Thirty years ago this summer a young author published her first novel, narrated by a 6-year-old girl named Scout Finch and set in the late 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala.
The author was 34-year-old Harper Lee of Monroeville, Ala., a dark-haired overgrown tomboy who'd dropped out of law school in Alabama to work on a novel in New York.
Nelle Harper, as she was called growing up, took a job as an airline reservations clerk and wrote in her spare time. Her first Christmas in New York, friends surprised her with a gift of money -- enough to quit clerking and write for a year. "Just permit us to believe in you," the couple said to a stunned and grateful Lee.
About 1957, Lee completed her manuscript and sent it over to Lippincott. The editors liked it but thought it "faulty and shapeless." Lee plugged away until it she got it right. Finally, one editor said, "The book may not sell 2,000 copies, but we love Nelle." Off to press it went.
The novel was "To Kill a Mockingbird." Time magazine hailed Scout Finch as the "most appealing child since Carson McCullers's Frankie got left behind at the wedding." Within a year, the novel had sold more than half a million copies and topped the bestseller list, and was translated into 10 languages. In 1961, "Mockingbird" whistled off with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making Lee the first woman winner since Ellen Glasgow ("In This Our Life") in 1942. The next year, the movie came out.
For the book, Lee drew heavily on her own life. She used her hometown of Monroeville, about 30 miles north of Montgomery, as the model for Maycomb. And many townspeople found their way -- or thought they'd found their way -- into the book.
Heading the list was Truman Capote.
The impish Capote was the author's closest childhood friend. Truman spent summers in Monroeville, visiting an aunt who lived next door to the Lees. The two houses were separated by a hedge, into which the youngsters soon wore a gap as they tromped back and forth between yards.
When they weren't cooking up mischief, Truman and Nelle Harper sat in a treehouse, bare feet dangling through the leaves, minds flitting with plans and stories.
When the grown-up Capote wrote "Other Voices, Other Rooms," he used Nelle Harper as the model for the tomboyish Idabel.
When the grown-up Lee wrote "Mockingbird," she transformed tiny Truman, with his white-blond hair, into 7-year-old Dill, the precocious towhead who served as Scout's sidekick.
And she turned her own father, the sage lawyer and editor Amasa Finch Lee, into justice-loving Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the movie.
In the novel, Atticus defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white girl. In the process, Scout and brother Jem learn valuable lessons about white bigotry, black dignity and their father's courage.
"Mockingbird" was revolutionary for 1960, a mostly still-sleepy, still-segregated year in the South. But plenty of people North and South loved the book and couldn't wait for Lee to write another.
Hints trickled in that she was working on one. In 1961, Newsweek wrote: "Snowed under with fan letters, Harper Lee is stealing time from a new novel-in-progress to write careful answers."
Soon after, Life went to Monroeville, where Lee posed with her father on their screened porch. The Life article opened with Lee, now 35, saying, "I'm not like Thomas Wolfe. I can go home again."
Still, nothing from Lee. Not then, not now.
Her New York agent, Julie Fallowfield, says Lee, now 64, is doing well, still dividing her time between her New York apartment and her family home in Monroeville.
"She hasn't obviously written another book since 'Mockingbird,' " says Fallowfield, "but she's always working on something."
Fallowfield says National Public Radio wanted to interview Lee earlier in the summer. Lee declined.
"She sort of hates publicity," says Fallowfield. "The book stands. Which in a way is wonderful."