Harper Lee, the mysterious Alabama-born author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill A Mockingbird,” died in her sleep Friday morning in her hometown of Monroeville, according to a family statement.
Lee was 89.
“This is a sad day for our family,” said Lee family spokesperson Hank Conner. “America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors. We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”
Lee’s death comes less than a year after the release of her second and last novel, “Go Set A Watchman,” which details the return of a grown-up Scout Finch from her New York home to her hometown of Maycomb – the fictional equivalent of Monroeville – and her beloved father, Atticus.
The sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” was not what many expected from Lee as her second book – if she chose to release one. Many, particularly those in Alexander City, expected a book called “The Reverend,” based on a series of murders in and around the Coosa County community of Nixburg that were attributed to a local preacher and pulpwooder named Will Maxwell.
The murders occurred between 1969 and 1977. Maxwell, also called the Voodoo Preacher, was charged and found innocent in three of the murders with the late Tom Radney as his legal defender.
Maxwell was shot and killed by Robert Burns at the funeral of 16-year-old Shirley Ann Ellington, Burns’ adopted niece and purportedly Maxwell’s final victim.
Lee spent several months in Alexander City in the 1980s interviewing principals of the Maxwell case such as Tom Radney, Robert Burns and others. For a while, the short lady with the cigarette was a fixture around town.
Burns, who spent time with Lee on two occasions as the author researched the Maxwell case, was saddened by the author’s death.
“I was watching the news this morning and I sure did hate to hear that,” Burns said. “I was going to go down to Monroeville and try and see her. I’m not sure they would have let me see her. But when I heard that this morning I couldn’t believe it. She was a very nice lady.”
Nancy Anderson, a distinguished fellow in Auburn University at Montgomery’s Office of University Outreach, is an expert on Lee, an acquaintance of the author and had both written and lectured on her.
“I got a call early this morning here in Jackson before the news became public,” Anderson said. “It’s very, very sad. Her death is a loss in so many ways, but we have not lost her legacy. I’m just really sad that she’s not with us anymore.”
Gov. Robert Bentley said Lee’s literary work brought worldwide attention to her native state.
“Harper Lee’s literary impact reaches far beyond the borders of our state and nation,” Bentley said. “’To Kill A Mockingbird’ has impacted people around the world. It is because of Harper Lee that the world knows about her special hometown of Monroeville, which celebrated the launch of Lee’s second novel ‘Go Set A Watchman’ last year. Harper Lee’s legacy will live on as we introduce Scout, Jem, Atticus and Lee’s beloved Maycomb to future generations.”
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States, which recognizes individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
In 2010, Lee was honored with the National Medal of Arts, the highest U.S. honor given specifically for achievement in the arts, by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Lee’s family said Friday her funeral service would be private, as she had requested.