Marja Mills’ engrossing first book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, 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.
What started out as a lucky break of a profile for the Chicago Tribune, where Mills was already a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, turned into a years-long friendship as the elderly Lee sisters — Nelle Harper Lee, who goes by Nelle, and her older sister Alice Finch Lee — opened themselves up to the writer’s curiosity. Mills even moved down to the small town of Monroeville, Alabama to learn about the community and the way of life that influenced a brilliant women and an essential book.
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: Who is Nelle Harper Lee? Why did she retreat from the spotlight? Why has she never written another book? This one-of-a-kind work may stand as the closest thing to an autobiography that we’re getting. Mills’ taken on the Lee sisters, obstensibly written with their consent — so we get more insights about their relationship and less speculation on Nelle’s sexuality — is a portrait of a lovely friendship between a searching young woman and some remarkable and intelligent sisters who have lived lives out of time. [Edited to add: or was it? Harper Lee has issued a statement that went public late on July 14th regarding the book, accessible here, where she writes: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”]
Whether authorized or unauthorized, here are some highlights regarding Nelle and her older sister Alice:
1. At the time of the book’s writing, Alice was in her 90s and still practicing law, which she continued to do so until she was 99 years old. She’s 102 years old now.
2. Truman Capote was a “psychopath,” according to Nelle. Capote and Lee had one of the great literary friendships, growing up together, collaborating on the former’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood. The friendship soured as Capote paid more attention to his myth than the people in his life. He lied easily about Nelle, claiming that her mother tried to drown her when she was young. “He courted fame and she ran from it,” Mills writes.
3. Nelle was uncomfortable with the dueling films about the writing and research of In Cold Blood that were released in 2005 and 2006, including the eventual Oscar winner, Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. This leads to the surreal scene of Mills and Nelle having a movie night during which the journalist narrated much of the film to her friend, clarifying what was going on, as the writer’s hearing was not so great. Nelle was also frustrated with the publication of the unauthorized biography Mockingbird, which she was happy to note did not get past its first printing.
4. Nelle did not trust journalists one whit. When introducing Mills around Monroeville, she notes, “She’s a contradiction. She’s a class-act journalist.” The irony, of course, is that Nelle did thorough, researched journalism when she was helping her old friend Capote with In Cold Blood.
5. Nelle’s decision to not publish another book was not as firm and dramatic as portrayed in the press. According to Mills, for years, Nelle felt that there would be a second book. The demands of public life wore on her, and as time passed, the pressure developed. She had spent time working on a true crime book about a murder spree in Alabama, but when she found out information that would put her in “personal jeopardy,” she gave up the project.
So far she hasn’t published another work. But the portrayal of Nelle’s questioning and curious intelligence, her absolute precision with words, fuels the crazy hope that maybe there’s a book out there, among her papers. Yet the Lee family is full of very good lawyers, as we know — we’ll probably never see it.