Harper Lee’s memoirist recalls friendship with the late ‘Mockingbird’ author

Journalist Marja Mills befriended Harper Lee and her sister, which led to the memoir ‘The Mockingbird Next Door.’
Journalist Marja Mills befriended Harper Lee and her sister, which led to the memoir ‘The Mockingbird Next Door.’ AP

Harper Lee, 89, died Thursday, Feb. 18, in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala.. To date, the author’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) has sold 40 million copies. Last July, the Harper publishing company released her controversial “Go Set a Watchman,” which Lee described as “the parent of of ‘Mockingbird.”

Perhaps the most intimate book written about Lee was the authorized memoir “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” by Marja Mills, published last last May. That project began in 2001, when the Chicago Tribune journalist was improbably granted unprecedented access to the “fiercely private” Lee and her sister, Alice Finch Lee, eventually becoming their friend.

Washington Post book reviewer Heller McAlpin wrote of “Next Door,” “Authorized, sympathetic and respectful it may be, but it’s no sycophantic puff piece. It is a zesty account of two women living on their own terms yet always guided by the strong moral compass instilled in them by their father, attorney A.C. Lee, who was the model for Atticus Finch in his youngest daughter’s first and only novel.”

An email arrived in my queue this morning, from Penguin Press publicity director Sarah Hutson. It contained this statement from “Next Door” author Mills:

“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Nelle Harper Lee. Her friendship was a gift to me, as were her stories, which I was honored to share with readers. Some of my happiest memories are hearing her infectious laugh wash across a room. Her wit was one of the essential ways she experienced the world, and it was a joy to spend time with her.

“I am grateful for the hours I got to spend riding the back roads of Alabama with Nelle and her sister, Alice, listening to the stories of their family, that land, its history and its people. I will always be grateful to have known Nelle in the last years of life as she had known it for so long, sharing their father’s house with her sister in the town that inspired ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe