Marja Mills addresses controversy at literary event

Courtney Crowder
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Less than a week after the publication of Marja Mills’ memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” her story of befriending famously reclusive 88-year-old author Nelle Harper Lee, the book remains embroiled in controversy.

On July 14, the day before the book’s scheduled release, Lee, author of the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” issued a statement refuting the memoir’s main narrative: That Mills was allowed unique access to the author and her sister, Alice Lee, 102, and that the sisters told her stories with the knowledge that she was going to use them in a book.

“Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” Lee’s statement said.

At a sold-out event at Tribune Tower on Monday night, Mills addressed the dispute during an interview with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich.

Lee “had always been encouraging and also quite specific about stories that she was sharing for the book and those that were to remain private and I did respect those,” Mills said.

“There are other people dealing with (the Lees’) affairs and, I don’t know, I am sad about what has happened with that, but also glad that these stories have been preserved,” she continued. “These were stories, I think some of them, told with an eye to their age and knowing that, as their friend said, when they die, people are going to start remembering things that didn’t happen or embellishing. This was a chance for both of them to share stories in their own words and in their own perspective while they were still in a position to do it.”

Mills’ book has been the subject of controversy since the announcement of its publication in 2011, when Lee first released a statement denying that she had “willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills.”

The book’s publication on July 15 seems to have revived the dispute with another statement being released in Lee’s name.

“Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice,” the statement said. “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.”

After this recent statement, Mills released a response as well as a letter Alice Lee sent her in 2011 refuting Harper Lee’s original decree and asserting the letter was sent without her consent.

“Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Alice Lee wrote in the letter to Mills. “Now she has no memory of the incident,” referring to Harper Lee having no memory of signing the 2011 statement.

“I can only speak 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,” Mills said in her response released the same day as her book.

Mills’ journey to the center of Lee’s social circle began in 2001, when the Tribune assigned her to capture the spirit of Monroeville, Ala., Lee’s hometown, after the Chicago Public Library selected Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning book as the first “One Book, One Chicago” pick. “One Book, One Chicago” is a citywide reading initiative that features programs and activities centered on one specific title.

After the exhaustive and meticulously researched Tribune article was published in 2002, Mills remained friends with the sisters. In 2004, she moved into the house next door to them with their blessing, according to the book jacket. For the next 18 months, from fall 2004 to spring 2006, Mills accompanied the sisters as they ate, explored and even did their laundry.

“Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ affected their lives, and the reasons Nelle Harper Lee chose never to write another novel,” the book’s jacket reads.

On Monday evening, Mills described her book as focusing on “the last chapter of life as they knew it.” In 2007, Harper Lee had a serious stroke and had to move into an assisted living facility. Soon after, Alice Lee also moved out of the house they had both lived in for nearly all their lives.

“So much (about the Lees) has been secondhand or speculated,” Mills said. “I just wanted to get out of the way. I wanted to show them sitting at the kitchen table and talking about the Monroeville of 1930 and the Monroeville of now.”

One of Mills’ favorite memories of her time with Harper Lee happened during breakfast at a local diner. It was a normal occasion in that a woman recognized Lee and came up to say what a large impact the book had on her life, Mills recalled.

“Nelle was delightful and the woman walked away after a few minutes and I knew that she was just thrilled in that this was a story she was going to be repeating for years to come,” Mills said. “But as she was walking away, Nelle turned to me and said, ‘I hope I don’t disappoint her.’ I thought, boy, that is the weight of expectations not only because of the popularity of the novel, but because of the mystique that has grown up around her. I think she feels that weight.”

In Mills’ opinion, it is that weight that stopped Harper Lee from writing again. After all, “To Kill an Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s only novel, not only won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, it has sold about 40 million copies, been translated into more than 35 languages and is required reading for 70 percent of American high school students, according to Mills’ book.

Or, as Alice Lee put it when interviewed for Mills’ 2002 profile: “When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?”

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