Skip to main content



Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

To a pair of young eyes, Monroeville was just a dusty old hamlet. Even after electric power had arrived in 1923, it still had hung back languidly in the 19th century. When Nelle was child during the Great Depression during the 1930s, the sawmill whistle at noon announced it was time for the midday meal, and when it blew again at five o'clock, wives checked their progress on making supper. The metallic clink of blacksmiths' hammers rang from several shady alleys. Down by the warehouse docks near the Manistee & Repton railroad depot, horse- and mule-drawn drays were as common as internal combustion trucks. During spring and fall, gardeners shared "pass around perennials"- cuttings, seeds, and root dividings- around the neighborhood, knitting properties together with undulating blankets of canna lilies, coreopsis, dianthus, gladiolas, phlox and fragrant chocolate vines. No one locked doors; food was brought over in times of sickness or trouble. In hot weather, a friendly wave from a porch beckoned passersby to come on up for a glass of sweet tea. Ladies would get their work done in the morning, then get dressed in mid-afternoon and go to a neighbor's porch for visiting. News gleaned from church, a local fraternal dinner, family events- and the weather, of course- provided dependable topics for conversation. (With as many as ten households on the same telephone party lines, everyone knew everybody else's business, anyway.) Some talk was unwelcome in polite company, however, like the goings-on at the Wild Boar, a honky-tonk outside of town; or how a pint of bootleg liquor was for sale anytime from a certain shed in the alley on North Mount Pleasant Street.

At dusk, especially in the late summer, the dry air sparkled with sawdust from the mills. In winter, when the red clay streets turned sloppy, cars splashed along in axle-deep tire ruts like chariots on Roman roads. The week before Christmas, most farmers didn't mind strangers coming on their land, so long as they cut just one tree for the holidays, respected the fences, and closed the gates when they left. Come nightfall, Monroeville's sole watchman began his quiet rounds on the square.

She would have all this to remember whenever she looked back. But that was not where her gaze was directed on that day in 1949. With his daughter in the passenger seat, Mr. Lee had turned south out of the square, and left Monroeville behind, the white dome of the courthouse receding in the rearview mirror. At Repton, he caught Route 44 going 24 miles west to Evergreen. The Louisville & Nashville railroad steamed almost daily into Evergreen, pulling a line of Pullman cars. From there, his headstrong daughter could begin the 1,110-mile journey to New York City.

She found an available cold-water flat on the East Side in the Yorkville neighborhood, seven blocks east of Central Park, and a block and a half west of the East River, not far north from where Truman rented his first New York apartment a few years earlier. Borrowing from his own experience probably, he opened Breakfast at Tiffany's with, "It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa, fat chairs upholstered in that itchy particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train… The single window looked out on a on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment, with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be."

Nelle's neighborhood was an old German-Czech-Rumanian low-rise community of rathkellers, grocery stores, newsstands with papers in East European languages, Brauhauses, delicatessens, coffeehouses, flower shops, drugstores, and German-language movie theaters. Geraniums and catnip grew in window boxes; ivy and myrtle on brick walls; boxwood, yew, and laurels in tubs around sidewalk cafes. A block from her door was a branch of the New York Public Library built in 1902 and considered one of the most elegant architectural designs in the city. A few of the better restaurants like the Café Geiger attracted tourists with loud polka music on weekends and frauleins serving pigs' knuckles and sauerkraut, plockwurst, or Bavarian sauerbraten. In the cellar taverns where Deutsch-speaking men preferred to drink their lager in peace, a regular topic of conversation was the fallen Nazi party; or, on a happier note, the legend of local boy Lou Gehrig.

On Nelle's street there were about 60 children who dashed in and among cars after balls and called to friends to come out and play. There weren't enough garbage cans supplied by the city, so some protesting residents dumped their trash in the gutters. On windy days, cyclones of newspapers, bread wrappers, and cigarette cellophane whirled through the air. In the heat, squashed fruit stank and the flies were as big as raisins.

She needed a job, of course- Capote thought he could find her one as a writer, but that didn't pan out- and found one in a bookstore. She was devoted to 19th century British authors- Charles Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson, and her favorite of all: Jane Austen. A bookstore was barely within the orbit of the literary world, but at least she would meet writers. Or so she imagined. On the other hand, the tedium of unpacking boxes of books, shelving them, and ringing up sales was odious. Quickly, she learned one of the first lessons of living in New York: a job that barely pays the rent isn't worth it. After a long week's work and her rent payment, she was left with only about $25 with which to purchase soup and stew for her hot plate. Her father, somewhat mollified that she had a job at least, would not have been pleased to see her walloping parking meters to dislodge a coin for a slice of pie at a Horn & Hardart's automat.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
by by Charles J. Shields

  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0805083197
  • ISBN-13: 9780805083194