Harper Lee’s Will Was Finally Unsealed – And It Raises Some Serious Questions

Harper Lee was the author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most famous American novels ever. An intensely private person, Lee shunned publicity. Unfortunately, just before she died, there was a wave of it. Some people close to Lee claimed that she was being taken advantage of in order to get another novel out of her. After her death, her will’s contents were made public, fascinating people anew.

Lee died on February 19, 2016 at the age of 89. Her family released a statement saying, “The family of Nelle Harper Lee, of Monroeville, Alabama, announced today, with great sadness, that Ms. Lee passed away in her sleep early this morning. Her passing was unexpected. She remained in good basic health until her passing.”

The statement concluded, “The family is in mourning and there will be a private funeral service in the upcoming days, as she had requested.” That final fact probably came as no surprise to anyone who knew the author or followed her life. Lee was a fiercely private person even in her final days.

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Lee’s funeral was held the day after she died. She was buried alongside the members of her family who had already passed away: her father, mother, and sister Alice. Only family and friends attended the funeral, with the eulogy given by Auburn University professor Wayne Flint, who was close to her.

And after that, there was talk about the Lee’s will. The late author’s personal representative, Tonja Carter, became involved. Carter worked with Lee for many years and, prior to that, with her sister Alice. Carter and her lawyers requested that the document remain sealed, citing Lee’s desire for privacy in life.

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Carter’s lawyers wrote to the judge, “As the Court is no doubt aware, Ms Lee highly valued her privacy. She did not wish for her private financial affairs to be matters of public discussion. Ms Lee left a considerable legacy for the public in her published works; it is not the public’s business what private legacy she left for the beneficiaries of her will.”

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As a result, judge Greg Norris signed an order which would seal Lee’s will away from the public. While her family was allowed to view it, nobody else could. Norris declared in his order that he believed there would be a threat of harassment towards Lee’s family and heirs if the will was open to the public.

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And compounding the whole issue was the fact that Lee had been caught in a difficult controversy during her later life. It was all to do with the second, and final, book she published, an apparent sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. This was Go Set a Watchman, which hit bookshops in July 2015.

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To Kill a Mockingbird had always stood on its own without need of a sequel. The book tells the story of young Scout Finch and her lawyer father Atticus, who takes the case of a black man accused of rape in racist 1930s Alabama. Atticus is considered one of the most enduring American heroes in literature.

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The book has parallels with Lee’s own early life. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was also a lawyer and defended two black men against a charge of murder in 1919. Furthermore, the character of Jem is based on Lee’s brother Edwin, and the character of Dill on her close friend (and fellow literary celebrity) Truman Capote.

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When To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success when published in 1960. Lee embarked on publicity tours, which she disliked. And after the novel won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1961, she was flooded with fan letters she didn’t have time to answer. She hired her sister Alice as her lawyer to help her out.

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In 1962 the book became a movie starring Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus. Lee was happy with the result and, while visiting the set, struck up a friendship with Peck which would last for a lifetime. Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after the author.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts in 1966, she still preferred to lead a quiet life. She gave very few interviews and rarely made public appearances. Although a second novel would almost certainly be a success, it appeared that one was not forthcoming.

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At least, that was the case up until 2015. Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, released 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. It was to prove highly controversial. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had found the manuscript inside the author’s safe-deposit box in 2014, and gave it to an agent with her permission.

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In February 2015 HarperCollins announced that they would publish the novel, and Lee herself contributed to the press release. She said, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort.”

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Lee went on, “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” This was, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee thought the original manuscript was lost.

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The author concluded in the press release, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

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However, some viewed the press release with suspicion. Malcolm Jones wrote for website The Daily Beast, “[Lee] has been described as nearly blind and nearly deaf, and her only quotes have been delivered second-hand through family and friends. So it is impossible to know how much of what is happening now is actually her doing or how much of it may be the work of others who may or may not have her best interests at heart.”

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Culture and entertainment website Vulture interviewed Lee’s editor Hugh Van Dusen about the new book. “The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and nobody noticed it for all these years.” Van Dusen said. “I don’t know this for a fact, but one must imagine that Harper Lee – we call her Nelle – just never told anybody about the book and then forgot it existed.”

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Writer Daniel M. Lavery published an article on The Toast website stating the issues he had with the situation. He wrote, “Here’s an author who has staunchly refused interviews and publicity since 1960, who hasn’t breathed a word about her interest in publishing another book to either family or friends, but who is suddenly fine with releasing her decades-old Mockingbird prequel, despite the fact that it doesn’t sound like anyone at her publisher has actually been in touch with her about it?”

