Now that J.D. Salinger is gone, Harper Lee might be the most famous literary recluse in the United States.
In 1960, Lee published the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, still one of the best-loved American books and required reading in 70 percent of U.S. school systems.
During the same period, she helped Truman Capote research In Cold Blood, started work on another novel and helped publicize the 1962 movie adaptation of Mockingbird (starring Gregory Peck).
By 1965, however, she had stopped appearing publicly and refused to grant interviews. She has never published another book.
So, in 2001, when Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills was sent to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to get background on the town and its most famous resident, she wasn’t expecting to meet the author.
To her surprise, when she rang Lee’s doorbell, she was greeted by her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, who at the time was 89 and still practicing law every day. They had a long, comfortable chat, and the next day, Mills was startled to receive a phone call from Alice’s sister, whose full name is Nelle Harper Lee (Nelle to her friends).
“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard: ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz,’ ” Mills writes.
The two sisters and the journalist became close. By 2004, Mills, who suffers from lupus, was experiencing so much pain and fatigue that she could no longer work at the Tribune, and she decided to spend more time in Monroeville researching the Lees.
Alice and Nelle suggested that the owner of the house next door to theirs might be willing to put it up for rent.
Mills moved into the house — complete with a deer head, a stuffed bobcat and another unidentifiable “crouching creature” — and stayed for more than a year.
The Mockingbird Next Door details the time Mills spent with the Lees and their friends, making daily expeditions to feed the ducks, fishing for catfish with hot-dog chunks as bait, going to the Laundromat and drinking coffee in Mills’ kitchen.
In a surprise turn of events this week, however, Lee released a letter claiming that she never authorized Mills to publish anything about her.
The book is as far from an expose as one can get. It’s a respectful and clear-eyed account that sticks to the apparent boundaries that Lee set — which means that, among other things, it records only Lee’s life in Monroeville, not in New York, where she continued to spend several months a year for many years.
Not that it is sugar-coated.
Lee, 88, comes across as prickly, at best, and capable of casual barbed remarks such as one about Capote, her former friend: “Truman was a psychopath, honey.”
Mills counts herself lucky not to have been subjected to the late-night, alcohol-fueled rants that many of Lee’s friends said they have endured.
The book, despite its subject’s complaints, should be a treat for anyone who has longed to get closer to Lee.