In 2014 Sean Braswell told the story of how a “village” supported Lee’s creative dream: “In 1956 Lee was a rather taciturn 30-year-old ticket agent for the British Overseas Airways Company, who, like many aspiring writers, had come to New York City to pursue her dream. But after seven years of struggle, it seemed beyond her grasp. And without further help, and with no Kickstarter for another 53 years, that is perhaps where her dream would have ended.
Luckily, thanks to an introduction from Truman Capote, her childhood friend and neighbor, Lee had made two very good friends in New York: a Broadway composer named Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, a Balanchine dancer.
Lee became a bona fide extension of the Brown family, and any free time she had that was not devoted to writing was spent with Michael, Joy and their three boys at the Browns’ East 50th Street brownstone. The Browns had read Lee’s short stories, and they appreciated her dream — and her immense gift — better than anyone. They also shared her frustration at the challenges of writing while holding down a full-time job.
The Browns did not want to see Lee spend her life working as an airlines clerk while hoping to become something else.
So, in the fall of 1956, when the Browns came into some cash because Michael had been hired to create a show for Esquire magazine, they decided to do something about Lee’s situation and to give their friend a big break — literally. When Lee opened her Christmas present from the couple that year, she found a note that read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’
In short order, Lee quit her job, got an agent and devoted herself to writing. Just over a year later, she had a finished manuscript and a publisher. And the result of the Browns’ generous gift (which Lee later repaid in full) and Lee’s newfound freedom was no less than the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird .”
To Kill a Mockingbird still sells 750,000 copies each year. What writer wouldn’t be thrilled with simply selling 750,000 copies in a lifetime? And what writer wouldn’t welcome a couple of angel investors as well as an astute agent/editor/publisher?
We are all grateful for Lee’s friends and their undying support. But even with all this support, Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, didn’t believe Lee’s manuscript was fit for publication. She described it as “more a series of antidotes than a fully conceived novel.” According to Jonathan Mahler, Hohoff worked with Lee for three years before Mockingbird appeared on bookshelves in 1960.
We now see where Mockingbird came from—Go Set a Watchman was the original manuscript that was published last year amid overwhelming controversy. Yes, it’s one of those good novels like so many I read and put down with a sigh. You just know that as good as it is, it’s not going to be a best seller or a ‘change the world’ piece of literature. (I’ve also blogged about this on January fourth of this year: How Harper Collins Cheated Wiley Cash.) So many writers, myself included, never have the good fortune to have our manuscripts picked up by someone like Tay Hohoff who can help us turn our good novels into great novels. Harper Lee could have lived out her life as a ticket agent chasing a dream that was not to be. Instead, she allowed the village to hold her up and let her fly. And the world is a better place because of her.
Leo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest