Nelle Harper Lee, the notoriously press-shy author of the semi-autobiographical Southern Gothic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, has died in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., according to AL.com, citing multiple sources. She was 89. The cause of death has not yet been reported.
Lee had resided in recent years in an assisted-living community in Monroeville, in frail enough health that questions arose as to her approval of the publication of her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” in 2015. (PBS’s “American Masters” aired an updated version of Mary Murphy’s documentary portrait “Hey, Boo” to mark the occasion.) Rumors that the author, who suffered a severe stroke in 2007, had been misused by her publisher, lawyer, and literary agent eventually blossomed into a state investigation into allegations of elder abuse; Alabama closed the case last April after finding no evidence of neglect.
Though the author largely kept out of the public eye after the success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her imprint on American film history is undeniable. She approved of the 1962 screen version, directed by Robert Mulligan, adapted by her friend, Horton Foote, and starring Gregory Peck, in what became his most iconic role: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book
to film ever made,” she told the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante in 2006. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, including Best Actor for Peck and Best Adapted Screenplay for Foote. “To Kill a Mockingbird” ranks 34th on the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Greatest American Movies,” and Peck’s Atticus Finch topped the AFI’s list of the America cinema’s “50 Greatest Heroes.”
While the novel and the film continue to be taught today, both have been subject to criticism for whitewashing the Jim Crow order against which the action is set, and for positioning Atticus as a white savior, ignoring the suffering and activism alike of the era’s Southern blacks. As Roger Ebert wrote of the film in 2001, “It expresses the liberal pieties of a more innocent time,
the early 1960s, and it goes very easy on the realities of small-town Alabama
in the 1930s.”
In the past decade, audiences have become newly familiar with Lee as a character in another tale, the writing of “In Cold Blood.” Lee accompanied childhood friend Truman Capote (upon whom Dill, in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is reportedly based) to Holcomb, Kansas to research the murder of the Clutter family, a journey which inspired Bennett Miller’s “Capote” (2005) and Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous” (2006). Played by Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock, respectively, Lee comes across in both films as a loyal, no-nonsense companion, living in the shadow of Capote’s incandescent personality — until she achieves fame with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is at best a mixed blessing.
In perhaps the most potent scene in “Capote,” Lee sets eyes on the flamboyant writer (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) sulking at the bar, resentful of her renown. He is embittered and melodramatic, she careful and quiet, steadfast even as the celebratory swirl of the New York premiere of “To Kill a Mockingbird” swirls on in the background. It’s Capote’s scene, but it wouldn’t work without Lee. It’s a fitting tribute to a writer of such stature, who became one of the most well-known and loved of American authors even as she preferred to leave the limelight to others.