By JULIE BOSMAN 04/30/11 New York Times
The writer of a coming book about the ever-private Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” insisted on Friday that she had the cooperation of Ms. Lee, two days after Ms. Lee released a statement through her lawyer, sharply denying it.
Marja Mills, a former reporter for The Chicago Tribune who sold the book to the Penguin Press, said in an e-mail sent by her publisher that “Harper Lee, known as Nelle to many of her friends, and her sister, Alice Lee, were wonderfully generous with their time and insights over the years as I researched my book.”
“Alice Lee signed this statement,” the e-mail continued, “affirming she and her sister, Nelle Harper Lee, cooperated with the project.”
Tracy Locke, vice president and associate publisher at the Penguin Press, also forwarded a letter, dated March 20 and signed by Alice Lee, confirming that she and her sister had participated in, and cooperated with, the project.
The statement did little to clear up the confusion surrounding the book, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.” It was announced on Tuesday as “the story of Mills’s friendship with the two women, recounting all the Lee sisters have to say about their life in Alabama, their upbringing, how ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ impacted their lives, and why Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.” Penguin Press promised that the book was written with “direct access to Harper and Alice Lee.”
Ms. Mills lived next door to the sisters in Monroeville, Ala., for at least one year, her publisher said, and traveled frequently to the town for more than a decade. She wrote a 6,000-word article for The Tribune in 2002 that chronicled Harper Lee’s life in Alabama, with interviews from family members and friends. (Harper Lee had declined to comment for that article.)
One day after Ms. Mills’s book deal was announced, Harper Lee issued a curt response through her lawyer, saying that she had not “willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills.”
She continued: “Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.”
Ms. Lee, who typically makes no public comments about anything that is written about her, has said nothing publicly since Wednesday, and there was no response to a message left at her lawyer’s office on Friday.
Ms. Locke of Penguin said she could not “speak directly” to Harper Lee’s statement, “as it was not sent to us, and we’re unfamiliar with the circumstances under which it was released.”
“But we do not feel that it trumps the letter we have in our possession,” she said, “which is signed by Alice Lee.” That letter “clearly confirms her and her sister Harper Lee’s support of Marja Mills’s memoir.”
In the 108-page book proposal written by Ms. Mills, she recounts her time living next door to the Lee sisters: “Over coffee at McDonald’s, on long twisting drives through the Alabama countryside, at barbecue dinners with her and her friends and during low-kicking mornings in exercise class, I got a long, slow, steady look at the world’s most famous literary recluse, a woman whose mysterious renunciation of fame perversely brought more of it down on her head than she ever dreamed of, or certainly ever wanted.”
Harper Lee, who has not granted a public interview in 45 years, turned 85 on Thursday. Her sister is 99.