The sad news of Harper Lee’s death at the age of 89 leaves one of modern literature’s great questions unanswered.
We will probably never know whether she gave permission for her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, to be published last year. Perhaps — as the rumours had it — she really was deaf and blind, and mentally incapable of sanctioning the book’s release, as she sat in a nursing home in her birthplace, Monroeville, Alabama.
But I do know that — contrary to popular opinion — she hadn’t shut herself off from the world since To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Quite the contrary — over the past half-century, she was an exceptional consumer of world affairs, British affairs in particular. She was a long-time Spectator reader, for God’s sake!
How do I know all this? Because she told me — in a letter she sent to me when I was the Telegraph’s New York correspondent.
It was one of those great snapshot moments you remember for ever. On a freezing morning in February 2006, I bicycled down an ice-bound Broadway to the Telegraph’s Manhattan office in SoHo. And there, next to the huge pile of that day’s American papers, sat a handwritten letter.
Just the envelope set my heart racing — in its top left-hand corner, the sender had written a return address: a post office box in Monroeville, Alabama. Surely it couldn’t be from the world’s most famous recluse?
Eight months earlier, I’d written to her, using the address ‘Harper Lee, Monroeville, Alabama’, much more in hope than in expectation. I was longing to interview her about the trial of Edgar Ray ‘Preacher’ Killen, a former Ku Klux Klan organiser, now 90, who orchestrated the murders of three civil rights activists in 1964. Acquitted in his 1966 trial, he was found guilty in 2005 — thus my interview request. He remains in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
I hadn’t held out much hope of any response from Harper Lee — and so, when I got no reply after a few weeks, I wrote about Edgar Killen without any comment from her.
To open that letter, eight months later — and see at the bottom ‘Harper Lee’ — was one big jolt to the heart.
No, she wasn’t about to give me her first proper interview since 1964 when, incidentally, she praised The Spectator for its book reviews. (An American friend later told me the story of her rootling through a secondhand bookshop and falling, with delight, on vintage copies of The Spectator.) Harper Lee once said her ideal response to interview requests is, ‘Hell, no’. And ‘Hell, no’ was the subtle undercurrent of her letter to me. But what an elegant brush-off it was.
‘I don’t know if it’s proper to thank a journalist who, after having been turned down for an interview by his subject, cobbles together a piece that sparkles with good-naturedness,’ she wrote. ‘Proper or not, thank you.’
The letter was written in a fine cursive hand, with a barely noticeable leaning of the lines down towards the bottom right-hand corner of the page; but, still, imperfect enough for Harper Lee to apologise. ‘Macular degeneration, an idiotic medical term for senile blindness, makes it difficult for me to read and write (I can’t do a thing about these slanting lines),’ she wrote.
Her use of ‘senile’ was strictly in the sense of old, as opposed to demented. Her hand was securely on the tiller, as she softened the blow of rejection with praise.
The previous Christmas, I had written an article in these pages about the Fulton Fish Market — Manhattan’s 200-year-old market, which had just moved from its old home, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Bronx. Modesty doesn’t forbid me from quoting Harper Lee’s flattering response.
‘I was impressed by your words on the Killen trial and delighted most recently by your story on the Fulton Fish Market in the Christmas issue of The Spectator,’ she wrote, ‘My sister takes the Speccie, the Weekly Telegraph and the TLS.’
Harper Lee’s older sister, and long-term housemate, Alice Lee — known as ‘Miss Alice’ — died in November 2014, aged 103. A property and probate lawyer for nearly 70 years, she worked for Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter, the Monroeville law firm where her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, also practised. A.C. Lee inspired Atticus, the upstanding lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee supposedly joked that Miss Alice was ‘Atticus in a skirt’.
Not long before Harper Lee wrote the letter, my father, Ferdinand Mount, had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. So she signed off with the ego-expanding words, ‘So two of us in Monroeville are fairly familiar with Mount family journalism. You are an amiable chip off your ancestral block, Sincerely, Harper Lee.’
I quote her not just to show off, but also to shed light on Harper Lee’s supposedly reclusive character.
In her half-century-long retreat from the world, I suppose it’s true that she was literally a recluse — someone who chose to shut herself away. But — as her letter shows — she wasn’t the grouchy, self-obsessed type of recluse who turned in on herself.
In those beautifully written, self-deprecating words, she revealed herself as the far superior kind of recluse: the obsessive reader, avidly devouring international news and literary gossip, who preferred books and newspapers, and her family and close friends, to the unrelenting glare, noise and sycophancy of strangers that comes of embracing fame.
Her childhood friend in Monroeville, Truman Capote, went the other way, clinging on to fame for dear life. And look where that got him: drunk, drug-addicted, facelifted up to the eyeballs — and fixated on staying in with the supposedly beau monde. It’s not difficult to see which of those two gifted children of 1930s Alabama made the right choice.
I realise I had been seduced by Harper Lee’s Southern charm; that she was nimbly deflecting a fan with the greatest defence mechanism of all: impeccable manners. Still, my hunch is that — however blind or deaf she became — the intelligence, empathy and wit she showed in that letter burnt as brightly as ever in old age. Such an acute mind would not have allowed the new book to be published unless she thought it was in To Kill a Mockingbird’s league.