5 things to know about the late Harper Lee

Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird” died Friday at her home in Monroeville, Ala. She was 89.

NEW YORK - MARCH 13: (U.S. TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Playwright Horton Foote, writer Harper Lee and actor Robert Duvall attend Signature Theatre Company honors Horton Foote on the eve of his 90th birthday at the Ritz Carlton March 13, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – MARCH 13: (U.S. TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Playwright Horton Foote, writer Harper Lee and actor Robert Duvall attend Signature Theatre Company honors Horton Foote on the eve of his 90th birthday at the Ritz Carlton March 13, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

It was only last year that the author’s second book, “Go Set a Watchman” was published to both praise and some criticism. Her sophomore effort came more than 50 years after her now classic debut, but had been written in the 1950s.

Read more: Marja Mills discusses living next to ‘Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee

Lee spent the decades between books avoiding the spotlight. She was known for shunning interviews and to the confusion and dismay of her many fans, she never felt the need to follow-up the runaway success of her first novel with a second one.

In fact, the release of Watchman came with some controversy from those who wondered if an aging Lee had been coerced into releasing the book.

While it isn’t easy to get to know someone who always seems to be described as a recluse, here are five things you should know about Harper Lee:

Her given name isn’t Harper Lee. Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Ala. She didn’t like her name because people would mispronounce it as “Nellie” instead of “Nell,” so she dropped it and kept on moving,

Her mother played a small part in her first novel. Atticus Finch, the main character in Lee’s novel takes his last name from her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Lee’s mother suffered from mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, and rarely left the house.

She had a frenemy before the word existed. Lee’s friendship with fellow author Truman Capote began when Lee would protect Capote from bullies in their hometown (Capote was living with relatives of his mother.) He became the basis for the character Dill in TKAM as Lee was the basis for a character in Capote’s first novel. Later, when Capote’s literary star was on the rise, Lee would be unable to shake speculation from interviewers that Capote had written her novel. She was hurt when Capote credited her work on “In Cold Blood” — she helped him conduct research and compile pages of notes — as an acknowledgement.

Lee was a college dropout. She made two attempts at attending college. First, she attended Huntingdon College, then transferred to University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to study law and presumably follow in her father’s footsteps. She joined the sorority Chi Omega, but even then was described as a loner. Lee dropped out, moved to New York and did time as an airline reservations agent. It wasn’t until she found a benefactor that she quit her job and began writing her novel.

For a half-century, she made history. Several authors have won a Pulitzer Prize for their first books including Josephine Johnson, John Kennedy Toole, Jhumpa Lahiri, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Paul Harding and Allen Drury. Until the publication of Go Set a Watchman last year, Lee was the only author who won the award for the only book he/she had ever written. 

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