THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR: LIFE WITH HARPER LEE
By Marja Mills
It’s a marvel this book exists given the press-shy nature of its subject. Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, stopped giving interviews decades ago, responding to requests with either a “no” or a “hell, no!” Often she is labelled a recluse, but that’s the wrong word for her. She’s no hermit. When Mills met her in 2001, she was splitting her time between Manhattan, where she travelled around on public transit, and Monroeville, Ala., where she shared a house with her sister and attended exercise classes in town. She only stopped talking to the press when it became clear to her that “facts were no longer the journalist’s commandments.” (Lee was mortified in 1963 when a reporter implied she was overweight.)
When the Chicago Tribune sent Mills to write about the place where Lee grew up, she didn’t expect to meet the author but knocked on her front door anyway. Lee’s 89-year-old sister, Alice, answered the door. “I was surprised when she invited me in,” writes Mills, whose descriptive skills make you feel like you’re trailing her through a secret world: “The interior of the house was as modest as the exterior. An old plaid couch with skinny wooden arms was pushed against one wall.” Alice told Mills, “Big homes and expensive clothing . . . have no meaning for [Lee]. All she needs is a good bed, a bathroom and a typewriter.”
The next day, Lee called Mills and suggested they meet. Relying on her sister’s recommendation, she agreed to talk on the record for a feature-length story. When the article appeared, Lee graded it a B plus—Mills got a few facts wrong—but Lee carried on a correspondence with her anyway.
It’s after this that the story takes a bizarre turn. Mills, stricken with lupus, goes on sick leave and rents the house beside the Lees in Monroeville. “I thought I could begin gathering information for a book about Mockingbird country,” she tells the sisters, even though the book Mills ultimately produced is part memoir, part biography.
Mills writes dazzling prose, but some readers will cringe when she reports on conversations in which she and Lee’s friends speculate on such matters as the author’s sexuality, temper, and alcohol consumption. Maybe Lee had an idea what was coming. She issued a statement before the book came out denying her participation.
An earlier version of this review said that author Harper Lee is suing Marja Mills, journalist and author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. Lee has denied participation in the book, but is not pursuing legal action.