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Alabama author Nelle Harper Lee, whose celebrated first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” earned her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a perennial spot on many school reading lists, died this morning at the age of 89.
Lee passed away during the night at an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, her family members and publisher, HarperCollins, confirmed. “America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors,” Hank Conner, Lee’s nephew, said in a statement. “We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”
Lee — who chose to go by Harper on her book cover to avoid the press pronouncing her first name as Nellie — was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee’s four children. After graduating from the University of Alabama, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the campus humor magazine Rammer Jammer, she headed to New York City in 1949 to become a writer.
It was there that, after seven years and a string of odd jobs, including working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines, Lee’s friends Joy Brown and Michael Brown offered her a life-changing Christmas present: funds equivalent to a year’s salary, which would allow her to write full time. The short stories Lee developed in that time evolved into a manuscript, which, guided by editor Tay Hohoff at J.B. Lippincott, became “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960).
The novel, which remains Lee’s most indelible work, focuses on the childhood of Scout Finch, a young girl trying to navigate the strict codes of manners in the Depression-era South. At a time when water fountains and buses in Alabama were still segregated, it was also a powerful stand against the injustice of Jim Crow laws and the deep-seated racism of the South, delivered in lyrical, readable prose.
“It is and it isn’t autobiographical,” Lee told The New York Herald Tribune about the novel in 1962. She based the town of Maycomb on Monroeville and drew many of her characters from her experience. Her father, who went by A.C., served as the model for Atticus Finch, the lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird” whose doomed quest to defend a black man unjustly accused of rape is at the crux of the novel. (Lee told The Herald Tribune that Finch and her father were alike “in character and — the South has a good word for this — in disposition.”) The novel’s Dill, an out-of-town visitor, was a fictionalized version of the writer Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend. In the months leading up to the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee went to Kansas to help Capote research his nonfiction opus, “In Cold Blood” (1965).
The runaway success of her book took Lee by surprise, as did her newfound literary celebrity. She won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1961, and a film adaptation was released in 1962. In the years after the book was published, with readers clamoring for a follow-up, she became more withdrawn, eventually flatly turning down almost all requests for press appearances and interviews.
Lee didn’t release a second novel until 2015, when her publisher announced plans to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” a novel that, according to her lawyer Tonja Carter, was attached to the original manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The decision from Lee, who had repeatedly said she wouldn’t publish another book, sparked speculation about her mental state. An investigation by the Alabama Department of Human Resources concluded that she was fit to conduct her own affairs.
For the last 50 years of her life, her portrayal in the press was that of a Salingerian recluse, holed up in her hometown. But she maintained an active social life outside the media spotlight, splitting her time between an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Monroeville. In her hometown, you could often find her at David’s Catfish House, the local golf course or the First United Methodist Church, where she was an active member.
Lee’s relationship with Monroeville, a town of about 6,300 residents that she singlehandedly transformed into Alabama’s literary capital, was a complicated one. Though the town celebrated its most famous resident’s accomplishments — the downtown features such establishments as Radley’s Fountain Grill and the Maycomb Mall — she largely declined to participate in events like the annual staged performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She sued the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which opened to the public in 1968, for trading on the characters of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (The suit was later settled.) Yet last year, after a publishing company refused to extend the performance rights of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” play to the Monroeville production, she ended the dispute by starting a nonprofit company that published a play based on the book, ensuring the show could go on.
After a stroke in 2007, Lee was more restricted in her activities and moved into the assisted living facility where she resided until her death. Alice Lee, who served as her sister’s gatekeeper and longtime companion, died in 2014 at the age of 103. Harper Lee never had children; she is survived by her nephew and other family members. And, of course, her many, many readers.