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 conversationand 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 storyand the Southright. 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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What People are Saying About This
The Mockingbird Next Door is quirky, honest, unpretentious, delightful, insightful, and moves at its own sweet pace. It is wholly unlike anything I've ever read, a reflection of both the author and her sympathetic subject. We should all be glad that Marja Mills went down to that Best Western in Monroeville in search of Harper Lee. --David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Barack Obama and First in His Class
"There are many reasons to be grateful for The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’s wonderful memoir of Harper Lee and her sister….Sympathetic and respectful it may be, but The Mockingbird Next Door is no sycophantic puff piece. It is a zesty account of two women living on their own terms yet always guided by the strong moral compass instilled in them by their father…. It is also an atmospheric tale of changing small-town America; of an unlikely, intergenerational friendship between the young author and her elderly subjects; of journalistic integrity; and of grace and fortitude…. Mills doesn’t avoid prickly issues, but she approaches them obliquely and accepts partial answers. Despite her enervating illness, Mills’s writing is energetic. The Mockingbird Next Door is warm yet wistful, a lament for the books Harper Lee never wrote. It ends on an elegiac note, since by the time Mills was able to complete it, the Lees were fading fast, in separate assisted-living facilities. The world she depicts is sadly gone, but—lucky for us—she caught it just in time."
“A lot of people have a lot of ideas about what it means to be American, but here’s one more: To Kill a Mockingbird . . .That fact alone makes The Mockingbird Next Door, a memoir by Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills about her friendship with the book’s author, Harper Lee, a valuable artifact. It’s also a thoughtful, sweet-tempered, witty piece of work . . . The Mockingbird Next Door offers a winning, nuanced portrait. Indeed, given Lee’s deep privacy and advanced age, it seems unlikely we’ll ever have a better record of a remarkable American life.“
“[Marja Mills] has written an intimate, moving book about a rare talent.”
NPR Fresh Air, Maureen Corrigan:
“Charming . . . The Mockingbird Next Door offers a rich sense of the daily texture of the Lee sisters’ lives . . . The world that Mills was invited into over a decade ago has disappeared: both Alice (now 102) and Harper Lee (now 88) are in nursing homes, memories faded. Fortunately, in Mills, the sisters found a genteel family chronicler knocking at their door at the eleventh hour.”
O, The Oprah Magazine:
"Mills has done what no writer before her could: She got Harper Lee to open up about her life, her work, and why she never wrote another book.”
“A rare, surprising, and respectful look at the Lees and their milieu.”
New York Post:
“It’s a testament to one-time Chicago Tribune reporter Mills’ skill—and being in the right place at the right time—that she befriended Lee and her lawyer sister, Alice, in the author’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., and was chosen to set the record straight on Lee. A wonderful, insightful and long overdue tale about the author of one of the greatest American novels."
“Hot Type: The Mockingbird Sings: More important than these answers, however, is the voice of Lee herself—and her message, which we still need to hear.”
“I’m grateful for the time Marja Mills spent with both Lee sisters and their perceptive hometown friends . . . a gentle and evocative portrait of Monroeville today . . . Ms. Mills’ brief, charming memoir offers a rare picture of the reclusive author in her later years, a valuable addition to Harper Lee lore."
“In telling their story in The Mockingbird Next Door, Mills writes with the amazement of one who feels kissed by fate. We in turn are blessed with an intimate portrait of Lee.”
“The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented …Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.”
“Reading The Mockingbird Next Door is like opening a window into Harper Lee’s private world. As the window closes on the last page, we’re left with nostalgia for one of literature’s greatest talents and the feeling we had the very first time we read her remarkable novel.”
OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network:
“Another real discovery … This intrepid journalist … learned more about the stories behind To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee than anyone before, after or since.”
“This glimpse of a rare bird is delightful.”
“A winning and affectionate account….. The Mockingbird Next Door offers a tender look at one of our most beloved and enigmatic writers, as well as the town that inspired her.”
“Marja Mills’ engrossing first book…is an extraordinary account of roughly a decade in the day-to-day life of the reclusive writer behind one of America’s seminal texts: To Kill a Mockingbird….The result is a gentle read, best enjoyed over a mint julep, say, or some sort of sipping drink, that sheds some necessary light on a persistent literary mystery….This one-of-a-kind work may stand as the closest thing to an autobiography that we’re getting.”
