after a harrowing experience, one the Lees had not discussed publicly. Her second child, Louise, cried in distress around the clock for months and couldn’t properly digest anything her desperate parents gave her. The baby recovered when a pediatrician found a special formula she could digest. As I came to know the Lees, the way their mother was depicted over the years was high on the list of things they wanted to set straight.

Nelle, according to Blass, was a scrappy girl unafraid to cuss and use her fists, every bit as feisty as the fictional Scout Finch. Blass remembered A. C. Lee as a quiet man with an even temperament. His sense of propriety and civility was steadfast. Even when the heat and humidity bore down, Mr. Lee wore his business suit on the golf course. Blass thought it was a shame Nelle Harper no longer socialized with some of the people she had grown up with, himself among them. He suspected she didn’t appreciate his willingness to talk to the press about the Lee family. He was correct, I learned later.

I had most of what I needed for my newspaper story after a few days, within the constraints of the Lees and their close friends not granting interviews. Terrence and I would head home soon. But first, I had to at least request an interview with Harper Lee or her sister Alice in person. If anyone answered the door, I would be polite, and then I would be gone.

Terrence drove our rental car to the older neighborhood of redbrick houses across from the big, rambling junior high that used to be the high school; Harper Lee studied there when it was newly built.

Alice Lee’s home wasn’t listed in the local phone book. A researcher in the Tribune’s reference room—the morgue, to old-timers—easily pulled the number from online records. One thing I hadn’t found in my file full of articles and background materials was a photo of the Lee home. In one of the most frequently reproduced photos of Lee as a young woman, she is in a rocking chair next to her father. The photos accompanied a 1961 Life magazine feature about Lee at home. The interior of the white screened porch, on the side of the house, is visible but you can’t tell what the house looks like from the street. According to the articles I read, even the location of the house was kept secret, at least by some of the residents who declined to disclose its whereabouts to various tourists and journalists.

I felt uneasy about knocking on their door. But I needed to be able to tell my editors I at least tried.

Chapter Two

Terrence didn’t pull into the Lees’ driveway. He idled the car along their quiet street.

“Well,” I told him, “I’ll probably be right back.”

It was early evening, and still light out. The air was warm and still. We knew Alice Lee probably would be home after her day at the law office. I walked up a few wooden steps and knocked on a white wooden door. Its old brass knocker had “Alice F. Lee” engraved in feminine script. I took a step back. Nothing.

I pressed the doorbell, stepped back again, and waited. Nothing. All right then. At least I tried. I’d wait another minute, then join Terrence in the air-conditioned car and call it a day.

Just before I turned around to go back to the car, a tiny woman using a walker came to the door. She had large glasses and wore a tailored light blue skirt and matching suit jacket. Her gray hair, parted on the side, was clipped neatly in place with a single bobby pin. I introduced myself. She leaned in to hear better. I raised my voice and repeated who I was and why I was there.

“Yes, Miss Mills. I received the materials you sent. And the letter.” Her voice was a raspy croak. She had read what I sent about Chicago’s library system picking To Kill a Mockingbird for One Book, One Chicago. From her sources, she knew I had been making the rounds. I had read about Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s much older sister. She was eighty-nine years old and still a practicing attorney. From the clips I’d seen, I knew she often ran interference for her sister, politely but firmly declining interviews. I was surprised when she invited me in.

Across the threshold, a musty smell greeted me. A large oak bookcase, shoulder-high and to my right, dominated the small entryway. Just beyond a short hallway was a small telephone nook. A little white chair was pulled up to a waist-high ledge with the telephone.

“Please come in,” she said.

I followed Alice Lee into the living room. Books were everywhere. They filled one bookshelf after another, stood in piles by her reading chair, and were stacked on the coffee table and most available surfaces, for that matter.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 47 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 47 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    The Mockingbird New Door is a remarkably well written book about

    The Mockingbird New Door is a remarkably well written book about the life of famed author Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird remains a standard of the American classroom. It is by all definitions a classic. Yet, little is known about its author Harper Lee – that is, until now. Marja Mills presents a detailed view of the celebrated author and her sisters. The writing is excellent. The research is excellent. The book is (you guessed it) excellent.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 8, 2014

    If you recognize the name Harper Lee, you will love this.

    It must have been a real joy to live next door to and share the life of the Lee sisters for so many months. Marja must be a special person to have them share so many great stories, and their close personal friends and family.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about a true American treasure and the people she obviously cared about.

