Harper Lee: Recluse
It wasn't immediately clear that Harper Lee would withdraw from public life as thoroughly as she did. In the years following To Kill A Mockingbird publication, she wrote a handful of essays for magazines like Vogue and McCall's. She also worked (uncredited) on another American classic, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research a story he was working on about the murders of a wealthy farming family, the Clutters. Capote recalled, "I went with a lifelong friend, Harper Lee. She is a gifted woman, courageous, and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour."10Lee painstakingly typed hundreds of pages of notes for Capote's non-fiction narrative. In Cold Blood was published in 1966, the same year that Lee was inducted into the National Council on the Arts. The book's success made Capote a literary superstar. While Lee retreated from the spotlight, Capote craved it. Their friendship fell apart as he squandered his health and talent on drugs, alcohol, and a glamorous social scene. By the time Capote died in 1984 at the age of 59, Lee had not heard from him in years.
Harper Lee has never published another book. She worked for several years on a non-fiction book about a notorious murder in Alabama, but finally set the project aside. She makes occasional public appearances, notably at an annual University of Alabama luncheon that honors students. In 2006, Lee was enticed to break her decades-long unpublished streak by—who else?—Oprah Winfrey, and penned an essay on her love of books for O Magazine. She is frequently seen out and about in her Alabama town, but friends guard her privacy as fiercely as she does, and remain reluctant to speak with reporters or biographers about Lee's life.
Her book, however, is still a relevant cultural touchstone. In 2001, the city of Chicago embarked on a campaign to get every adult to read Mockingbird, and even handed out little pins emblazoned with mockingbirds so participants could spot each other. In 1999, Library Journal voted Mockingbird the best book of the 20th century. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
At an award ceremony a few years ago, at which Lee was being honored, she took her place at the podium and said, "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."11Then she sat back down. We know this much: Harper Lee ain't no fool. For nearly 50 years, she has put aside her own ego and maintained a dignified silence so that the message of her book could speak for itself. And, seriously—if you had written To Kill A Mockingbird, what more would you need to say?