Tag Archives: Nelle Harper Lee

Lee’s Gift

Forward to this 2015 release.

This essay was originally published on my earlier website (which is still up, but not maintained) to commemorate a 50-yr and a 83-yr anniversary, in January, 2012. Given the recent announcement that a sequel may come out this coming summer … [New York Times — Author to publish second novel] well, I thought it appropriate to re-publish the essay on this site. You, dear reader, will note that it will be in need of some factual updating. That is, if reports of a sequel turn out to be true.


A shy bookish gal from a small town in Alabama, Nelle Lee, is trying to “make it” in the big city of New York in the 1950s.  Her dream was to make it as a writer.  Now, seven years later, she struggles with an odd collection of unpublished short biographical sketches while working various menial jobs, including employment as a reservationist for Eastern Airlines.

Introverted and reserved, she has managed to make a few friends, including a Broadway composer, Michael Brown, and his wife, Joy.  Magic was about to happen.  But they didn’t know it.




Nelle was born to attorney Amasa Lee and Frances (nee: Finch) Lee, their fourth and last child, in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926.  Always an outsider and a tomboy, she took to the books and fell in love with literature at a young age.  She was convinced that she could become a writer, although she tried her hand at law school and a year at Oxford in England before deciding for sure what she would try to do.  Everywhere she went, she was ever the loner and individualist, focusing on her studies and showing no interest in being anything like a southern belle.

One can only imagine how difficult it was for such a girl in New York.  Despite steady encouragement from her friends, the Browns — and from another emerging writer who had achieved some renown and happened to be from her home town and same school, “Bulldog” Persons — young Miss Lee had not yet completed any work of significance.  She shared her character sketches with her friends, and they were impressed.  But her regular day jobs got in the way of making significant progress on a complete story.

The Brown’s major gift to Miss Lee came at Christmas, 1956.  Michael Brown, who had written the tune Lizzie Borden for a play a few years before, had earned a sizable fee for getting some scores accepted.  His wife suggested that they use part of the money to allow Miss Lee to take a year off from work and focus on her writing.  And so he did.  And so she did.

Lee got a literary agent and got to work, completing a manuscript oddly titled “Atticus”, a somewhat autobiographical story centered around characters and events of a small southern town, not unlike her own hometown of Monroeville.  One of the major characters in the story, a boy named Dill, was based on her old hometown friend “Bulldog” Persons.

Through multiple rejections Lee grew more and more frustrated and unsure of herself.  She soldiered on, with the support of her friends the Browns and Bulldog, and the encouragement of her agent.  She continued to work on the script and waited through multiple publisher reviews … and rejections.

Finally, the book was published in 1960, by Lippencott & Company.  For a shy girl from a small town in the south, the reaction of the country was overwhelming.  She was stunned into numbness.  As one of the most moving and appreciated books in American history, it immediately resonated with readers across the country and around the world.  Millions and millions were sold.  In short order she won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and the book was made into a movie which won three Academy Awards … and still ranks as the 25th best American movie of all time.

The novel itself has since been named the Best American Novel of the 20thcentury by Library Journal.

Miss Nelle Lee is known to us as Harper Lee, as she has gone by her middle name since mid-adulthood.  Her only novel was renamed by the publisher: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In a fortuitous historical coincidence, the book and the movie burst onto the national and world scene at the same time as the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr and others; it coincided with the brave voting registration drives and the Freedom Riders.

“Bulldog” Persons’ real first name was unusual: Truman.  For his last name he took the nom de plume Capote.  When the book was published, but before anyone knew how popular it would become, Lee traveled to Kansas with him to do research for a story that would turn into one his most famous works: In Cold Blood.  For all practical purposes, it was the closest she came to writing again.  Only a couple of essays.

Lee’s last public interview was March, 1964.  Only one story, yet she left us with so much.  The story still moves us today.

The role of Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, gave him the singular role for which he will be remembered forever.  The American Film Institute named the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird  the top film hero of the last 100 years.  Lee and Peck remained close the rest of his life, until he died in 2003.  Several of his grand children have Lee in their names.

The movie’s character young Scout Finch (the autobiographical Lee, with the same last name as Lee’s mother) was played by 10-year old Mary Badham.  At the time, she was the youngest ever to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor or Actress.  Like Lee, she remained largely out of public view since then.  During the movie she formed a lifelong friendship with the warm father-figure of Gregory Peck.  They stayed in regular communication until his death; she always called him “Atticus.”

The movie gave us the first screen appearance of Robert Duval.  Near the end of the movie, an odd looking young man appears, and Scout says: “Hey Boo.”  Duval’s smile is touching.  He played mentally challenged and kindly Arthur “Boo” Radley.

How do you write a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird?  Unimaginable that such an oeuvre could be a first effort!  How do you write another story, another novel?  Harper Lee tried a few times, but the bar was too high.  All those efforts are filed under “U” for unfinished.  Harper Lee was a shooting star, a comet who lit up our sky, and gave us a tremendous story for the ages.  And then she was gone.  She has lived a relatively reclusive life since then, privately splitting her time between New York with her sister, and her old hometown, Monroeville, Alabama.

Thank you to the Browns, whose gift of friendship, encouragement and financial support made Harper Lee’s manuscript completion and publication possible.  And Thank you Harper Lee.  Thank you for overcoming your shyness and insecurity long enough to hang in there to give us the gift of To Kill a Mockingbird, which allowed us to see ourselves so much better.


“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted — if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
— Atticus Finch (in Haper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”)


Joe Girard © 2012


[1] Lizzie Borden, by Michael Brown: http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/lizziebo.htm

[2] This essay was to jointly commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie and the 83rd anniversary of Dr King’s birth.

January 2012.

February 2015 note: I hope this is not a hoax.  How surprising that this “new” book was actually written first!  No wonder it took Ms. Lee so long to come out with “To Kill a Mockingbird.”