Harper Lee speaks: Marja Mills-penned bio was unauthorized (Updated)

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Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Harper Lee, aka Nelle Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is the focus of author Marja Mills’ bio The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, which hits shelves Tuesday. It purports to be a rare in-depth look at the lives of Lee and her sister Alice, borne out of a years-long friendship between Mills, a former Chicago Tribune journalist, and the Lee sisters, whom she moved next door to in 2004.

According to the book’s description, Mills “spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.” The Lee sisters, it says, “decided to let Mills tell their story.”

But, there’s just one problem. According to a letter penned by none other than 88-year-old Nelle Harper Lee herself—who, mind you, hasn’t written a book since Mockingbird, doesn’t grant interviews, and generally stays out of the public eye—The Mockingbird Next Door was executed without her cooperation or permission and based on false pretenses. Lee first issued a statement on the matter in 2011 when Penguin Press announced that it had acquired the book. Now, on the evening before its July 15 release, she’s reminding us that nothing has changed on her end.

Take a look at Lee’s statement in its entirety after the jump, where she reiterates her declaration that she had not “willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills.” And, in case that isn’t clear enough, she also says, “rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Penguin Press and Mills also responded Tuesday morning with their own statements.

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The statement from Penguin Press issued Tuesday morning reads: “Penguin Press is proud to publish The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills today. Mills’ memoir is a labor of love and Marja Mills has done an extraordinary job.  We look forward to sharing her story of the wise and wonderful Lee sisters with readers.” The publishing house also provided a dated letter from Mills and one from Alice Lee from 2011.

July 15, 2014

To Whom It May Concern:

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.  The stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves.  The written letter I have from Alice Lee, which she sent May 2011 in response to the original letter issued in Nelle’s name, makes clear that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice gave me their blessing. In regard to the writing and release of Nelle Harper Lee’s April 2011 statement about my book, Alice Lee (Alice Lee practiced law until she was 100 years old) wrote: “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.”

In addition, Nelle’s good friend, Tom Butts, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the course of writing this book and who remains a friend to this day, is also on the record in support of my work: “There has been a growing trusting friendship between Miss Mills and Nelle Harper Lee and her sister Alice since she came here to do a story for the Chicago Tribune.  The two sisters welcomed Miss Mills to live next door to them as she researched her book.  Both sisters, as well as friends and relatives they introduced to Miss Mills, shared stories of their lives and this area for her book.  I observed some of this and participated in story-telling.  They were pleased that Miss Mills was going to preserve these stories in a book. They wanted to set the record straight in regard to rumors and myths that had circulated about themselves, their family and the novel.  All in all the friendship was an open and happy experience for all concerned.  Miss Mills was conscientious and careful to discuss with them material she planned to use in her book and was often told just to use her judgment.”

Alice Lee’s original letter to me is attached here, along with a typed transcript of its text.

I am so grateful for my time with the Lee sisters. It was the honor of my life when they both gave me their blessing to write my book.

Marja Mills

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