It’s interesting that Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird and the soon-to-be released Go Set a Watchman, is considered a mysterious figure in American literature. She’s been so called because she retired from the limelight shortly after her novel skyrocketed her to fame in the 1960s. But to many bookworms, there’s nothing mysterious about retreating from public eye. It’s the most natural, relatable thing an author could do. All of us book-lovers understand the desire to be left alone to live, read, and write as we please.
Fans of Lee probably know that she was born and raised in small-town Alabama, that her father was an attorney, a newspaper editor, and a statesman, and that she was good friends with Truman Capote. But here are 12 things you might not have known about the elusive Harper Lee that will make you like her even more:
1. She’s a Mets fan.
Lee lived in New York as a young woman. Even after moving back to Monroeville, Alabama, she continued visiting NYC to root for the Mets, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and take the bus, which she prefers to taxis.
2. Her given name is Nelle.
Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee. Her first name is a backwards spelling of her grandmother’s name—Ellen. When pursuing her writing career, Lee dropped her first name because she didn’t want people misprinting or mispronouncing it as “Nellie.”
3. She was a humorist from early on.
In college, Lee wrote for the Rammer Jammer, a humor magazine at the University of Alabama. She created a column called “The Caustic Comment” in which she took witty jabs at social mores and trends. She was later appointed Rammer Jammer’s editor-in-chief.
4. She flouted authority, sometimes unintentionally.
Lee got two tickets for jaywalking on the same day in 1960 on the Upper East Side.
5. She’s athletic.
Lee was an avid golfer for much of her life, once saying that she did her best creative thinking while playing golf. In college, she played powderpuff football. In her later years, Lee fished at her favorite spot at home in Alabama.
6. She had a day job while writing her first novel.
When Lee moved to New York City to pursue writing, she worked as a ticket reservation agent at an airline company.
7. She had incredibly supportive friends.
One Christmas morning, Lee’s good friends Michael and Joy Brown gave her one year’s worth of wages in an envelope. They said their present to her was a year off from her job to write whatever she pleased. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird.
8. She’s been an incredibly supportive friend to others.
Lee met Truman Capote when they were both around five years old, and she was his protector from neighborhood bullies for much of their early years. After they both grew up to become writers, Lee worked as Capote’s research assistant for In Cold Blood and accompanied him to Kansas several times to help with his investigative work.
9. She knows how to make fun of herself.
Harper Lee once made light of her own Southern drawl, saying, “When I hear a consonant, I look around.” When Huntingdon College (which Lee attended for only one year) asked Lee for more information about herself for their alumni archives, she wrote back, “I’m afraid a biographical sketch of me will be sketchy indeed; with the exception of M’bird, nothing of any particular interest to anyone has happened to me in my thirty-four years.”
10. She kept in touch with her favorite teacher.
Lee was deeply influenced by her high school English teacher, Ms. Gladys Watson. Watson, a stickler for grammar, was the woman who introduced Lee to British literature. Right before sending a final draft of To Kill a Mockingbird to her publishers, Lee asked Watson to proofread and critique it. After the book was published, Lee flew Watson out to New York City for a visit and took her on a month-long trip to England as a gesture of thanks.
11. She overcame injury to write again.
Lee suffered a severe injury to her right hand in 1965 when a pan caught on fire and exploded in the kitchen. The burn made it impossible for her to write or type, and necessitated an operation in New York City.
12. She loves British literature.
Lee is a huge fan of Jane Austen, and once said (half-jokingly) that that all she wanted was to be “the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” Lee’s love of British literature took her to Oxford University in the summer of 1948. As an exchange student studying twentieth-century literature, Lee fell in love with England, fell in love with literature, and fell decidedly out of love with law school.
What are you curious to know about Harper Lee?