Nelle Harper Lee
The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in 2001.
Some forty years ago, Harper Lee wrote a book hailed by critics as the “best,” “most influential,” “most important,” book of 20th century American fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird, an American classic, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Universal Studios adapted the book into an Academy Award-winning film. Tens of millions of copies of the novel have been sold, dozens of editions have been published in English, and it has been translated into over thirty languages.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the youngest of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee’s four children.
Ms. Lee attended Huntingdon College in 1944-45, studied law at The University of Alabama from 1945-49, and studied for one year at Oxford University. Six months before earning her law degree, she decided to move to New York City – a move that would prove to be a major turning point in her life.
In the 1950s, she worked as a reservations clerk for Eastern Airlines in New York City, and concentrated in her spare time on her writing – devoting four hours a day to her craft. Her childhood experiences and a background in law – combined with an imaginative and creative spirit – all came together to form a rich source of storytelling material. After reviewing some of her short stories, a literary agent suggested that she consider going a step further by weaving the stories into a novel.
In order to concentrate on her writing, she gave up her position at the airline and moved into a cold-water apartment with makeshift furniture. Her friends encouraged her to pursue her writing; and, in 1956, they gave her an extraordinary Christmas gift – a full year’s financial support so she could devote her time and attention to her novel. A year later, she had completed the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishing firm of J.B. Lippincott, impressed with the manuscript, supported her through three years of revisions which were slowed by her periodic visits home to her ailing father. By the end of 1960, the book was a fixture on bestseller lists.
Her work reflects the struggles and hardships of our State and the capacity for the growth of the human spirit in the face of those obstacles. The warm and humane voice Harper Lee gave to her Alabama subjects has a timeless appeal that touches readers around the world.
Ms. Lee’s awards, recognitions, and honors are many. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she received four honorary doctorates and was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council of Arts. She was also one of thirty-one “Most Outstanding Women Graduates of The University of Alabama.”
In her later years, Ms. Lee divided her time between her homes in New York and Monroeville.
Nelle Haper Lee died in Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19, 2016.