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Ten things you didn’t know about Harper Lee

Harper Lee
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Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama.

Like Scout, the iconic protagonist from her debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee was a tomboy as a child.

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She began studying law at the University of Alabama but six months before finishing she moved to New York to pursue her dreams of a literary career.

Harper Lee in 1963. Photo: Getty
Harper Lee in 1963. Photo: Getty

Her debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

It became an instant classic – the touching tale of a white American lawyer defending an African-American man in the 1930s, when racial tensions were high.

Lee also played a key role in researching another revered American novel, In Cold Blood, written by Truman Capote, her childhood friend.

She accompanied Capote to Holcombe, Kansas, in 1959 to work on the book, which was a harrowing account of the murders of a farming family.

While there has always been speculation Capote helped Lee write To Kill a Mockingbird, this was disputed in Charles J Shields 2006 biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Unfortunately, Lee and Capote eventually fell out because Capote was envious of Lee’s Pulitzer, according to Lee’s sister. It is rumoured Lee also felt Capote never gave her enough credit for the work she did on In Cold Blood.

The movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird was also a great success. In 1963 it won the Academy Award for best picture and Gregory Peck, who played Atticus, was named best actor while screenwriter Horton Foote won for his adaptation.

In a surprise move last year, Lee released what was billed as a sequel to Mockingbird, a book titled Go Set a Watchman.

Much to the shock of fans, the book portrayed the beloved character of Atticus as a segregationist.

Go Set a Watchman was not what fans had hoped for. Photo: Getty
Go Set a Watchman was not what fans had hoped for. Photo: Getty

Many later suggested Watchman was not a sequel but rather a first draft of Mockingbird that should never have been published.

Friends of Lee’s suggested lawyer Tonja Carter had coerced Lee into publishing Watchman after discovering the manuscript while working for Lee in 2014.

An inquiry conducted by the Alabama Department of Human Resources found the allegations were unfounded.

10 things you didn’t know about Harper Lee

• When she first moved to New York, Lee worked as a ticket agent for an airline until her friends Michael and Joy Brown gave her money for Christmas – enough to quit her job and spend an entire year writing.

• Despite its widespread success, Mockingbird has been banned several times. The most notable was in 1966 when it was banned by the Hanover County School Board in Virginia for being “immoral literature”. Lee wrote a fiery response in which she wondered “if any of [the board members] can read”.

• Lee went by her middle name because she was concerned her first name, Nelle, would be mispronounced as “Nellie,” not “Nell”.

• Lee based the Mockingbird character Dill on Truman Capote. He in turn used her as the basis for the character Idabel Thompkins in his 1948 novel Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Toby Jones as Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee in the film Infamous.
Toby Jones as Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee in the film Infamous.

• In the 1970s and 80s Lee began writing her own true crime book, but stopped when she uncovered information that she felt put her in personal jeopardy.

• Although she originally wanted actor Spencer Tracy to play Atticus, Lee became friends with actor Gregory Peck after he signed on to appear in the film. Peck passed away in 2003.

• In 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit against her hometown’s Monroe County Heritage Museum, claiming the museum was selling unlicensed merchandise, such as To Kill a Mockingbird beverage coasters. The case was settled in 2014 under confidential terms.

• Lee has been portrayed on screen by actresses Sandra Bullock and Catherine Keener.

• Although Mockingbird made her very wealthy (her net worth is estimated to be around US$35 million), Lee lived a frugal life with her older sister, Alice. She regularly travelled by bus, not taxi, and her New York apartment was cold water only.

• In 1961, she broke her reclusive streak to contribute a recipe to a cookbook for her crackling cornbread. You can read the recipe here – it comes with a healthy side of dry humour.

– with ABC

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