Nelle Harper Lee was born 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, Lee’s father was a lawyer who also owned a portion of the town’s newspaper. Her mother hardly ever left the house and likely suffered from undiagnosed metal illnesses.
Lee was a self-described tomboy and grew up alongside fellow writer Truman Capote. During high school Lee developed her interest in literature, later enrolling in Huntingdon College for girls in Montgomery, Alabama. Lee was part of the literary honors society at her college and her stringent work habits kept her out of the social scene.
She later transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she continued to study literature and also wrote for the school’s newspaper and humor magazine. Lee was accepted in the University’s law school but didn’t last long there. She soon moved to New York to pursue a career in writing.
It was 1949 when the 23-year-old Lee arrived in New York City. She was reunited with her childhood friend Capote, and was also introduced to Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, who both became close friends. For years the young writer struggled financially, working as a ticketing agent for various airlines. However in 1956, the Browns gave Lee a Christmas present. They offered to support her for a year so she could devote all her energy to her writing. During the year she did a majority of work on To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee finished the manuscript for her novel in 1959 and shortly after went to Kansas with Truman Capote to research the murder of a family there. Capote’s New Yorker article about the murders would later evolve into the non-fiction classic, In Cold Blood.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and almost immediately captured the attention of readers. The Book-of-the-Month Club picked up the book and an excerpted version also appeared in Readers’ Digest magazine. In 1961 the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and playwright Horton Foote was selected to write a screenplay adaptation for the 1962 film. The movie took home four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Though she was rumored to be working on a nonfiction book throughout the 1960s, the work was never published. To Kill a Mockingbird remains Lee’s only published novel, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s she largely retreated from public life. She now lives a quiet life in both New York City and Monroeville, where she lives with her sister and is active in her church and community.
Lee typically avoids any interviews, though she did attend a ceremony at The White House in 2007 during which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the book.