by Mark Mancini)
She’s been called a literary one-hit wonder, but while Nelle Harper Lee—who celebrates her 88th birthday today—never did write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird, the author still did follow it with some incredible things.
1. ROASTED A SMALL-MINDED SCHOOL BOARD
In 1966, a Virginian school board elected to remove all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird from their libraries, citing the book as “immoral." Outraged, Lee wrote a fiery letter to the Richmond News Leader condemning the group’s actions. “Recently,” she asserted, “I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.” Lee went on to compare the officials in question to Orwellian dictators and capped off her epic beat-down by enclosing “a small contribution … that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
2. HELPED TRUMAN CAPOTE WORK ON IN COLD BLOOD
Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote asked her to accompany him on a trip to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 to investigate the recent murder of a wealthy family under mysterious circumstances. It didn’t take long for Capote to discover that his companion had a much easier time talking to the locals, an ability which proved invaluable to his efforts. Lee was so dedicated to the case that she not only wrote 150 pages of notes for Capote, but also took a week-long vacation during the pre-production of To Kill a Mockingbird's film adaptation to rejoin him in Kansas so they might further examine the suspects. Truman’s best-selling account of the incident, In Cold Blood, became an instant sensation.
3. WAS AWARDED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM
2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony
Though she generally declines interview requests, Lee made a rare public appearance in 2007 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fellow recipients that year included geneticist Francis Collins and former House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Henry Hyde. (See Lee claiming her prize at the 32:36 mark of the above clip).
4. WROTE AN IMPASSIONED DEFENSE OF BOOKS AND LIBRARIES
In 2006, Lee composed an open letter to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine that discussed her love of books. Her thoughts should be required reading for bookworms of all ages:
“[In] an abundant society where people have laptops, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me: I still prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it. And Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up—some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”