Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama.
The youngest of four, Lee grew up as a tomboy in a small town, just like her beloved character Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Her father was a lawyer, a member of the Alabama state legislature and part owner of the local newspaper. Lee’s father once defended two black men who were accused of murdering a storekeeper, he was not able to prove their innocence and both men later hanged for their crimes. In a small southern town, Lee grew up surrounded by racism and racial persecution, which undoubtedly influenced her writing. Lee’s mother suffered from mental illness, believed to be bipolar disorder, for most of her life and rarely left the house during her bad spells.
We’re sure you’ve heard the stories about Harper Lee’s childhood friendship with Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, but did you know that Lee used to stand up for Capote and defend him against the boys in their town? Lee was a pretty tough cookie and would not take anyone picking on Capote, who was not interested in the same things as the other boys and was rather sensitive.
Lee was an outsider for most of her schooling, she never quite fit in with the other girls as she had absolutely no interest in make-up or fashion and preferred to focus on her studies and pursue her passion for writing and her goal of being a published writer. She followed in her father’s footsteps and studied law but never completed her degree; she instead followed her dreams and moved to New York at 23 to pursue her writing career.
Lee struggled in New York and took a job as an airline reservation agent to pay her bills. That is until she received an incredible Christmas present from her friends; a year’s wages with a note that said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Lee took that year and wrote Go Set a Watchman. Lee then spent the next few years editing her novel, under her publishers’ advisement and ended up with Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.
Interesting facts about Harper Lee:
- Nelle Lee used the pen-name Harper Lee as she was afraid people would confuse her name and call her ‘Nellie’
- While at university Lee was part of a sorority as well as the Glee Club!
- Truman Capote has said that the character of Boo Radley is completely biographical and he was considering including the same character in his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms.
- Lee’s brother Edwin died of a sudden cerebral haemorrhage – inspiration for Jem’s death we think.
- At the end of filming the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird Lee was so impressed with Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch that she gave him her father’s treasured pocket watch.
- Lee was research assistant for Truman Capote’s 1966 novel In Cold Blood.
- In 2007 Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom & in 2010 she received the National Medal of Arts. Both the highest honours possible and both representing her contributions to the arts and cultural growth of the US.
- Lee’s first name Nelle is her mother’s name spelt backwards!
When she doesn't have her nose buried in a book, Rachel can be found surrounded by furry friends or cooking up delicious plant-based feasts.
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