Where has Harper Lee been since ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published?

Harper Lee with Annette Bening in Los Angeles in 2005.
Harper Lee with Annette Bening in Los Angeles in 2005.
(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

Harper Lee published “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960. The novel was a wild success: It won the Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller, and was adapted into an acclaimed, Oscar-winning film in 1962. As the years ticked by and “To Kill a Mockingbird” became an enduring classic, Lee withdrew from public life. She never published a second book.

That will change in July, when “Go Set a Watchman,” a sequel under wraps for more than 50 years, will be published by Lee. It’s a coup for the publisher; “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 40 million copies.

Where has Lee been all this time? It wasn’t hard to find her. She’d moved back to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she was born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926. She grew up there near her childhood friend, Truman Capote. Her elder sister Alice -- who died in November at 103 -- practiced law in town, as their father had.


According to reports, Lee, now 88, resides in an assisted living facility. Legal wrangling over control of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has revealed that she has suffered from ill health, including vision problems and hearing loss. According to one friend, she had paralysis on her left side and a failing short-term memory. She suffered a stroke in 2007.

Nevertheless, in 2010 she was at a local park feeding the ducks. A British reporter found her there, wearing thick black sunglasses, pants and a T-shirt. He had been instructed not to ask her about “the book,” so instead he presented her with a box of chocolates.

“Thank you so much,” Lee said. “You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”

Lee declined to participate in a documentary about “To Kill a Mockingbird” released in 2010, the book’s 50th anniversary. Oprah Winfrey tried to talk her into it. “I knew 20 minutes into the conversation that I would never be able to convince her to do an interview and it is not my style to push,” Winfrey said. “She said to me, ‘I already said everything I needed to say .... You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview because I am really Boo.’ I knew that was the end of it. I just enjoyed the lunch.”

Lee has made a few rare public appearance. In 2007, she went to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom; in 2005, she appeared at the Los Angeles Public Library to accept its Literary Award; and in 2001, when she was awarded the Alabama Medal of Freedom, she gave a very short speech, saying only, “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”

In 1959, before “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, Lee traveled with Capote to Kansas to research the killing of the Clutter family for his book “In Cold Blood.” The story of that trip was made into two films, “Capote” (in which Lee was portrayed by Catherine Keener) and “Infamous” (in which she was played by Sandra Bullock).


For many years, Lee kept an apartment in New York City, but she eschewed the media there. Lee will decline to speak to the press when “Go Set a Watchman” is released, the Associated Press reports.

Book news and more; I’m @paperhaus on Twitter