Many years ago, I had the occasion to work with one of Harper Lee’s unauthorized biographers, Charles Shields. As the publicity director for the publisher, the thought of promoting the story of one so intensely famous in the book world had a lot of potential. In reality what I and my senior publicist found was A) Harper Lee was not about to start talking to the press, because this was an “unauthorized” biography and she hadn’t given an interview since 1964. B) there was a tight community of “friends” around Ms. Lee including Samuel Pinckus, who had been interviewed by Mr. Shields, but that was as far as they were going to go with it. Fortunately, the mystique surrounding the woman who was a one book wonder, literally, was very real and the review community came on board to add their opinion on Mr. Shield’s portrayal.
In publishing everyone wants to have the next “whatever was big the last time” such as Harry Potter, The Bridges of Madison County (remember that anyone?), The Secret, Twilight, Lovely Bones, etc. The amount of money at stake is staggering for the book world when most of the time books don’t earn out the advances paid to authors. The circumstances surrounding Go Set a Watchman are particularly interesting in that this wasn’t a new novel, it was actually a draft of what became the most beloved book of all time. The attorney who found it in the safety deposit box contacted the publisher right away—not any of those friends in the tight knit circle around Ms. Lee. In fact many of those people had been banned from her nursing home room many months/years before. The multi-million dollar question is really, did Ms. Lee ever intend for this book to be published? I would say at best she would never have pursued this course on her own but at this time in her life she didn’t much care, and more likely absolutely not, based on my experience working with her group down in Alabama and based on the attorney and her actions.
Harper Lee was a woman of routines. She came from a small town, and kept with the crowd in the town she had known forever. She didn’t make new and glamorous friends, had no major ambitions for fame, and according to a Bloomberg article she still reaps $3.2 million a year from Mockingbird, so she really didn’t need the money. Add to this her being 89 years old and interred in a nursing home, and you can’t help wondering if something is fishy in Denmark.
What we know about the lawyer is that she worked with the Lee’s for a long time in Alice Lee’s legal practice. She took over the practice after Alice died. She and her husband have started a Mockingbird Foundation (Bloomberg), which I have to think is a vehicle for storing the major money coming from the deal. Although Harper Lee is named at the foundation, her attorney has power-of-attorney so in essence, she speaks and signs for Ms. Lee.
For all the people in the world who have wished for a follow up to Mockingbird, I am happy that there is something to fill the void. The “controversy” about Atticus is more about whether or not you like the book and is a subject for book groups, not the national news media. The real story here that has been glossed over is whether or not an old woman who did not stray from a very clear path and intention was bamboozled into doing something she would not have done, had she had the capacity to reason through the situation completely on her own. If we follow the path of Ms. Lee’s attorney now and into the future, I suspect we will find a very wealthy woman who bided her time and took advantage of a family she pegged as a money train a long time ago.