What Does Harper Lee Want?
The author’s second novel, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, is the most preordered book in her publisher’s history. It’s also a book she vowed never to publish
On the porch of the Meadows, a small, canary-yellow nursing home along the Highway 21 bypass in Monroeville, Ala., a security guard called Officer Matthews keeps watch. Sometimes he sits in a wooden rocking chair. Other times he leans against the porch’s white posts. In the late afternoon, when the thermometer outside the nearby Trustmark Bank reads 108F and the summer air gets so humid it’s like trying to breathe through a wet towel, he’ll take off his company-issued black blazer and wipe his brow with a handkerchief. He tries not to go indoors.
A security guard is at the nursing home 24 hours a day. It’s an odd sight in this small, insular town of 6,300, the kind of place where houses are left unlocked and everyone waves to one another on the street. The other nursing homes in town certainly don’t have such tight security. Then again, they don’t house a Pulitzer Prize winner set to release a blockbuster novel on July 14 with an initial print run of more than 2 million copies. The Meadows is home to Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lee in 2010
Photographer: Penny Weaver
At 89, Lee has lived there for several years. Before that, she had a small, rent-controlled apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. She’d ride the city buses (taxis were too extravagant, she thought), dine with friends, attend the theater or symphony, play golf, and generally pass through the world unnoticed. Lee wasn’t shy, but she didn’t want to be famous. “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” she said in 1964 in her last published interview. The book had been her debut novel; she’d assumed that, like most debuts, no one would read it. Instead, it spent 98 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and earned Lee a profile in Life magazine. “Public encouragement, I hoped for a little … but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening,” Lee said at the time. She stopped granting interviews and would sometimes skip town for a few days when she learned that a reporter was trying to track her down. For years she insisted she’d never publish again.
In 2007, Lee suffered a stroke and moved home to Monroeville so her older sister Alice Lee could look after her. She moved into the Meadows while Alice, still an active partner at their late father’s law firm, Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, took care of her financial affairs. Today, Harper is in a wheelchair, mostly deaf, and has such poor eyesight that she uses a text-enlarging machine to read. In 2011, Alice ended up in a different nursing home in town after a bad fall coupled with a bout of pneumonia. Alice died last year, at age 103. Her law partner, Tonja Carter, carried on with the firm.
Three months before Alice’s death, in August, Carter says she was rummaging through the Lee sisters’ joint safety deposit box when, bound up with the original copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, she found a manuscript of Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman. “I was traveling, and I got this text from Tonja that said, ‘Please call me urgently,’ ” says Andrew Nurnberg, Lee’s literary agent. “I called, and Tonja told me, ‘I found another manuscript.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ ” Carter explained where she’d found it; Nurnberg remembered that he had visited the safety deposit box with Carter before. “I’d held that manuscript a few years ago without realizing what it was,” he says. He thought it was part of To Kill a Mockingbird. “I was just kicking myself.”
A portrait of the novelist for Life, soon after she won the Pulitzer
Photographer: Donald Uhrbrock/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images
That summer, Carter told Lee what she’d found. “Nelle was totally surprised,” says Joy Williams Brown, 87, who’s been a close friend of Lee’s since 1950 and, as all her friends do, refers to the writer by her first name, Nelle, and not her middle one, Harper. In 1956 she and her late husband, Michael Brown, gave Lee enough money so she could quit her job and write To Kill a Mockingbird. Brown, who lives in New York, has traveled to Monroeville to see Lee several times this year. Both she and Nurnberg say Lee initially didn’t want to have Watchman published, but later changed her mind. “She gave [Watchman] just to a few people to see what they thought of it,” says Brown, who was one of those readers. “We told her: ‘It’s extraordinary.’ ”
It’s also a draft: The manuscript is an early, alternate version of what would later become To Kill a Mockingbird, and there’s a controversy brewing over its prior discovery more than three years ago. According to Sotheby’s, its rare-books expert also visited the safety deposit box with Carter back in October 2011, along with Lee’s then-literary agent, Samuel Pinkus. Carter insists she was out of the room when the two men read and discussed Watchman. Pinkus says he and Carter visited the safety deposit box at least one other time, and both knew about the second manuscript.
