The highly anticipated, controversial release of “Go Set a Watchman” has trained a spotlight on Nelle Harper Lee and the Alabama hometown that was — she once told me wryly — “100 miles from anywhere.”
It still is, but the distance that strikes me most is the one between her life 10 years ago when I lived next door to her and her existence now, in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door.
For decades, Nelle, as her friends call her, divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and the modest, book-filled house she shared with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, in their south Alabama hometown of Monroeville. She chauffeured Alice, whom she fondly called “Atticus in a skirt,” to and from the law firm where Alice had practiced for nearly 70 years. “Driving Miss Alice,” Nelle would say with a smile.
When I lived next door to the Lee sisters from the fall of 2004 until the spring of 2006, she and I would sometimes take an exercise class for seniors at the community center. She did her laundry at the Laundromat one town over because they didn’t own a washing machine. She liked to slip behind the wheel of her Buick and explore the red dirt roads of the rural county she vividly brought to life in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Together, Nelle and Alice dealt for decades with the complicated business of being Harper Lee. Nearly 15 years older, Alice served as gatekeeper, advisor, protector. We’d first met in 2001, when I was on assignment for the Chicago Tribune. Nelle was 75 then, and Alice about to turn 90. They liked the long profile I published, “A Life Apart: Harper Lee, the Complex Woman Behind a Delicious Mystery,” and invited me to continue visiting. Over time, the idea of my writing a book about the Lee sisters and their world in Monroeville, with their guidance, had taken root in our conversations. With their blessing, I rented the house next door.
After the phenomenal success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Nelle famously withdrew from the public spotlight in the early 1960s and never published another book — until last week. She long had maintained that she wouldn’t publish another. She didn’t want to go through the publicity again, she told friends. And she had said what she had to say in “Mockingbird.” It was clear that the overwhelming affection people had for the novel and its characters was both a privilege and a burden. That was true in 1960. It was true 40 years later.
“There were so many demands made on her,” Alice told me. “People wanted her to speak to groups. She would be terrified to speak.”
Alice, for her part, handled much of the business and correspondence that were part of the novel’s remarkable success. Daily, as she had for years, Alice visited their post office box and, in plastic grocery bags, toted the letters home or to the office.
Life in Monroeville was one of familiar routines. Nelle and I were having breakfast at one of her favorite hole-in-the-walls, the City Café, one morning. A woman from the Finchburg area approached nervously with her grandchildren. Nelle was gracious, and they chatted briefly as our eggs cooled. As the group walked away, I thought to myself how pleased they looked, how many times this encounter would be told and retold, surely a favorite story. Nelle had a different thought: “I hope I didn’t disappoint them,” she said.
It was a glimpse at the weight of expectations she shouldered all those years, in the literary world and in day-to-day life.
I was diagnosed with lupus in my 30s, so part of my daily routine was managing that condition. Even though I was decades younger than the Lees and the friends with whom we socialized, the autoimmune condition forced me to live at a slower speed. I moved at their pace. During an early visit to Monroeville, I made a trip to the emergency room. As I was receiving treatment, I was surprised to discover Nelle sitting across from my gurney. She glanced over at the nurses. She lowered her voice and leaned in closer: “If anyone asks, I’m your mother-in-law. Otherwise they won’t let me stay back here with you. Only relatives. Rules.” She spit out the last word.
These were spirited women, passionate about the history of their rural corner of the South. Country drives we took together inspired stories of their growing up and amusement at the more creative Alabama place names. Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle were two favorites. The sisters also encouraged me to visit as many churches as I could to educate me about the South. Before she took me to Miss Mary’s Pentecostal Church in Scratch Ankle, Nelle said, “Don’t worry. There won’t be any snakes. At least I don’t think so. They’re the least roll-y of the Holy Rollers.”
The sisters also delighted in the memory of their father. A.C. Lee was the inspiration for the character of Atticus Finch. He died in 1962, but he remained a presence in Alice and Nelle’s lives. He regularly came up in conversation, and when someone would share a story of their father, they lit up. You could see the girl in them at these moments, still proud daughters all those years later.
“I adored my father and wanted to be just like him,” Alice said. She practiced law with him, shared the Lee home in Monroeville with him until his death, and, like him, was deeply involved with the Methodist church.
The sisters still lived in that same house when I knew them. In 2005, Nelle was growing increasingly anxious about a coming biography and two Truman Capote movies in the works. She didn’t know how she’d be depicted in any of them. I think the combination of those events encouraged her to open up to me even more. “I know what you can call your book,” she told me one day over coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air, as she often did when making a point: “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delany sisters, but titles aren’t copyrightable.” Nelle beamed. “Having Our Say” was a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet and one salty, looking back on their lives. In our scenario, Alice was the sweet one. Nelle was the saltier one.
After the release of the movies and the biography, well after the storm of fresh publicity was over, I reminded Nelle of something she had said to me about “To Kill a Mockingbird” years before at the Excel Main Street Diner: “I wish I’d never written the damn thing.” On this day, over coffee, I had my notebook out and was going over items I wanted to include in my book. “Do you still feel that way?” I asked her. She glanced away, reflecting on the question. Then she looked at me again. “Sometimes,” she said. “But then it passes.”
Now, she has another book generating record-breaking sales. (HarperCollins reports that the book is the fastest-selling in its history.) She has the intensity of the media spotlight she avoided for many years. What she doesn’t have is Alice: her sister, her protector, her attorney and, for all those years, her partner in that sometimes exhilarating, sometimes maddening and always complicated business of being Harper Lee.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when she’s gone,” Nelle once told long-time Lee family friend Thomas Lane Butts, a Methodist minister, about her sister.
Her assisted living facility is a short distance from the house she shared with Alice, but it is a world away from the existence she knew 10 years ago. She’ll be 90 next year. Sadly, she is facing the final chapter of her life without the benefit of the sisterly partnership upon which she relied all of her life.
She no longer sees some of the friends with whom she used to regularly spend time. These days, communications go through the attorney handling her affairs. Her visitors are restricted to those on an approved list. I am not on that list and have not enjoyed the pleasure of her company for several years.
Alice practiced law until she was 100. In 2011, she wrote to me, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Alice Lee died in November, at 103. Two and half months later, the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” was announced.
Marja Mills is the author of “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” (Penguin).