Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died Friday at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Per the New York Times, Lee (whose full name was Nelle Harper Lee) passed away in her sleep at a local assisted living facility.
To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s first novel and gained her instant fame when it was published in 1960, including the Pulitzer in 1961 and a Universal film adaptation in 1962 that won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for his portrayal of the character Atticus Finch.
But she subsequently withdrew from public life and, with the exception of a handful of essays, wouldn’t publish anything further until her attorney Tonja Carter announced last year a new novel, Go Set a Watchman. What was billed as a sequel to Mockingbird was later revealed to be just that novel’s first draft.
And many raised concerns about the publication due to Lee’s declining health, with Lee’s friend and former neighbor Marja Mills writing in The Washington Post, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Still, pre-orders for the book reportedly set a one-day sales record for retailer Barnes & Noble.
Regardless of the controversy, there’s no denying that Lee was one of the great American authors. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the National Medal of Arts in 2010.
Her friendship with fellow author Truman Capote – she went with him on the Kansas research trip for what would become In Cold Blood – led her to be portrayed on film multiple times. Catherine Keener won an Academy Award for playing Lee in 2005’s Capote, while Sandra Bullock took the role in 2006’s Infamous.
Canadian actress Tracey Hoyt also appeared as Lee in a 1998 TV-movie about Valley of the Dolls scribe Jacqueline Susann.
One of Lee’s last credited works before Watchman was a 2006 open letter to Oprah Winfrey published in Winfrey’s magazine, speaking of her love of reading and the written word. “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books,” she wrote.