Carter has since released a statement denying his allegations. As she describes it, a discussion with Lee’s friends reminded her that “at some earlier time, I had seen mention of a character who did not make it through the final edit of Mockingbird. … I decided to check to see if maybe that character was in a second book. That is when I went back to the safe deposit box for a more careful look and discovered Go Set a Watchman.”
Watchman features the same characters (Atticus Finch, his daughter, Scout) at the center of Mockingbird, along with some others who were cut from the book. Lee hasn’t reread it, and HarperCollins, her longtime publisher, is releasing it unedited. “It was made clear to us that Harper Lee wanted it published as it was,” says Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper. “We gave the book a very light copy edit.”
Already, the decision to leave it as is has made some anxious. For example, “there was some concern from Tonja’s end about the word ‘n-----.’ It’s in there quite a lot,” says Nurnberg. “I said, ‘This book was written in the 1950s. You can’t call someone a n----- by any other anodyne title.’ ”
Illustration: Allison Colpoys
Unedited and, perhaps, dated, Watchman could’ve easily been marked a literary curiosity, something more aligned with, say, True at First Light, Ernest Hemingway’s autobiographical novel about a trip to Africa written in the 1950s but published in 1999, long after his death, or The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson’s middling foray into fiction that was rejected by multiple publishers in the ’60s, then suddenly found worthy after he became famous. Instead, it’s poised to become the best-selling literary novel of the year—if not the decade. “This launch is reminiscent of a book on the scale of Harry Potter,” says Burnham.
Watchman is the most preordered book in HarperCollins’s history. Its first print run is two-thirds larger than the final Hunger Games book and more than twice that of the last Game of Thrones installment. HarperCollins is selling the book for up to $20 to bookstores, which means a sold-out first printing could rake in close to $40 million. The novel’s topped Amazon.com’s best-seller list since its release was announced in February and is the website’s most preordered book of any genre in the last four years. Monroeville’s two-room bookstore has presold almost 7,000 copies and is trying to find a loading dock big enough to accept them the night before they go on sale.
“This Watchman publication is what physicists call a singularity. There has been nothing like it before now, and there never will be again,” says Daniel Menaker, a former editor at Random House and, before that, the fiction editor at the New Yorker. “You couldn’t plan for this if you tried.”
But someone did plan for this, although it might not have been Harper Lee. Ever since Watchman was announced, rumors have persisted that a younger, more mindful Lee—the one who swore not to publish anything again—wouldn’t abide any of this. At one point, the state of Alabama even got involved to assess a claim of possible “elder abuse.” How aware is Lee, really, of this new book? Does she, as her publishers insist, approve of its publication? The answers lie with Lee’s lawyer, friend, and confidante, Carter. So I traveled to Monroeville to talk with her.
Watchman mania, of course, is an offshoot of To Kill a Mockingbird mania, which has been going on for 55 years and shows no sign of slowing. The book has sold more than 40 million copies. It outsells The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and earns Lee about $3.2 million in royalties every year. But Mockingbird doesn’t just sell well. It’s adored. The story of a young child’s realization that in the South a man could be convicted of a crime not because he’s guilty but because he’s black, and her clear-eyed conviction of how wrong that is, is as affecting now as in 1960, when it was first published.
The cover for the new book
Nowhere is this more evident than in Lee’s hometown. Monroeville is 100 miles from Montgomery, 160 miles from Birmingham, and several bars short of good cell phone reception. And yet every year about 30,000 people travel from all over the world to walk its streets, climb its old courthouse steps, and experience the real-life version of the town called Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. This literary legacy has allowed Monroeville to avoid the grim fate of other dusty towns where manufacturing jobs have vanished. Everything here panders to tourists: There’s the Mockingbird Inn & Suites, Radley’s Fountain Grille (named after the character Boo Radley), and Lee Motor Co., with a mockingbird painted on its white brick wall.
