Miss Lee would not cooperate. That was the word I received from agent and her publisher when I started the research for Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. She did not want a biography written and, as I discovered almost immediately, she was busy calling friends and asking them not to talk to me or share photographs.
But practically no one can live in America and not leave a paper trail: there are yearbooks, newspaper articles, phone books and, in Miss Lee’s case, she was best friends with Truman Capote— the lonely little man from New Orleans atop his own literary wedding cake in 1950s New York City, when Harper Lee was writing Go Set a Watchman.
Capote loved attention. So if I could catch Miss Lee in his vicinity from time to time, that would help. His papers were in the New York Public library. And Miss Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams— an effusive lady from Denison, Texas, married to a tough guy journalist named Maurice Crain— had left her papers to Columbia University. I was hoping there might be clues there, as well—drafts of novels, contracts, and so on.
For the rest, for background and reinforcing hunches, I would just have to expend a lot of shoe leather interviewing people and getting the facts from them— those who would talk about her, anyway.
But why, if she didn’t want a biography written, was I pursuing her as a subject?
I get asked that a lot. It’s because I wanted to get the story of her life before it was too late. Harper Lee didn’t leave her papers anywhere. The University of Alabama, her alma mater, asked for them, but she refused. And she never served on any noteworthy foundations, or boards, or help run organizations for writers like PEN. So if readers and literary historians were going to find out how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be written and published, and who was the author behind it, I was going to have to start knocking on doors.
I’d quit my job in 2004 at an educational publishing company to research and write Miss Lee’s biography. I did as much outlining and phone calling about her early life as I could from home. But finally I needed to get to New York. My wife and I rented a room on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. It was this time of year, July, and hot. We shared a rather nasty double bed in a room that smelled of cigar smoke. And in the window overlooking the street was an air conditioner that dripped, and sounded like a jet engine idling.
We fell into a routine of stopping at Zabar’s every morning for coffee and a bagel. We made a lunch of deli items from the coolers, and caught a bus to the New York Public Library. Capote’s papers, deposited there by his partner Jack Dunphy were orderly and easy to comb through. But there was no correspondence from Miss Lee.
On the second day, though, I hit on folders containing hundreds of pages of notes. From the voice and details, it was clear that Lee was sitting a typewriter in a hotel room. She and Truman were in Holcomb, Kansas, investigating the murder of the Clutter family. “He said it would a tremendously involved job and would take two people. The crime intrigued him, and I’m intrigued with crime— and, boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep.” There were hand-drawn maps, quick impressions, and a little marginalia. This was the raw material for In Cold Blood.
The notes were from 1959 until 1965, when In Cold Blood began appearing in installments in the New Yorker. But the focus always was on Capote and his work. Still, by putting the notes in chronological order, and studying maps and photos, I could recreate Nelle and Truman, childhood friends, moving about Holcomb and Garden City, “out there” as Truman famously said on the first page of the book. Lee had read the final manuscript, too— I knew because I recognized her immaculate handwriting here and there: “People sound too much alike. Vary the dialogue.”
But for the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was hoping the answers could be found in the papers of Annie Laurie Williams at Columbia University.
They were there, all right. Williams was a record-keeper. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Nelle Harper Lee, who lived at 1539 York began submitting stories, such as “Snow on the Mountains.” Then she began turning in batches of a manuscript titled “Go Set a Watchman.” Some friends— a married couple she didn’t name— had loaned her money for a year to write uninterrupted in her cold-water flat. She later mentioned this after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. But who were they?
Williams had a client named “Michael Brown,” a Broadway lyricist. There was a photo of Lee in Williams’ papers and on the back it said, “in Michael Brown’s apartment.” Incredibly, Michael Brown was still at the same address in the phone book. I called, and that mystery, at least, was cleared up.
But before Go Set a Watchman reached the desk of Lee’s eventual editor, Tay Hohoff, at Lippincott, her manuscript underwent a first pass under the eye of Maurice Crain, Williams’ husband and partner at the agency. In a letter to another client, he wrote, “Most good books, though, are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. Mockingbird, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in….”
This happened during a period of six months of silence after Lee turned in Go Set a Watchman. Then the revised manuscript went on to Lippincott where Hohoff— a no-nonsense, Quaker-educated, chain-smoking editor took Lee in hand and guided her through two-and-a-half years of revisions.
Lee liked to tell a story to high school English classes in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama about the moment she lost hope.
One night, in 1959, after working for hours on a revision, she walked over to her apartment window on York Avenue, and threw the entire draft outside into the snow. Then she called Hohoff, and tearfully explained what she’d done. Hohoff told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages. Feeling exhausted, Lee bundled up and went out into the darkness, “since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer… I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse.”
The transformation of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman into the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of Hohoff recrafting the novel, showcasing a strong, highly moral protagonist that reflected both her business sense as an editor, and her values as a Quaker. The year To Kill a Mockingbird was finished, 1959, Hohoff published her biography, A Ministry to Man: The Life of John Lovejoy Elliot. Elliot was killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois during an attack on his printing shop because of his editorials condemning slavery.
So Go Set a Watchman went through several hands before it appeared as To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s talk of other manuscripts— “The Long Goodbye,” and “The Reverend,” for instance— both of which I came across.
But people close to Harper Lee would be wise not to publish them.