HomeArts & LitChicago Journalist Uncovers the Literary Mystery of Harper Lee

Chicago Journalist Uncovers the Literary Mystery of Harper Lee

Marja Mills’ new book The Mockingbird Next Door offers an inside look at the reclusive writer and her life in Monroeville, Alabama.

The inquiry from Penguin Press arrived quietly in my inbox in June. The subject was “New book about Harper Lee.” Stories of Lee suing her hometown museum and To Kill A Mockingbird becoming an e-book had recently been in the news, and I worried that readers were getting Mockingbird fatigue. Yes, they still loved the book and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the movie version, but were they still curious about now 88-year-old Lee and the life she was living in Monroeville?

Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and has been in an assisted living facility since. Her sister, Alice, now 102, is in better condition and still practiced law in town two years ago. Mills first traveled to Monroeville in 2001 when Chicago picked To Kill A Mockingbird for its city-wide reading program. She knocked on the Lees door before heading out of town just to be able to tell her editor she’d tried. To her surprise, Alice invited her in. Mills was just writing an article at the time, but after spending several years off and on in Monroeville, she collected plenty of material for a book.

I didn’t know at what point Nelle would want to be much involved, but Alice was a remarkable story in her own right. As she entered her tenth decade and our rapport grew, she was ready to talk candidly. Friends of the Lees predicted that Alice would be steadfast in her view of my undertaking and Nelle would run hot and cool on her enthusiasm for it.” – Chapter Ten

the_mockingbird_next_doorFans of Mockingbird and those who remain event a tiny bit curious about the elusive Harper Lee will want to read The Mockingbird Next Door. It’s clear that Mills befriended Alice first, with younger sister Harper — who goes by her first name Nelle at home — taking longer to warm up to the out-of-town reporter. From what Mills writes, Alice respected her sister’s desperate need for privacy all those years but also saw an equal need for preserving the Lee family’s legacy and stories. Why she trusted Mills with the job remains a mystery, but from reading the book there’s no doubt that Mills took the task seriously.

Since Mockingbird‘s publication in the summer of 1960, many a journalist has made the trek to to Monroeville hoping to get a glimpse of Harper Lee. In the early days, she obliged, signing autographs, giving interviews and doing all the things a budding writer is supposed to do to publicize her book. According to Mills, Lee became disillusioned over the decades as people took advantage of her, misquoted her and made assumptions about her family, sexuality and friendship with Truman Capote.

You could say Mills was in the right place at the right time. After Alice opened the door to her, she decided to stay a few extra days in Monroeville. The next day, Mills’ phone rang at the Best Western. It was Harper Lee. “You’ve made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet,” the famous writer suggested. Nelle came over to her hotel room the next day. According to Mills, they hit it off and Nelle complimented and hugged her before leaving.

Based on what I’d read, I expected either someone of great reserve or perhaps someone angry about my being in town and unafraid to express her displeasure. She was neither. Her voice had a pleasant lilt, and although she was reserved while we exchanged greetings, as soon as we began talking she came across as down-to-earth and self-assured.” – Mills on Harper Lee, Chapter Three

By 2004, Mills rented the house next door to the sisters and spent the next 18 months there with their blessing. When Nelle was in town (she still spent half the year in New York), they chatted over coffee at McDonald’s, fed the ducks at her favorite pond and went to dinner with friends. Slowly, Nelle let Mills turn on the tape recorder and start to interview her about writing To Kill A Mockingbird, the fame it brought her, what it was like to watch Capote’s downfall, her longtime friendship with Gregory Peck, and how she felt about still being under public scrutiny more than 50 years later.

Alice also filled Mills (pictured) in at length on their parents, including the mental health of their mother, upbringing and Nelle’s life, wanting to set the record straight on distorted assumptions that had been allowed to exist for too long. Touching moments include Mills watching the 2005 film “Capote” with Nelle. Since she’s hard of hearing and the volume on the television couldn’t be turned up nearly loud enough, Mills filled Nelle in on Catherine Keener’s lines “telling the Harper Lee in the room what the Harper Lee in the car said.”

Mills experiences many other surreal moments throughout the book, wanting to pinch herself to be sure she’s really sitting down and talking to the legend of Harper Lee while doing laundry, sipping coffee or driving the back roads of Monroe County. She opens herself up to the Lees as well, sharing her own struggle with lupus and desire to adopt a child. There’s no doubt that Mills forged a friendship with the Lees, one that continued with annual visits and lots of letters and faxes during the years she was back in Chicago writing the book. Mills notes that Nelle’s condition worsened and her memory failed after the stroke. “By the time I saw her a couple of visits later, she was not the Nelle I knew,” she writes toward the end.

This may explain why the book is under some controversy right now. Lee issued a statement on July 14 — the day before Mockingbird Next Door‘s release date — saying she did not willingly participate in Mills’ book. Mills is defending herself with a 2011 letter from Alice that reads “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” 

In my opinion, the current controversy is only more proof that the Lee sisters’ story needed to be told and recorded before it was too late. In this case, the older and wiser Alice knew best, and Mills arrived on her doorstep just in time.

Literary Friday, Edi
Beer & Brats in
  • SSS / July 26, 2014

    I am proud to know Marja Mills and have read her book and recommend it highly to anyone interested in literature and authors and finding out more about the process of writing a book about a famous person.

    • Thayer Eldridge / February 28, 2020

      I have a letter with reference to Nell and a visit to her friend Lucille in Vermont. Feb 11, 1980.

  • dan jacoby / February 28, 2020

    Ive read Ms Mills’ book on Nell twice and think its is a marvel

  • joann anderson heet / July 23, 2020

    here it is 8:15 in the morning and haven’t slept all night, watching the movie in cold blood for the fifth time since it came out. then opened my laptop and started reading about Truman, then harper, than just kept on reading and was enthralled with their lives. I myself have had a very colorful life up to the age of which I am now at 75, and my mind keeps so many memories. I’ve always wanted to write a book about my own life, but not being famous or having the credentials or degree’s , I assume no publisher would even give me a thought. oh well its always been in the back of my mind, and I keep telling myself maybe one day, but the days just pass its forgotten again till next time around. anyway, it was swell reading so much information about such wonderful writers.
    p.s. sorry about my penmanship, I know better but I wanted to make this quick.