In 1991, Monroeville’s residents started performing an annual To Kill a Mockingbird play in the town’s domed courthouse, which was replicated on a Hollywood set for the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck. Today, play season generates more than $200,000 in ticket sales; the money funds the upkeep of the 111-year-old courthouse and several other historic sites around town collectively run by the Monroe County Heritage Museum. Watchman is already giving Monroeville a significant boost. “It made me a lot of money this year,” says Janet Sawyer, who runs the Courthouse Cafe, where she serves up Boo Burgers and Finch Fries.
There are circles of intimacy surrounding Lee and Carter. The closer the circle, the less willing its members are to talk. The outer one, filled with Monroeville’s shopkeepers and city council members, is pretty open. Sawyer concedes she doesn’t know Lee well, but she does know many who do. “It’s wrong, what she’s doing,” says Sawyer, referring to Carter. “Everyone saw Miss Lee at Miss Alice’s funeral. She was sitting there talking to herself.” The next circle, which includes those who used to see her on a weekly basis, has a bit more insight—and is reluctant to share it. Over the past few years, some of Lee’s friends have witnessed behavior that, they say, lead them to believe she may not be in the best of health. Mary Tucker, 88, has known Lee since the 1960s and last saw her at the Meadows about six weeks ago. “Her long-term memory is fine,” Tucker says. Lee can still talk about the past and quote long passages from Twelfth Night, her favorite Shakespeare play. But when Tucker asked her about a writer’s symposium she’d recently attended, she didn’t know what Tucker was talking about. “It also took her a few minutes to recognize me,” she says. “I’m concerned. I really don’t know if [the publication of Watchman] is her wish at all.”
That’s not something Tucker feels comfortable asking Lee, though, for fear that she might overstep her boundaries. “A lot of Nelle’s friends don’t see her anymore,” she says. The owner of Radley’s Fountain Grille, Sam Therrell, 81, says he used to bring Lee baked potato soup every Thursday until Carter wrote him a letter saying he’d no longer be able to see his friend. Carter doesn’t recall sending the letter (which Therrell still has) and says Lee doesn’t even like baked potato soup.
An old record kept by Lee’s agent
Photographer: Annie Laurie Williams Papers/Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Columbia University
Soon after Watchman’s publication was announced, state authorities received an anonymous tip from someone close to Lee about potential elder abuse. An investigator from the Alabama Securities Commission, which mostly handles financial fraud, visited Lee at the Meadows. “We’re not medically trained. We don’t do mental capacity tests. But she knew she was publishing a book,” says Joseph Borg, director of the commission. “I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something like, ‘Why the hell would I write a book and not want it published?’ ” The state closed its investigation in April.
Burnham also visited Lee in February, along with Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins. They returned the first week of July to present her with an advance copy of Watchman. They won’t share details of their visits, other than to say that Lee seems excited about her book and even picked out its cover. “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman,” Lee said in a February statement provided by Carter and released by HarperCollins. “It isn’t secrecy,” says Burnham. “It’s out of respect for an author who wishes to remain private.”
Lee’s innermost circle is filled with her few remaining relatives and lifelong friends, many of whom have long-standing policies against talking publicly about their Nelle. Those who would talk to me said, yes, they had the same suspicions, but they’d only explain if I promised not to print what they said. When I asked one friend why she was so secretive, she told me to look up a specific line on a specific page in The Mockingbird Next Door, a book by former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills about the time she spent living next to the Lees. It read: “Those who know don’t speak and those who speak don’t know.” Then she asked me how much I knew about Carter.
Tonja Carter is 50 years old and tan, with a straight nose, narrow chin, and dark eyes that can sparkle with affection one second and flash fiercely the next. The day I met her, she greeted me in a jean skirt and pink cotton top that perfectly matched her pink nails. We spoke in the bistro she and her husband own, but that has been closed for almost a year.
Carter has refused nearly all interview requests related to Go Set a Watchman. When we met, she agreed to talk only if I didn’t quote her directly. She wouldn’t answer any questions about Lee.
