Harper Lee, the American author who penned the timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird, has died in her hometown Monroeville, Alabama at 89 years old, a county coroner confirms to EW. She died Thursday, HarperCollins said in a statement. Beyond being a regional masterpiece, the basis of a classic film, a reading-list perennial, and a blockbuster novel that still sells over a million copies in the U.S. every year, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has earned, without hyperbole, that rare honor: widely beloved. Last year, Lee made frequent headlines over the controversial 2015 publication of her second novel, Go Set A Watchman, which was initially an early draft of Mockingbird.
Set in Depression-era Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Atticus Finch—a white lawyer crusading for a black defendant falsely accused of rape and a widower idolized by his two children, Scout and Jem. Its characters grew straight from the author’s childhood: Her own father, like Finch, was a lawyer and state legislator, and “Finch,” in fact, was her mother’s maiden name. Nelle Harper Lee herself was, as a girl, tomboyish as Scout, and the precocious playmate immortalized as Dill was based on the boy next door, Truman Persons, who, grown up and using the last name Capote, employed Lee as a researcher for his true-crime classic In Cold Blood. The celebrated book will head to Broadway next year. Aaron Sorkin is set to write a new stage adaption and Tony winner Bartlett Sher (The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof) is set to direct.
Harper Lee considered getting into the family business but quit law school one semester shy of graduating to make herself a writer. In 1949, she moved to New York and spent almost a decade crafting short stories no editor found publishable. But then her agent suggested that she expand one story into a novel, and To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in July 1960. In its first year out, the book sold 500,000 copies and won the Pulitzer. In its second, it remained a best-seller list and also became a hit at the movies: The 1962 film version was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including a Best Actor trophy for Gregory Peck. According to the transcript of a jocular press call for the movie, when a reporter asked Lee if she found her second novel coming slowly, she parried: “Well, I hope to live to see it published.” As the years passed and no new book appeared, gossip filled the void: She was crafting her memoirs. She was working a nonfiction story about a murderous Alabama preacher. Soon Lee began swearing that she’d changed her mind: She’d never publish another book.
That abruptly changed with the July 2015 publication of Go Set A Watchman, which generated plenty of controversy: Was Lee lucid enough to give consent given the damaging stroke she suffered? Was it any accident that this book was appearing so soon after the death of Lee’s sister/gatekeeper, Alice? Was this purely a cash grab by Lee’s lawyer and caretaker, Tonja B. Carter? And finally: What would the book—which portrays Atticus Finch as a card-carrying racist, do to Mockingbird’s legacy? For her part, Lee made several statements through her lawyer saying she was “happy as hell” about Watchman’s publication. Upon its release, the book ended up selling 1.1 million copies in less than a week, despite decidedly mixed reviews from critics.
Lee never addressed the Watchman controversy in an interview. That’s not surprising since she spoke only rarely to the press, granting her last interview in 1964. But she was never a hardened recluse, either, living first in New York, then sharing a house in Monroeville with her sister Alice before her health declined and she had to enter a living facility. Though she was a private person, she carried out a social life—especially in Monroeville, where she was zealously protected by townspeople. For decades, she answered fan mail, blurbed the rare book, and occasionally materialized, as gracious as she was quiet, to accept an award.
“The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness,” Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada said in a statement. “She lived her life the way she wanted to- in private- surrounded by books and the people who loved her. I will always cherish the time I spent with her.”
Her agent, Andrew Nurnberg says, “Knowing Nelle these past few years has been not just an utter delight but an extraordinary privilege. When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever. She was quoting Thomas More and setting me straight on Tudor history. We have lost a great writer, a great friend and a beacon of integrity.”