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Lavery pointedly continued, “A woman spent her whole life making it very clear that she was not interested in releasing a second novel suddenly changes her mind – without having been directly contacted by anyone at her publisher, it sounds like – while also being apparently too enfeebled to pick up a phone and answer a few basic questions?”

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Later on that month, the Human Resources Department of the State of Alabama began officially investigating whether Lee was capable of consenting to the publication of the book, or if she was being manipulated. But in the end they concluded that yes, Lee was fine, and that there was no reason to suspect elder abuse.

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When the novel came out on July 14 2015 there was such demand for it that some bookstores opened their doors at midnight. But when fans began reading, they got a huge shock. While the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird was a hero, the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman was a white supremacist.

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However, some of the people involved in the book’s publication said that Go Set a Watchman was in fact an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird repurposed as a new novel, and thus the legacy of the original Atticus remained intact. Tonja Carter wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal to explain.

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Carter – who described herself as Lee’s “estate trustee, lawyer and friend” said that she had looked through the author’s safe-deposit box after hearing from her family that there was another novel out there. When she found the manuscript and asked Lee about it, she said, “It’s the parent of Mockingbird.”

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Yet, even though there had been an investigation, controversy still surrounded the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Stephen Peck, the son of Gregory, told The Wall Street Journal that year that he believed his father would have advised her to not publish the novel. Peck himself had passed away in 2003.

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Stephen Peck said in the article, “To me, [Go Set a Watchman] was an unedited draft. Do you want to put that early version out there or do you want to put it in the University of Alabama archives for scholars to look at?” He also mentioned that the publication had only gone ahead after Lee’s sister Alice, who managed her affairs, died.

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All of these issues got even more complicated after Lee passed away and her will sealed. Ultimately, The New York Times went as far as suing to have its contents opened to the public, and they were successful. In February 2018 the details of the document were made public.

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It transpired that Lee signed her will merely eight days before she passed away and she named Carter as the executor of her estate. The New York Times wrote, “The document’s lack of transparency will likely fuel skepticism among those who feel that Ms. Carter had amassed too much power over Ms. Lee’s career and legacy.”

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Lee never had a spouse or any children, and she said in the will that her niece and nephews would receive a portion of her estate. However, most of her assets would go to the Mockingbird Trust, which she founded in 2011. The exact sums of money involved were not disclosed to the media.

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The New York Times explained of the story they’d sued to uncover, “The will gives Ms. Carter substantial control over Ms. Lee’s estate and her literary properties, which are assigned to the Mockingbird Trust, an entity that was formed in 2011. Ms. Carter served as one of its two trustees at the time.”

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The newspaper also spoke to an estate lawyer, Sidney C. Summey, who said, “It is not an uncommon will, and it is typically what we term a pour-over will where anything in the estate goes over to the trust and they don’t have to disclose the terms of the trust. It is done quite often by people of means, people with notoriety and people who just want to be private.”

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As part of the article The New York Times asked those who had known Lee to comment. They got no response from her family, and from Carter only the statement “I will not discuss her affairs.” However, they were able to get in touch with one of the people who witnessed the will.

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The newspaper tracked down witness Cynthia Miller, one of Lee’s carers when she lived at a rest home towards the end of her life. The New York Times asked her if she believed Lee was in sound mind when she signed the will. Miller said, “In my opinion, she was.”

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While Lee is no longer with us, she’s still fondly remembered by those who got to know her through To Kill a Mockingbird. Mary Badham, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Scout in the movie adaptation as a young girl, wrote about the beloved author in March 2020.

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Badham wrote that on the set of the movie, “Lee seemed perfectly nice, and at that age that was all I needed to know”. She added, “For decades we’d exchange pleasantries at events. It wasn’t until she was in the nursing home where she would spend several of her final years that we properly bonded.”

The former child star went on, “The first time I visited her was three years before she died [in 2016]. She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Young lady, don’t you ever come to my home town and not say hey to me.’…We’d spend much of our time together reminiscing about Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the film. Before his death in 2003, he was like a father to me.”

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Regarding how Lee came to feel about her literary fame, Badham wrote, “Funnily enough, despite Mockingbird being an exceptional part of our lives, we never spoke about it. It upset her. Once, a family member came with a copy of the book to be signed. She was sitting out front and screamed for me to take her back to her room.”

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Badham continued, “It had taken over every aspect of her existence and, in her old age, in the poor health she was in, it had finally taken its toll.” However, Badham also said that she and Lee continued to meet and discuss other books right up until the point where she became too ill to accept visitors.

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Whatever Lee wrote in her will, her biggest legacy will always be To Kill a Mockingbird. Badham concluded her piece, “The best thing about To Kill a Mockingbird will always be how its message on civil rights manages to stand the test of time. It’s as important today as it was back then.” That’s still true today, regardless of what the author came to feel about it.

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