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Journalist befriends elusive author Harper Lee -- but reveals few secrets

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Gregory Peck (left) and Brock Peters star in the 1962 film version of To Kill a  Mockingbird, based on the novel by Harper Lee.

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Gregory Peck (left) and Brock Peters star in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the novel by Harper Lee.

It's a sin to kill a mockingbird," wrote Nelle Harper Lee in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Even 50 years after its publication, the iconic story of racial intolerance in the American South and the loss of childhood innocence continues to resonate with readers of all ages.

Like the acclaimed mockingbird, Lee joyfully sung her heart out to readers, but fame left a sour note in her mouth. Since the mid-1960s, Lee has cloistered herself in the anonymity of a Manhattan apartment or with trusted family and friends in her home town of Monroeville, Ala.

As a matter of course, she shuns and resents interviewers, so much so that she has been quoted as saying, "I wish I'd never wrote the damn book."

Establishing a close relationship with a stranger would be out of character for the habitually reclusive Lee. Chicago journalist Marja Mills, however, formed an unlikely friendship with Harper Lee and her older sister Alice while working on an assignment for the Chicago Tribune in 2001.

In 2004, while on medical leave from her paper, Mills moved to Monroeville and became Harper and Alice's next-door neighbour. Over the next 18 months, Mills writes, the friendship deepened, and the Lee sisters willingly shared more stories of their private lives and introduced her to their close friends.

Much of Mills' time was spent in the Lees' book-strewn house watching movies or chatting, over innumerable cups of coffee, about literature, family history and the joys and perils of small-town life.

However, if Lee thought Mills was meddling, she would say "Off the record," and the reporter's notebook was put away.

Sadly, then, we never have the opportunity to learn much about the inner mind and feelings of the private Lee. Mills tells us that Lee continues to write on her manual typewriter or by hand -- "no magic boxes" for her.

Before she dies, she wants everything destroyed so that "she wouldn't have to worry about her personal things falling into the wrong hands."

When not having a good old-fashioned chin-wag in the kitchen, Mills and the Lee sisters put a lot of miles on the Buick, taking in the sights of Monroeville and the surrounding area. Visiting friends, going fishing and supporting the University of Alabama football team, the Crimson Tide, as well as watching golf were favourite pastimes.

They could be found in the local eateries, particularly David's Catfish House. Often, Lee would be approached by a patron who wanted to say hello to the famous author, and might want her to autograph a copy of her book.

Even as her meal got cold, Lee, the Southern lady that she is, would graciously spend a few minutes chatting with the person.

Mills' superbly crafted 2002 Chicago Tribune feature A Life Apart: Harper Lee, the complex woman behind a 'delicious mystery' provided the backbone for the current memoir. The book is quaint but not really very informative nor interesting and is, arguably, 288 pages of padding.

Furthermore, when the publisher made a pre-publication announcement in 2005, the Lee sisters disavowed the book.

Remember, Ms. Mills -- it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

 

Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School and read To Kill a Mockingbird many decades ago.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 8:08 AM CDT: Formatting.

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