Lee has been a boon to local tourism ...
Photographer: Charlie Varley
Carter grew up in an Ohio steel mill town. When she was 14, her family moved to Excel, Ala., just outside of Monroeville, so her father could take a job at what was then the Alabama River Pulp mill. She graduated from the Excel high school, then married and divorced soon after. In 1985, when she was barely 20, John Barnett III hired her to be the secretary at the law firm he shared with Alice Lee. Barnett, 63, is still a partner at the firm, although he long ago switched to banking and is market president at the Trustmark Bank in Brewton, about 40 miles away. “I’m not in touch with her day in and day out, but we talk on occasion,” he says. “Tonja seems very capable to me.”
Barnett may have hired Carter, but Alice is the one who pushed her toward law. Alice started practicing real estate and tax law in 1943, a time when few women worked outside the home. Neither she nor Nelle ever married, and as they aged they began to mentor young women. “She and Nelle used to give people scholarships,” says Brown, Lee’s close friend, who knows of at least one secretary the sisters put through college. Carter paid her way through Faulkner University with the help of a United Methodist Church scholarship that she suspects may have been funded by Alice.
Carter had remarried by then, to a local boy named Patrick Carter. His family is related to Monroeville’s other famous author, Truman Capote. The couple has four children. Carter worked off and on for Alice for the next 20 years—sometimes she’d take time off to go to school; at other times Patrick, a pilot, would get a flying job and they’d relocate to a different town in Alabama for a year or two. At Alice’s suggestion, Carter went to the University of Alabama School of Law, graduating in 2006. She returned to Monroeville and, in January 2007, Alice made her a partner of the law firm, renamed Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter.
For the next few years, Carter handled local estates and served as a municipal judge in a nearby town, Frisco City. When Alice’s health declined, Carter took over the firm—and Lee’s affairs. “Tonja picked up where Alice was dropping out, and Nelle had absolute confidence in her,” says Brown, who insists Carter is doing a great job. They talk on the phone regularly—when I met with Brown at her home in New York, Carter called three times to see how it was going—and Brown sees her when she travels to Monroeville to visit Lee. “Nelle trusts Tonja absolutely, which is one reason why I trust Tonja absolutely,” she says.
... and merchandisers
Photographer: Charlie Varley
With Carter’s help, Lee seems to have taken a more active—and litigious—interest in To Kill a Mockingbird’s legacy. Carter was already handling Lee’s estate when, in April 2011, she notarized an agreement in which the author signed away To Kill a Mockingbird’s copyright to a company run by Pinkus, Lee’s literary agent at the time. In January 2012, Carter became Lee’s durable power of attorney, which allows her to act as her legal stand-in even when her health declines or Lee becomes unable to make decisions for herself.
Lee sued Pinkus in 2013 to reacquire To Kill a Mockingbird’s copyright, ultimately settling out of court. Her lawsuit claimed that Lee was “duped” into signing documents because she trusted Pinkus and had “physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.” (Pinkus declined to comment on the case.) Gloria Phares, the copyright lawyer who filed the suit on Lee’s behalf, says she never spoke directly with Lee because the author is too deaf to use a telephone. When important legal decisions needed to be made, she says, Carter would call from the Meadows and Phares could hear Lee in the background. “I could hear her authorize the complaint,” she says. “I had every impression she was being consulted at every point.” I asked Carter how someone could be duped into signing away her copyright and, four years later, be sharp enough to handle publication decisions for Watchman. Carter repeated that she wouldn’t discuss anything to do with Lee.
Lee seems to have mistakenly signed something else, too. In April 2011 she released a statement, printed on Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter stationery, claiming that she hadn’t approved Mills’s book about her life. Alice, who was still practicing law at the time, said her sister was mistaken. “When I questioned Tonja, I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to the Meadows, and had Nelle Harper sign it,” Alice wrote to Mills. “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.” Lee released another statement in 2014 pointing out that Alice was over 100 and reiterating her disapproval.