Garden and Gun:
“[Mills is] a skilled writer and storyteller…The Mockingbird Next Door has a near perfect combination of story and fact.”
"For To Kill a Mockingbird fans it's a must-read."
"Mills's book is remarkable."
LibraryReads, Top 10 of July 2014
“A warm and engaging telling of the life story of Harper Lee. Like no other biography, this book offers insights directly from Lee’s point of view as shared with the journalist she and her sister embraced in friendship late in their lives.Informative and delightful!”
“As she portrays the exceptional Lee women and their modest, slow-paced world with awed precision, Mills creates a uniquely intimate, ruminative, and gently illuminating biographical memoir."
Publishers Weekly (boxed review):
“A must-read for fans…thoughtful, witty, and rich in feeling.”
“In her first book, a journalist offers a gentle, loving portrait of a reclusive writer…. Mills portrays Nelle as a grown-up Scout, the feisty and defiant heroine of Mockingbird…. [A] charming portrait of a small Southern town and its most famous resident.”
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Barack Obama and First in His Class
“The Mockingbird Next Door is quirky, honest, unpretentious, delightful, insightful, and moves at its own sweet pace. It is wholly unlike anything I’ve ever read, a reflection of both the author and her sympathetic subject. We should all be glad that Marja Mills went down to that Best Western in Monroeville in search of Harper Lee.”
Elizabeth Berg, New York Times bestselling author of Open House
“You might come to The Mockingbird Next Door to find out why Harper Lee never wrote another novel. But you’ll stay with it for its lush evocation of the South, and for the insight into what made this reclusive author the person she became. In these pages, you’ll see the book-crowded house where Harper Lee lives with her sister, Alice. You’ll go along on outings, sit in living rooms and at restaurant tables with the Lees, read faxes they and the author send back and forth, and appreciate the small and not-so-small revelations they offer: life when they were growing up with their father, who was the model for Atticus Finch; how reading sustains a person for a lifetime, how deeply embedded values don’t change just because the times do, why it’s a good idea to regularly count the ducks you feed. I suppose we all thrill to the notion of learning personal things about a deeply private but world-famous person. What we don’t necessarily expect to see is how gently, respectfully and, above all, naturally it can be done. While I appreciated getting to see and hear the ‘real’ Harper Lee, I enjoyed as well the chance to meet Marja Mills, the woman who did what no one before her had because of her guileless trustworthiness, kindness, and care.”
Andrew Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of War Letters
“In The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills offers readers a rare gift, the opportunity to know an American icon. We all know that Harper Lee made a singular impact on American culture and letters with her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. But, we have never had the opportunity to know the great lady herself. I’m so glad that she and her sister Alice Lee decided to open up their world to Mills. I promise that the real Harper Lee is more than worth the wait, and Alice Lee emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. Mills was lucky enough to be invited into the lives of the Lee sisters, and it’s a treat for all of us to join her there.”
Reading Group Guide
1. What were you, as the reader, expecting Nelle Harper Lee to be like before you read The Mockingbird Next Door? Did the author’s depiction of her surprise you?
2. In what ways were Nelle Harper Lee and her sister, Alice Finch Lee, typical Southern women of their generation? In what ways were they not?
3. Did Nelle and Alice’s relationship remind you at all of the sibling relationship at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird?
4. Were you surprised by how normal the Lees’ life seemed to be, even with the incredible success of To Kill a Mockingbird? In what ways did you feel that their daily lives were affected by that success, even decades later?
5. How did Alice and Nelle Harper live life on their own terms? Is that important to you? In what way?
6. People reading To Kill a Mockingbird today wonder why more people in the 1930’s didn’t question segregation. What issues in today’s world will garner the same response in future generations?
7. Besides the Lees, who in The Mockingbird Next Door did you find memorable?
8. If you were to read, or reread, one of the authors Nelle refers to in The Mockingbird Next Door, who would it be? Those authors include Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, Horton Foote and E. B. White, Mary Ward Brown and Kathryn Tucker Windham, and Thomas Macaulay, A. J. Pickett and Carl Carmer. (Or on a more whimsical note, Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes, coauthors of Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.)
9. The Lees were lifelong letter writers. In today’s world of emails, texts and social media, do you think the old-fashioned art of correspondence has been lost?
10. Nelle called Alice “Atticus in a Skirt.” What are the most important ways that Alice was like their father and the character he inspired, Atticus Finch?