8 Surprising Facts About Harper Lee

'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. / Chip Somodevilla/GettyImages

Harper Lee became a literary icon with the success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird. But she chose to lead a secluded life out of the spotlight until her death in 2016 at age 89. Here are a few facts you might not know about the enigmatic author.

1. Her full name was Nelle Harper Lee.

Nelle is her grandmother’s name, Ellen, spelled backward. Lee dropped her given name when she published To Kill a Mockingbird to keep people from mispronouncing it “Nellie.”

2. Harper Lee almost became a lawyer.

Lee intended to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who first trained as a teacher, then passed the bar exam and practiced law. She attended law school at the University of Alabama, but quit six months before she was scheduled to graduate, with a plan to move to New York and pursue writing.

3. Harper Lee paid the bills by working as an airline ticket clerk.

Lee got a job as a ticket agent for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways, which both had offices at New York City’s Idlewild Airport (renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1963). She worked on the draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and other projects in her spare time. But soon, her good friends gave her the ultimate Christmas present: an envelope with one year’s wages, so she could take the time off to write.

4. Harper Lee had a long friendship with Truman Capote.

Lee and Truman Capote met as children when they lived next door to each other in Alabama. She modeled the neighborhood boy Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote, while he relied on her for research assistance in Kansas while writing In Cold Blood. In 1960, Lee wrote her own account related to the Clutter murders, which form the centerpiece of Capote's book. She profiled Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the case, for the publication Grapevine. But her story didn't have her byline on it—perhaps to avoid stepping on her friend's intellectual turf.

5. Harper Lee wanted Spencer Tracy to play Atticus Finch.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, but Lee herself preferred Spencer Tracy, whom she felt had the look of an all-American, upstanding citizen. She even wrote a note to Tracy encouraging him to take the part, but he responded that he was too busy. Peck snagged the lead role and went on to win an Oscar for his performance.

6. Harper Lee published her second book when she was 89 years old.

It was long thought that To Kill a Mockingbird would be Lee’s first and last novel. But in 2015, HarperCollins published Go Set a Watchman, a rediscovered manuscript of hers, as something of a sequel to Mockingbird. It was an instant and controversial bestseller that caused a sensation in the publishing industry, but it was actually a first draft of Mockingbird, which her editors had encouraged her to rework.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best-selling books of all time.

Lee’s influential novel has sold more than 40 million copies, on par with blockbusters like V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic and Cosmos by Carl Sagan.

8. Harper Lee was really into sports.

While living in New York City, she became an avid Mets fan. Even after returning to Alabama, she often flew to New York to attend games. Lee also said she did her best thinking while playing golf and called herself “a rabid football fan,” especially of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

This article was originally published in 2021. It has been updated for 2022.