The recent publication of “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee” — reviewed here July 13 — was quickly followed by a disavowal by the famous and famously reclusive author.
In Marja Mills’ memoir she describes a warm friendship with Lee and her older sister, Alice Lee. “Warm” does not describe Harper Lee’s statement:
“Normally, I would not respond to questions about books written on my life,” Lee, 88, wrote. “Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja’s true mission: another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.”
When Penguin Press announced in 2011 that it had acquired the memoir, Lee quickly had her lawyer release a statement that she had not willingly participated in or authorized it. In this new statement, she reaffirmed that point:
“Rest assured,” she wrote, “as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
After the second disavowal, Penguin Press gently fired back, calling the memoir “a labor of love.”
Mills, who met the Lee sisters while on an assignment for The Chicago Tribune and moved next door to them in 2004, released a statement of her own.
“I can only speak to the truth, that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville,” she wrote.
Attached was a 2011 letter from Alice Lee, a practicing lawyer until she was 100, about her younger sister, who’d suffered a stroke. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.”
Mills wrote that the stories the Lees shared and she recounted in the book speak for themselves. “It was the honor of my life when they both gave me their blessing to write my book.”