    Truly makes me want to reread "To Kill A Mockingbird" again.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2014

    AVA

    I Like thisbook

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 17, 2014

    Reading about Harper Lee is always interesting; however, I'm not

    Reading about Harper Lee is always interesting; however, I'm not certain about this author's methods. 

    4 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2014

    An interesting read

    As a fan of "To Kill A Mockingbird", i was very interested in this book. I found the relationship between the women charming. The book did get repetative halfway through, as if she was struggling to find a way to wrap it up. As another reviewer said, it would have been nice to hear more about Nelle during her TKAM days, what she did in new york, etc. Overall i enjoyed the book and would recommend it to lovers of TKAM.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2014

    Sucky

    Do not waist you brain reading this time waister

    3 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2014

    Jack

    Ava who

    3 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 16, 2014

    From all I have read about this author and how she really did n

    From all I have read about this author and how she really did not do this book honestly don't bother

    3 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2014

    A Great Book that reminds you of a Great Book

    My favorite book as a teen was To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, so I devoured the new non-fiction The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills. It is a reflection of living next door to the Lee sisters for a year and half while the sisters are in their 70s and 90s. The Pulitzer Prize winning reporter does an excellent job of describing their day to day ordinary lives in a small town in Alabama while at the same time sharing their extraordinary lives of accomplishments. The lesser known sister, Alice, was still practicing law and was part of the inspiration for Atticus. If you read the book then you will understand the controversy found in so many reviews of this book. The book was filled with authenticity and kindness towards the Lee sisters and made me want to write to the author to tell her how much I enjoyed the book and how much better I understood why I still loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 16, 2014

    Wonderful insight

    Really enjoyed reading about the life and insights of one of my favorite authors. Wonderful air to the book as the story is told.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 15, 2014

    Before putting my review down 'in ink' I read the other reviews.

    Before putting my review down 'in ink' I read the other reviews. I do agree that parts of the book were repetitive but did not find it so much so that it damaged my appreciation for the book. I was grateful to Marja for the clear way in which she segued from past to present and back again. I think what I loved the most about this book is how I came to want to discover almost as much about Alice, Julia, and Tom as I wanted to discover about Nelle. Not that I knew Nelle but it would seem that this is how she would have wanted it - for her reading fans to discover her through those that loved her rather than through herself. Thank you Marja for the great read for my camping trip. Mel

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent book about the life of Harper Lee, most well known for

    Excellent book about the life of Harper Lee, most well known for her book To Kill a Mockingbird. Loved it!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2014

    Interesting

    My initial reaction was the book was well written, but after 100 pages I changed
    my mind. There is way too much repetition and one is left with a lot of questions.
    For example, what did Nelle do when she went back to New York for several months
    annually? Why is Alice living in different care facilities?

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 29, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Not quite what I thought it was going to be about. Did not real

    Not quite what I thought it was going to be about. Did not really have anything to do with what was going on with Harper Lee at the time "To Kill A Mockingbird" was being written. Had more to do with what the 80-ish Harper Lee is up to now.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2014

    This costs more than the original borrow it is not a keeper

    All old ladies become very much the same only more so so dont expect anymore than a good long small town obit

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2014

    To take advantage of a neighbor acquaintance

    And blow it into a friendship and then "tell all" is what one would expect from a national inquirer. If an author prefers privacy after so many years and not want to keep explaining why and no more stories means she didnt have anything more to tell. Since she did not aprove mightbe well to turn over half the royalties to her as an apolgy.

    2 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2014

    Afraid I can not recommend this book

    I'm not sure what I expected of this book. This was one of those times when I thought...surely it will get better soon. Unfortunately it never did. The writing was unimaginative and plodding. Sorry I just didn't enjoy the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 23, 2014

    Read it with a jaundiced eye. This is not an authorized biograph

    Read it with a jaundiced eye. This is not an authorized biography, one that Harper Lee
    denies collaborating on. To think that after 50 years of silence, Harper Lee would allow a relatively
    unknown journalist live next door and write about her is pretty unbelievable. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2014

    Very compelling! A must for fans of To Kill A Mockingbird!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It gives many insights into the personality of Harper Lee as well as the things that shaped her as a person and as an author. I enjoyed the connection between Ms Lee and the author of this book, Ms Mills. If you love To Kill A Mockingbird, you'll enjoy this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 18, 2014

    This story is more about the author than Harper Lee. The stories

    This story is more about the author than Harper Lee. The stories are repeated so as to fill out the book. I really question how well she knows
    Miss Lee. I was very disappointed. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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