July 17, 2014

Harper Lee: new biography is unauthorized


Harper Lee, with a lesser human. (via Wikimedia)

Harper Lee, with a lesser human. (via Wikimedia)

I really thought people would have learned by now.

It’s a really bad idea to mess with Harper Lee. She’s Michael Jordan, everyone else is Byron Russell and it’s Game 6 every day. If she were a Game of Thrones character, the series would be over because she would have won already. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and now she wants to be left alone. But people never learn.

The latest in the line of people to get crossed-over is Marja Mills, writer of The Mockingbird Next Door. According to The Guardian, the book is about Mills’ time—you guessed it—living next to Lee and her sister. Both the author and publisher claim that Lee authorized the book’s writing and publication. Lee, unsurprisingly, does not agree.

In 2011, via her lawyers, she came out against the book:

“Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.”

After that, well, Mills probably made a mistake. Her literary agent told The New York Times that she had the written consent of Lee’s sister, and (this is where they messed up) “prior to Harper Lee’s stroke in 2007, she had the verbal support of Harper Lee.”

It is not a good plan, when accused of possible wrongdoing, to turn around and blame the accuser’s accusation on the fact that they had a stroke and could not remember or changed their minds thereafter. This goes doubly when the person you’re dealing with is the author of one of the most  beloved books in the history of American literature.

On Monday, the eve of the book’s U.S. publication, Lee spoke out again. Or rather, she took a deep breath and spit fire all over the place. Her letter, published on Entertainment Weekly’s website, is eviscerating:

“Normally, I would not respond to any questions about books written on my life. Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja’s true mission; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.”

Not only does she reiterate her lack of involvement with the book, she says that the book’s premise is essentially untrue, and that Mills took advantage of her older sister in order to do all of this in the first place. “I understand that Ms. Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book,” she writes. “My sister would have been 100 years old at the time.”

As if it wasn’t clear already, she says in closing, “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

Neither the publisher nor the author has responded to Lee’s letter. It’s unclear what any of the involved parties will do going forward. I’m confident in only one thing: Lee’s not backing down from the fight.

Correction: Mills and her publisher did, in fact, respond to Lee’s letter by releasing a statement and a letter from Alice Lee which reiterated her and Harper’s support for the book. This letter also suggests that a statement objecting to the book ostensibly written by Harper Lee in 2011 did not originate from the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. A full statement from Mills is below:

July 15, 2014

To Whom It May Concern:

I can only speak to the truth, that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville.  The stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves.  The written letter I have from Alice Lee, which she sent May 2011 in response to the original letter issued in Nelle’s name, makes clear that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice gave me their blessing. In regard to the writing and release of Nelle Harper Lee’s April 2011 statement about my book, Alice Lee (Alice Lee practiced law until she was 100 years old) wrote: “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.”

In addition, Nelle’s good friend, Tom Butts, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the course of writing this book and who remains a friend to this day, is also on the record in support of my work: “There has been a growing trusting friendship between Miss Mills and Nelle Harper Lee and her sister Alice since she came here to do a story for the Chicago Tribune.  The two sisters welcomed Miss Mills to live next door to them as she researched her book.  Both sisters, as well as friends and relatives they introduced to Miss Mills, shared stories of their lives and this area for her book.  I observed some of this and participated in story-telling.  They were pleased that Miss Mills was going to preserve these stories in a book. They wanted to set the record straight in regard to rumors and myths that had circulated about themselves, their family and the novel.  All in all the friendship was an open and happy experience for all concerned.  Miss Mills was conscientious and careful to discuss with them material she planned to use in her book and was often told just to use her judgment.”

Alice Lee’s original letter to me is attached here, along with a typed transcript of its text.

I am so grateful for my time with the Lee sisters. It was the honor of my life when they both gave me their blessing to write my book.

Marja Mills