Harper Lee, now age eighty-eight and long out of the public eye, is the legendarily mysterious author of the iconic 1961 novel of southern racial injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird. It inspired an equally beloved film with Gregory Peck as heroic small town lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman.
Lee unabashedly based the Finch character on her father, a revered small town attorney of impeccable integrity. Reputedly the closest clone of old Mr. Lee was Harper’s older sister, Alice Lee, sometimes called “Atticus in a skirt,” and herself an attorney since 1944 who became Alabama’s oldest female lawyer, practicing well into her nineties, wearing tennis shoes with suits. Alice, to whom Harper dedicated her book, along with their father, died earlier this month, age 103.
The two women were what earlier generations called spinster sisters, who lived together for most of the last half century at their family home in Monroeville, Alabama, until both went into separate retirement homes due to health. Like her devoutly old-fashioned Methodist father, a teetotaler said to be “as dry as an old bleached bone,” Alice was a lifelong, church-going Methodist and lay leader who championed civil rights, serving First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, where the Lees worshipped since the early part of the last century.
Old Mr. Lee had not embraced integration until late in life and opposed social justice preaching in his church. But during the 1960s, when many southern white churches were literally barring their doors to blacks, Alice told ushers to seat any black visitors next to her. She served as a delegate at local and national Methodist conventions for decades, taught Sunday school, supplemented the salaries of pastors, and helped raise money for countless Methodist philanthropies.
Alice was financially comfortable as a lawyer, and Harper of course has made many millions from her best selling novel, after which she largely disappeared from public life, never again publishing a book. But the sisters lived modestly in an ordinary house where their father spent his final years.
“Her insight was absolutely invaluable because her motives were always true,” a Methodist friend said of Alice to the United Methodist News Service. Harper, if not as ardently committed to the church as her sister and father, also maintained a lifelong tie to Methodism and her family’s congregation, attending when not staying at her second home in New York. She had attended a Methodist women’s college, attending daily chapel, and hearing from Methodist missionaries returned from wartime China, reporting Japanese atrocities.
When collaborating with her childhood friend Truman Capote in Kansas on research for In Cold Blood, Harper understood the Methodist piety of the murdered Clutter family, headed by a churchgoing patriarch like her father, although lacking his warmth. Harper, like her sister, reputedly was generous to their church in Monroeville and sometimes distributed her gifts anonymously through the church to worthy beneficiaries. She was also close friends with her former pastor, who, presumably with his wife’s consent, would accompany Harper to Atlantic City for gambling adventures, an unusual hobby for Methodist clergy. He sometimes would guest preach at a United Methodist church Harper attended on Park Avenue during her Manhattan sojourns every year.
That retired pastor friend, with Alice and Harper, became a leading figure in a controversial book published earlier this year, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, by former Chicago Tribune writer Marja Mills. In 2001, while writing a feature on Harper for the Tribune, she was pleasantly surprised when Alice answered the door and invited her in. Evidently charmed by the young woman journalist, Alice encouraged her reclusive sister to meet Mills, who was also presumably impressed.
Harper and Alice brought Mills into their small town social set, including the retired Methodist minister, who spoke affectionately but candidly to Mills about Harper, who had her demons, which apparently included occasional angry late night drunk dials. The minister warned her, if ever the recipient, not to overreact. He also said he honestly did not know the sexual orientation of Harper, who never married and, he admitted, had some masculine mannerisms.
Reputedly at their encouragement, Mills moved from Chicago to a house next door to the Lees, joining in the mundane daily routines of two elderly sisters, eating with them at diners, feeding the ducks, and going for Sunday drives. Mills insists Harper knew she was writing a book about her and was offering her full cooperation.
But in 2011 Harper denounced the impending book, denying she had ever cooperated, a claim she supposedly reiterated earlier this year, when a statement bearing her name insisted: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
Reacting to the 2011 letter, Alice 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.” And Harper countered that her much older sister had her own memory problems. Advancing age, and Harper’s stroke, had sadly forced the sisters into separate care facilities. Their Methodist minister friend agreed that Harper had cooperated with Mills.
Mills’ book, with or without Harper’s consent, offers no bombshells about the Lees, who managed to guard their privacy even in their ongoing social contact with Mills. If Mills aimed to unwrap the mystery of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, she largely failed. Instead, her book confirmed that the Lees were accomplished, unpretentious women content with their lifelong friends, church and town where their legendary father had raised them, and where he had inspired the character of Atticus Finch.
Every noon while she lived next to the Lees in Monroeville, Mills recalled, the bells of the nearby Methodist church rang out as the backdrop to the predictable rhythms of a small southern town. Such rhythms of faith likely explain most of what is important about Harper Lee and her late sister.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.