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#BornThisDay: Writer, Harper Lee


Photo from CBS News via YouTube

April 28, 1926– Nell Harper Lee:

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Seemingly impossible, I did not read To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) as a young person, and I didn’t even see the film until 2007, and then only at The Husband’s insistence. I certainly would have been better briefed for adulthood if I had encountered this American novel in my early teens rather than my mid-50s.

Harper Lee was a very quiet nonconformist. Her cold shoulder to any celebrity is challenging to conceive in today’s culture, especially for a popular writer. Lee had hoped her famous book would meet a “quick and merciful death”. Instead, it achieved immortality, certainly the most popular American novel of the 20th century. The film version, with a perfect screenplay by Horton Foote, is so spot on that the film and the book have merged in most peoples’ brains.

In 1950, as a young frumpy girl, fresh from the University Of Alabama, minus her law degree, Lee moved to NYC from her hometown of Monroeville. She didn’t think she was going to accomplish anything, she was just renewing her friendship with her childhood buddy Truman Capote. She said she was maybe going to write a book. She did, and the book was published in 1960. Lee became very famous.

That book is a barely disguised version of her Alabama family and Monroeville’s Southern racial consciousness, but it is also very much about Lee and Capote, childhood chums who become personally and artistically linked legends. The two kids were precocious with little in common with the other young people in the town. Lee was too rough for the girls, and Capote was too soft for the boys. They each had emotionally remote mothers. Capote’s mother was a self-centered social climber; Lee’s mother suffered from deep depression. Capote’s father attempted to seduce Lee when she was in her teens, and she punched him in the nose. Capote hated Lee’s gossipy mother, and later used her as the basis of his story Mrs. Busybody.

Through the decades, one of the most asked questions about Lee was about her sexual orientation. Lee always kept the answer hidden from the public, but her annoyance with the question only added to the curiosity. She was socially awkward and shy. She left no diaries or love letters revealing her romantic interests. However, there are tales of Lee’s unrequited crush on married literary agent Maurice Crain, who encouraged her to try writing a novel after reading several of her short stories.

Like so many Harper Lee fans, I have sometimes speculated that she was a lesbian, because she seems gay to me, but mostly because of how tough it was for any gay Americans in the 1950s, with McCarthyism as a tool for taking on not only Communists but also the activities of suspected homos through near constant police harassment and countless raids on gay bars.

The primary reason her readers speculate about Lee’s possible gayness is because of her much loved gender-nonconforming fictional characters Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scout is a tomboy and Dill is a little effeminate lad, which inextricably connected gay readers to the novel and Lee. Young gay readers came away from the novel feeling that there was someone else like him or her, either Scout or her friend Dill. So loved and lauded are Scout and Dill in the American gay literary canon that To Kill a Mockingbird is ranked 67th on the Publishing Triangle’s list of The 100 Best Lesbian And Gay Novels.

If Lee is to be judged by the company she kept, her childhood friend Capote, the writer of Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and In Cold Blood (1966) was notoriously gay, and he was the inspiration for the character of Dill.

In winter 1960, Lee worked with Capote on the New Yorker article that he was writing about the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family on their farm and the impact of the killings on their small Kansas community. Lee and Capote went to Kansas to interview townspeople, and the family and friends of the Clutters, along with the investigators working on the crime. Working as Capote’s research assistant, Lee helped conduct the interviews, reaching out to the locals using her unpretentious manner. Capote’s flamboyant personality made it harder to reach out to the people in the town.

Via YouTube

While Lee and Capote were in Kansas, the suspected killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were captured and returned to Kansas for questioning. The two old friends interviewed the suspects after they were arraigned in January 1960. They then returned to NYC and Lee continued to work on the manuscript for her own first novel while Capote started working on the article that became his nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. They returned to Kansas for the murder trial in March. A few months later, Lee turned over all of her notes about the murder, the victims, the killers, the local community and more to Capote. Many critics suspected that Lee had a larger role in shaping the manuscript that became Capote’s most famous work.

Lee had moved to NYC in 1949 to be a writer, but perhaps also, like so many of us, to be more authentic and open. She only returned to Monroeville permanently after suffering a stroke in 2007.

Lee had wry sense of irony. She was the editor of the humor magazine at the University Of Alabama. When told that her book had great appeal for children, Lee stated:

“But I hate children. I can’t stand them.”

Lee became a great friend to Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the ultimate father, Atticus Finch, in the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. She remained close to the actor’s family after his passing. Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named for her. In 2005, Lee was portrayed on film twice, in two completely different Capote bio-pics, by Catherine Keener in Capote (Oscar nomination), and Sandra Bullock in Infamous.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the first of several high honors. She received the National Medal Of Arts, presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2010.

In 2013, Lee was forced to file a lawsuit to regain the copyright to To Kill A Mockingbird, seeking damages from the estate of her former literary agent. Lee claimed that the agent had “engaged in a scheme to dupe” her into assigning him the copyright on the book in 2007, when her hearing and eyesight were in decline, and she was residing in an assisted-living facility after having suffered a stroke.

She finished her first novel in 1955 and she waited five years to publish it on the advice of her editor who worried it would be too provocative. Lee’s second novel, Go Set A Watchman was published in July 2016, 55 years after her first. It was controversially published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, although it has been confirmed that it really was the first draft of her famous novel. Go Set A Watchman is set some 20 years after the first book, with Scout returning as an adult from NYC to visit her father in Alabama. It received nearly unanimous bad reviews and much talk about the revelation of the racism of its main characters, and much speculation about the health and reasoning powers of Lee for allowing it to be published.  Personally, I chose to skip it altogether and reread To Kill A Mockingbird instead.

Lee lived a quiet life after she returned to Monroeville, up until she left this world last spring. She stayed active in her church and community, moving easily around the town, protected from the press and unwanted fans by her neighbors. She avoided anything to do with her popular novel (still selling a million copies a year and having never been out of print).

The public will never know if Lee was gay or straight.  She has taken the answer about her sexual orientation to her grave, and may we all rest in peace with it.

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