When I got to Monroeville, I found the town embroiled in a new squabble. It started in 2012 when Lee applied for a trademark on To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise. The Monroe County Heritage Museum, which sells mockingbird ornaments, T-shirts, and tea towels in its gift shop, opposed the application. “We said it’s a colloquial type of Southern thing, the phrase, ‘It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,’ and it should not be trademarked,” says Tom Lomenick, president of the museum’s board of directors. Lee sued the museum. They settled out of court. The mockingbird knickknacks are still for sale.
The museum thought its problems had been resolved. Then last year, Dramatic Publishing, which owns the rights to the To Kill a Mockingbird play, told the museum it couldn’t perform its signature play anymore. “The reason the rights were not renewed to the museum in Monroeville is because Harper Lee has developed her own not-for-profit,” says Christopher Sergel, president of Dramatic Publishing.
The nonprofit, the Mockingbird Co., was created in May. Lee is listed as its director and Carter as the vice president. According to its certificate of formation, its mission is “insuring the literary significance and historical contribution made by To Kill a Mockingbird,” a contribution that will soon include Go Set a Watchman. Mockingbird Co. plans to donate the proceeds from Monroeville’s play to Alabama communities but says nothing about any other money it may receive in the future. And unless its beneficiaries include the Monroe County Heritage Museum, the museum will run out of money early next year and may have to close.
“Tonja says she’s just doing what Miss Lee asks of her, but we know she runs the show,” says Tim McKenzie, who sits on the museum’s board of directors. Meanwhile, Carter’s husband, Patrick, has joined the board and pushed for its executive director, Stephanie Rogers, to step down. Rogers has refused.
In 2013 the Carters renovated an old furniture store across from the courthouse and opened a restaurant called the Prop & Gavel that served grouper tacos and organic Alabama-raised beef. A year later, it closed. People in town say they stopped eating at the Carters’ restaurant, although the reasons they gave—high prices, rudeness, a change in chefs—are unrelated to Carter’s involvement with Lee.
Monroeville’s courthouse serves as a set for reenactments of Mockingbird
Photographer: Rosa Irene Betancourt/Alamy
If Watchman continues to sell, Lee stands to make a lot of money. And since the book is a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee will have a book series under literary trademark law, which makes it easier to protect her titles. By applying for a trademark, suing to protect it, publishing the new book, and setting up Mockingbird Co., Lee seems to be slowly and methodically assembling a To Kill a Mockingbird business from the confines of her nursing home. But given her ever-shrinking circle of friends, there aren’t many people left to run it when she’s gone. Several longtime friends say they’ve been barred from visiting the Meadows.
“You know there’s a list of people who can see Miss Lee in the nursing home, don’t you?” McKenzie says. “There are about 12 names on there.” (Carter says the number is limited, but she says that’s at Lee’s request.) “She very much has her wits about her,” Brown says. “Tonja is not manipulating her.” All the same, Carter seems to be present whenever anyone visits Lee. “Tonja walks people in. She walked me in when I was there,” Brown says.
At some point, Carter may find it difficult to serve as power of attorney, manage her estate, and run her nonprofit. “If there is a situation in which, after her death, her entire estate or substantial assets pour into a foundation run by Tonja Carter, it would be highly problematic,” says Jeffrey Schoenblum, professor at Vanderbilt University School of Law and an expert on estates and private wealth transfer. He points out that whether Carter will benefit financially from this isn’t known, although Lee’s heirs could sue to find out. Lee had two siblings, in addition to Alice, who died years ago; a nephew said he hadn’t been told about the formation of a nonprofit.
With less than a week to go before Watchman’s release, Monroeville is still trying to figure out how to celebrate the book. The local bookstore announced, then canceled, then reannounced a Harry Potter-style midnight sale. The Chamber of Commerce is throwing together a last-minute festival that includes walking tours and a reading of Watchman. But Sawyer decided to close the Courthouse Cafe and go on vacation. “I’d just as rather not be here,” she says. Instead, visitors can eat at the Prop & Gavel, which the Carters will reopen for the occasion.