Almost every literate American has read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but few know its author, Harper Lee. Jessica Lacher-Feldman can check both boxes.
Lacher-Feldman, 47, head of special collections at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, met Lee several times when Lacher-Feldman held a similar position at the University of Alabama. Lee, a resident of Monroeville, Alabama, attended the state university, which sponsors an annual “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay contest for high school students.
Lee would attend an annual reception for the students on campus. Someone needed to shepherd Lee — escorting her to the site, keeping the line moving, helping the hard-of-hearing author when she couldn’t make out what was said to her. Between 2001 and 2006, that someone was Lacher-Feldman.
“She was the most regular, down-to-earth person,” Lacher-Feldman said. “In the business of working in the library like this, you meet a lot of wonderful older folks and people who are interested in a lot of different things and just kind, generous, sweet, engaged, intelligent people. She is just as regular as you could imagine.”
Despite the fame of what was (until the recent publication of “Go Set a Watchman”) her only book, Lee, 89, is hardly known to her fans, having rejected all media interviews for the past half-century. Except to receive awards, Lee has worked hard to stay out of the spotlight.
When “To Kill a Mockingbird” became a critical and sales success after its 1960 publication, Lee said she had only hoped it would get some kind reviews.
“She was a little bit stunned still that people were so excited to see her,” Lacher-Feldman said. “I think she was kind of shy in that sense.”
In addition to meeting Lee, Lacher-Feldman researched Lee’s time at the university. Lee transferred to Alabama after a year at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Following in the footsteps of her father, who had been a newspaper editor and lawyer, Lee studied law and wrote for the campus newspaper and the university’s humor magazine.
Lee’s older sister, Alice, became a lawyer. Lee left the University of Alabama without receiving a degree.
“She was busy and active and in a sorority and did a lot of things,” Lacher-Feldman said. “She was very involved in writing the whole time she was there. That was one of the things that stood out. I don’t know if she felt compelled because being an attorney was kind of a family business, but she had another calling.”
That calling turned out to be short-lived. After “Mockingbird,” she helped childhood friend Truman Capote research what became his best seller, “In Cold Blood.” She has lived for years in her hometown, where she is known by her first name, Nelle. When Lacher-Feldman was at Alabama, she would help media companies research Lee’s days at the university.
Lacher-Feldman found photographs of Lee that had been published in the school yearbook. She presented copies of them to Lee during one of her campus visits.
“I don’t think she had even seen them, or if she had, she hadn’t seen them in decades,” Lacher-Feldman said. “She sent me a thank-you note, which was really sweet. When the thank-you note came and I told the dean, he said, ‘Can we talk about (donating) your papers?’ Having a thank-you note like that from Harper Lee was kind of a big deal. I thought that was kind of funny. She signed it ‘Nelle.’
“To me, saying ‘Nelle’ to me was really sweet and awesome.”
Lacher-Feldman never asked Lee why she never wrote again. Like many, she wonders if the author truly consented to publishing “Go Set a Watchman” after so many years. Like many “Mockingbird” fans, she didn’t let those doubts stop her from getting the book at the first opportunity this week. She has avoided reading the reviews, but has heard some negative comments.
“Long before this, I always wondered: How do you live up to that book?” she said. “No matter what you do, people are going to tear you apart. That’s what’s happening now with this, which I think is sad.
“I think people need to divorce themselves from … ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and just read it.”