The Incredible Gift that Allowed Harper Lee to Write Mockingbird

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Public domain / Public domain

Happy Birthday to Harper Lee, who turns 89 today. She’s been in the news a lot lately thanks to the controversial Go Set a Watchman, the upcoming sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. But neither one of those books would have existed had it not been for an extremely thoughtful Christmas gift from some friends.

In 1956, Lee was working as a ticket clerk for British Overseas Airways. Like many writers who hold down more conventional 9-to-5 jobs, she didn’t have the amount of extra time to devote to her writing that she would have liked. Enter Joy and Michael Brown.

Michael Brown and Harper Lee shared a mutual friend in Truman Capote. When Lee decided to move to New York City, Capote introduced her to Brown, asking him to look after her.

Before long, Brown and his wife were just as close to Nelle Harper Lee as Truman Capote was. They were so close, in fact, that Lee decided to share some of her writing with the Browns. “We read character sketches that she wrote about people in Monroeville, and they were unusually perceptive,” Michael told Mary Murphy in 2011. “How could two people like Truman and Nelle be such close friends as children and grow up to see things the rest of us couldn’t envision? She just amazed us.”

The Browns were so impressed that when they found themselves a little extra flush in the fall of 1956, they decided to give their friend the chance of a lifetime: a full year’s salary. The year she was able to take off from work enabled Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird. Although their generous present must have been one of the major reasons Scout, Atticus, and Boo Radley are now classic characters, Michael Brown has shrugged off the part he and his wife played: “It would have happened with or without us. All that we did was hurry it up a little.”